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How to Organize Your E-mail Inbox

Let your inbox fill up, and you may face missed deadlines, neglected employees, and unaddressed customer complaints. A productivity expert shares her tips for getting control of your e-mail.

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Managing your e-mail inbox can be discouraging, especially if you receive hundreds of messages a day. As messages build up, the task of reading and addressing each one may seem impossible. So perhaps your answer is to ignore some correspondence. The best-case scenario is that most of it is spam or junk and doesn't require a response from you. More likely, you're facing the worst-case scenario: A slew of broken promises and missed deadlines.

Don't let yourself be overwhelmed. There is an effective way to process and organize your inbox; it is indeed possible to empty your inbox, says Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert and author of Conquer Email Overload with Better Habits, Etiquette, and Outlook 2007. The key is learning a bit more about your software. Whether you're using Microsoft Outlook 2003 or 2007, Entourage, or something else entirely, almost any e-mail system provides the ability to flag, file, delete, save, and drag your way to a tidy inbox. Inc.com senior editor Nicole Marie Richardson spoke with Duncan about seven simple ways to improve your e-mail habits.

Managing Your E-mail Inbox: Stop Using It for Storage

When you get an e-mail that you don't immediately know what to do with, it's easy to close it, and move on to the next one. But that "I'll deal with this later" attitude is probably the reason you have e-mail overload. "Don't keep thousands of messages in your inbox," Duncan says. "Your inbox is not storage, it's not your calendar, it's not your to-do list, and it's not your mind tickler. Clean out all that mess and ask yourself, How should I organize my inbox in a useful way?"

Duncan suggests setting aside a time during the day when you only handle e-mail. "Get into a meeting with your inbox and deal with each message as you open it," says Duncan. Establish a routine that works for you as well as your staff. And once you have a system, stick to it.

Dig Deeper: To Save or Not to Save: E-mail Storage

Managing Your E-mail Inbox: Deal With Spam

One way to conquer e-mail overload is to eliminate spam and other unwanted messages. If you are getting an inbox full of spam, take these steps to end it.

•    Use a reliable Internet service provider. Your ISP should be using the best technologies to block spam on the server side, Duncan says. Also, make sure your Web host meets the same requirements.

•    Keep your clickable e-mail address off the Web. "There is no valid reason for putting your live, clickable e-mail address on the Web," insists Duncan. Spambots scour the Internet (they even look at online PDFs) looking for the @ symbol and all that comes with it. Instead, spell out the "at" when you post your contact information. Google all of your e-mail addresses to see where they show up, and then remove them, says Duncan. "Then sign up for Google Alerts so you'll be notified if they show up anywhere later," she adds.

•    Avoid using auto responders. Out of office replies are common but contribute in a real way to e-mail overload. "You're auto responding to the spammers," say Duncan. "You're letting them know that yours is a legitimate e-mail address." Only use an out-of-office message when you are away for very long stretches of time, not for every day off you take to go to the dentist.

•    Get a powerful spam blocker. Invest in proven technology such as Cloudmark Desktop. "It works in the background and doesn't challenge valuable people who want to reach me," says Duncan.

•    Turn up the security volume in your e-mail software. Set your security at High.

•    Get a new set of e-mail addresses. If after all this you're still getting a lot of spam (which is not likely), try changing your company's e-mail addresses, and start over.

Dig Deeper: New Tactics in the War on Spam

Managing Your E-mail Inbox: Delete, Delete, and Delete

Once you have spam out the way, you'll have to decide which messages to keep and which to delete. "I delete more than 50 percent of what comes into my inbox," says Duncan. "When I sit down to deal with messages in my inbox, I make decisions right then on what to do with each one." Ask yourself: Do I really need to save this message? And can I access the information somewhere else? "If it has no value and you'll never look at it or use it, then delete it," says Duncan. Here are two tips for deleting messages in Outlook specifically.

•    Stop doubting yourself. Turn off the pesky warning that asks, 'Are you sure you want to delete this?' To do so, from the inbox, click Tools, Options, Advanced Options, and unclick the box that says: "Warn before permanently deleting items." "When I hit delete, I want it gone and don't want to give permission," says Duncan.

