If you have a colleague who CC's the entire department on an e-mail asking if anyone has seen his missing water bottle or a cousin who has never met a "Forward this to 20 of your closest friends" message she can resist, you're going to need extra help taming your inbox.
Enter Elizabeth Bowman, president of the Seattle-based Innovatively Organized (www.innovativelyorganized.com). She and her team provide productivity consulting to busy professionals, helping them organize their space and their digital clutter.
Bowman agrees that e-mail overload is a huge problem that people are desperate to get a handle on. Bowman's first rule is to be in control of your e-mail; don't let your e-mail control you. To that end, she strongly suggests that you have an empty inbox at the end of each day. Don't panic -- here's how:
Your inbox is not a to-do list. For anyone who gets mounds of missives a day, you're going to have to create folders to help you prioritize and manage your workload.
Here are some folders Bowman suggests creating:
A "Phone Calls" folder for e-mails that require you to get on the phone.
An "In Office" folder if you often read mail on a mobile device -- file any messages there that contain duties you need to complete at your desk.
An "End of Day" folder for those bigger tasks you need to finish before the day is done.
A "Receipts" label for receipts needing to be catalogued for tax purposes.
A "Read Later" folder for articles or newsletters that aren't time-sensitive.
A "Special Offers" folder for online coupons and special savings.
Stop printing. Oftentimes, people are so overwhelmed that they start printing out their e-mails, says our expert. These people then leave the letters on their desk because they don't know how to manage them. Don't do this. You'll only create more clutter and chaos.
Trust in search capacity. Do you use your folders only for archiving? Bowman helps many of her clients create one big "Completed" folder rather than make a filing system for messages they no longer need. The search function is so effective that if you do need to go back to something, you can find it easily enough.
Unsubscribe. If you're not reading it, or if it's not valuable to you, unsubscribe from as many newsletters and lists as you can.
Schedule e-mail time. Bowman suggests scheduling time to check your mail. This will depend on your job -- maybe it's the first 15 minutes of every hour, or perhaps you can get away with logging on a couple of times a day. Get out of the habit of reacting to every ding. You're losing valuable time jumping back and forth between e-mail and other work.
Mind your e-mail manners.
Make your subject line specific. It should have all significant information in it. "Don't just put 'Important!'" Bowman says. "Tell them why. 'Important: Need numbers for today's 3 p.m. meeting.'"
Modify your subject. If you're going back and forth via e-mail and have started a new discussion, the subject line needs to reflect that. It's not bad etiquette to change the subject to fit your new topic.
Send five short e-mails instead of a long one. At Innovatively Organized, Bowman instructs her staff to send multiple e-mails containing a single question rather than piling all inquiries into one long message. Otherwise, the recipient is going to have to ignore the entire message until she can respond to each query.
Be mobile-aware. Many people read messages on their cellphones, so keep your message short. Don't attach the entire thread unless it's necessary, and get to the point as quickly as possible.
Stop thanking people. Don't send a pointless e-mail, our expert says. You're creating digital clutter. Certainly, let someone know that you've received their message or attachment and are working on whatever it is they've sent, but there's no need to do the "Thanks!" "You're welcome!" "Anytime!" dance.