You're bombarded with messages in one form or another all day long. You can't get away from it. There is a constant battle with paper overload, and the addition of electronic mail causes many of you to spend more time than you want to trying to manage it all. The key to dealing with e-mail overload is developing efficient ways to handle it.
Do the Inbox on a regular basis. You'll have to establish a routine for checking your e-mail every day so it won't pile up. Set aside a special time of day to check it, and deal with each message as you open it: delete it, forward it, schedule it, respond to it, file it, or pend it.
If you have a tendency to keep too many messages in your Inbox, set up special folders to move them to. If you put a number in front of the folder name, you can have them appear in a particular order. For instance, if you keep messages coming from your clients, create a main Inbox folder called "1Clients." Then, create subfolders for each client (or put all messages in the Clients folder if you won't have many.
If you have messages you need to follow up on later, either create a "2FollowUp" folder in your Inbox (or desk), flag the message for follow up, or drag the message to your computer calendar icon or folder to set a reminder (Outlook has all these features).
Putting the number "1" in front of Clients will make that folder appear first in your Inbox folder list. Putting the "2" in front of FollowUp will make it appear second in your folder list, and so on.
Let people know upfront that you do not want to receive certain types of messages. A lot of people absolutely do not enjoy receiving jokes, thoughts for the day, chain letters, and all those other e-mail messages so many of you feel compelled to send. They want you to stop, but they're too embarrassed to say so.
Create an automatic signature that will go out with every e-mail you send that says something like: "Please do not add my name to your distribution list for jokes, prayers, thoughts for the day, chain letters, etc. Thanks!"
Ask people you know to stop. Develop a spiel to send to people you know who are sending you junk that goes something like this: "I appreciate your thinking about me, but in an effort to streamline my e-mail messages and manage my time, I have to ask you to remove my name from the distribution list that you're using. Thanks!" If this doesn't work, call them and be firm.
Use a junk e-mail filter. Use feature-rich e-mail software such as Microsoft Outlook. Its junk e-mail feature searches for commonly used phrases in your incoming messages, and will automatically move the message from your Inbox to any other folder you specify, including the trash folder. It can also change the color of a message it suspects of being junk so it's easy to recognize.
Don't respond to spammers. When you get unsolicited e-mail that is clearly junk, don't respond. Responding only verifies to the sender that you're a valid e-mail address. Instead, add them to your Junk Senders list if your software has one, and delete the message without opening it. The Junk Senders list will block any future e-mail coming from that sender.
Set up a separate e-mail address. Don't leave your main e-mail address on sites for Newsgroups, free services like greeting card companies, online membership directories, etc. Instead, set up a separate e-mail account (maybe one of the free ones), and leave this address on the site instead of your main one.
You have important work to do. Creating systems for everything you do, including managing e-mail, will help you get a lot more work done than you think you have time to do.
Peggy Duncan is the author of Put Time Management to Work: Get Organized, Streamline Processes, Use the Right Technology. Visit her on the Web at www.peggyduncan.com.