•    Bypass the "Deleted Items" folder. If you're sure you never want to see the message again (as in spam), permanently delete it. Don't let it linger. Select the message (if it's closed), hold down shift and then hit delete.

Dig Deeper: The Urge to Purge: When to Dump Data

Managing Your E-mail Inbox: File Messages You Need to Keep

The key to filing e-mail is creating broad categories, Duncan explains. Folder structure is important to help you find the things you need quickly. "People create folders with no logic at all," says Duncan, who points out that people should think of a grocery store and how food is organized when attempting to create inbox files. For example, when you go to the grocery store to find chicken breast, you know exactly where it is. The broad category would be the meat department, and then the next category would be type of meat: in this case, poultry. Then the next category would be parts: in this case, breasts. And if you want to be even more specific, the next category would be brand.

"If they arranged stores the way people organize their files, the chicken breast would be in 10 different places," jokes Duncan. Another example would be filing travel expenses and invoices in the broad category accounting, or filing advertising, public relations and networking e-mails under the broad category marketing. Correspondence from organizations you belongs to might go into a file named organizations, under the broader file networking, which is in the broad file marketing.

Dig Deeper: Stem the Flood with E-mail Archiving

Managing Your E-mail Inbox: Use Categories

Categories can be particularly helpful when organizing multiple projects on which you're working. For example, if you get many requests for speaking engagements, and you're teaching seminars, all while juggling a major project at work, e-mails concerning these topics can be assigned to a category as well as assigned a color. Once you've set up these categories, you can create a search that instantly displays all the messages in a particular category, no matter where you stored them. "This is great because no matter where the message is filed, you can view groups of e-mails all together," says Duncan.

For example, an invoice for a Texas business conference at which you were invited to speak may be filed in your invoices file, while travel expenses to that event may be filed in travel expenses. However, a category named Texas Business Conference would pull in the invoice, travel expenses, as well as any other correspondence associated with that event. The category colors can make these events and projects stand out in your files or inbox, and on your calendar and to-do lists. The trick is assigning messages immediately to a category. Remember, you should be making a decision about each e-mail as soon as you open it, Duncan says.

Dig Deeper: How to Organize Data

Managing Your E-mail Inbox: Redirect Messages with Rules

You can also create rules that send messages into file folders automatically, advises Duncan. For example, if you receive a newsletter on Tuesday that you don't have time to read until Friday, have it automatically filed. You can do this by setting up a rule. In Outlook, you're able to create rules to do the following things:

•    Move messages from one source to a folder. This option allows you to move messages that come from a specific sender or distribution list into a file that you select.

•    Move messages with specific words in the subject to a folder. This option, for example, allows you to redirect all the messages with the words "invoice" in the subject line directly to the invoice file.

•    Move messages sent to a distribution list to a folder. This option allows you to file messages you've sent to a specific person or distribution list to a file that you select.

•    Delete a conversation. This option allows you to delete any incoming message with the words "great deal," for example, automatically.

•    Flag messages from someone with a colored flag. This option allows you to flag any message from a specific sender, such as your sales manager, with a specific color.

Dig Deeper: E-mail's Little Helpers

ManagingYour E-mail Inbox: Flagging Messages for Follow-Up

Outlook specifically has functionality that allows you to drag message into to-do list and onto your calendar, but another way to remember tasks is to flag messages for follow-up. "If there's something that you have to do or remember, such as return someone's call or meet a certain deadline, flagging the message will help you remember," Duncan says. You can assign a date and time to a flag and assign a flag to a particular message or contact.

Implementing these 7 tips will help you begin to take control of your inbox. "With my tips," says Duncan, "you should never have to scroll through your inbox. You'll always be able to see your very last message."

Dig Deeper: How to Compartmentalize E-mail

Last updated: May 6, 2010

NICOLE MARIE RICHARDSON is the executive editor for special projects at Inc.com. She manages the website's largest projects, including the Inc. 5000, an annual list of the fastest-growing, privately-held companies in America.
@nicole_marie79




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