If your job is anything like mine, you get dozens, if not hundreds, of emails a day.  The volume can be overwhelming, not to mention counterproductive.  This amazing tool (it IS supposed to be a tool, folks, not a task master) easily turns on its user.  So how to survive and regain the whip-hand?  Here are a few email tips I’ve gleaned from some research and lots of personal experience.

1) Eliminate the Clutter

How to? Emails are often just plain junk, but even though you quickly recognize it as such, and delete it before even opening it, doing so takes time and attention.  The trick is to keep the junk out.

First, establish rules to automatically delete certain messages.

You know the ones I’m talking about: the company newsletters, the weekly “don’t miss this event” missives from Human Resources, and those annoying automatic responses telling you that each of 30 people “Accepted” the latest appointment request.  Now, I use MS Outlook, so my advice will be tailored for that system, but the principles apply to nearly all email programs.  To automatically delete all those emails not even worth your time deleting manually you need to establish a Rule.  Here’s how to do it:

Under Tools, select Rules and Alerts.  From the E-mail Rules tab, click on New Rule.  Then select ‘Check messages when they arrive,” under ‘Start from a blank rule,” and click Next.  Now you select the conditions under which emails will be automatically deleted.  For example, I hate those “Accepted” notices I just mentioned, so I checked the box next to “with specific words in the subject.”  This condition then appears in the “Step 2: Edit the rule box” below, with the underlined words hyperlinked to a window where you enter the offending subject text, in this case “Accepted: ” (without the quotation marks, but with the colon and the space after, because this is exactly how Outlook begins those subject lines).  Now you click Add, Ok, then Next.  Now comes the cool part: check the box next to “delete it,” or, if you are feeling like a true office rebel, “permanently delete it”!  Click Next again.  In this window you can enter exceptions.  For instance, I checked the “except if only sent to me” box, because I want to know if someone has accepted a one-on-one meeting with me; there are many other options, too.  Click Next again, give your new rule a name, the click Finish.  You now have an active rule.  And, if you want to empty your inbox of the kind of messages you just targeted for future destruction, you just click Apply, and Outlook applies the rule to existing messages.  Otherwise just click Ok.

Second, establish a junk-mail account for all sign-ups, etc.

Signing up for online accounts is a necessary evil.  To gain access to the products and services you want, you trade access to your email account.  And you know what happens: suddenly your new “friend” fills your inbox, first with a “Welcome” message, then a dozen more over the next week or so.  But access to your email account doesn’t have to mean access to you.  Set up a dummy account, and use it for ALL online sign-ups.  This way you can just delete all the messages every month or so, and never have your real inbox cluttered.

2) Limit When You Read

Read Email no more than twice daily.  I learned about this one from 4-Hour guru Tim Ferriss in his best-seller The 4-Hour Workweek.  I love Tim’s advice, and am working to put much of it in action.  After trying this tip, I can tell you it works, but it takes discipline.  Like many people I know, I used to read email compulsively, every few minutes, or each time a new message came in.  Undisciplined attention like this is highly inefficient.  Moving from one task to another takes time, and it takes even more time to reengage after an email distraction.  If you read email at set times, though, you save all that time-wasting back-and-forth movement, and you get through more messages.  After I adopted this practice, it took less than a week to drill down through the back-log in my inbox.  To make it easier, I turned off all email alerts, including the chime, and the little email toolbar icon that shows when you have an unread message.

3) Don't Read Email First Thing in the Morning

Huh?  How can I start my day without reading email?  Well, are you starting your day, or is someone else starting it for you?  Come to your desk with a plan, and get it done before you get distracted.  “But what if there is a REALLY important email in there?”  Fair point.  Don’t panic, just keep reading.

4) Train the World to Adapt to Your Schedule

A great way to reduce your email load is to make all those senders think about whether they need to send all those messages.  Set up an auto-responder message that explains your email reading schedule, and tells folks to CALL if they need you immediately.  Microsoft’s Outlook Support page has good instructions.  Remember to thank your correspondents for their messages, and to explain that you are adopting this email schedule in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness.  Some folks may have questions, but I found that, overall, reactions were positive, even supportive.  And my email burden was dramatically reduced, in part I think because people got tired of reading my auto-response message, but mostly because they respected my efforts.

The one question I had to ask for myself was whether or not to send these auto-responses to my boss.  Tim Ferriss is adamant about training the boss as much as the coworker on this one, but I had reservations.  First of all, I work for the head of a government agency, who requires and deserves a rapid response when he has work for me.  Second, the very purpose of my position is to provide rapid assistance when called upon.  So I opted to list my boss – and the other political appointees in the office – as exceptions to this auto-response rule.

5) Create Boss Alerts

Speaking of rapidly responding to the boss, another great tool it the specific email alert.  Remember that I told you to TURN OFF email alerts?  Well, one obvious concern with a policy like this, especially when coupled with a limited email-reading schedule, is that you might miss that all-important message from your boss.  To avoid this pitfall, I created a special rule that generates a visual and auditory alert whenever I receive an email from my boss; I added a few of the other potentates in the office, as well.  Outlook lists all these emails in a separate pop-up window, so I can quickly scan them, and open the ones that require immediate attention.

You set up these alerts much the same way as the auto-delete rule described above.  Under Tools, select Rules and Alerts.  From the E-mail Rules tab, click on New Rule.  Then select ‘Check messages when they arrive,” under ‘Start from a blank rule,” and click Next.  Now check the box next to “from people or distribution list.”  This condition then appears in the “Step 2: Edit the rule box” below, with the underlined words hyperlinked to a window where you enter your boss’ email address, and the address of anyone else you wish Outlook to alert you about.  Now you click Add, Ok, then Next.  Now check the box next to “display a Desktop Alert.”  Click Next again, give your new rule a name, then click Finish.  Your alert rule is now active. 

Email can be a savage brute or a faithful servant.  Follow these five simple email management rules and put this beast in its place.