Welles: Avoid e-mail drudgery

Cleaning up message clutter simply requires following these 9 principles of organization

What is more disruptive than hundreds of e-mail messages clogging your inbox? Those messages distract you and take too much time from your day to sort, read and reply. We all complain that one of the worst parts of coming back from vacation is seeing all those e-mail
messages.

Plenty has been written about e-mail techniques, and this year, several new books have distilled some old ideas and offered new ones.

Fortune magazine’s Annie Fisher has written about controlling e-mail and cited the book “The Hamster Revolution: Stop Info Glut — Reclaim Your Life!” by Mike Song, Vicki Halsey and Tim Burress.
Similar to “SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home” by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, “The Hamster Revolution” uses humor to provide useful advice on ways to manage and avoid an e-mail glut, including:

  • Send less. Whenever possible, avoid using the Reply to All and CC features, and use group distribution lists sparingly. Targeting rather than spraying e-mails will result in fewer messages coming back.

  • Stop — then send. Before hitting the send button, ask yourself, “Will it help the recipient do a job better? Is it timely?” If not, skip it.

  • Try NRN. Not every e-mail message needs a reply, especially if it’s just to say thanks. The authors of “The Hamster Revolution” recommend that with people with whom you exchange e-mail messages most often try including an acronym in the subject line such as NRN, no reply needed.

  • Go live. Avoid long back-and-forth e-mail discussions by substituting in-person or phone meetings.

  • Use an action subject. Vague, wordy subject lines confuse the reader and make e-mail messages hard to locate later. Words such as request or confirmation, with dates or times, add clarity to e-mail messages.

  • ABC. Avoid sending a wall of words. Use the ABC method to divide your e-mail messages. Start with Action, stating your purpose; Background, presenting key points; and Close, clarifying the next steps.

  • Save less. Searching for e-mail messages takes time. Before saving an e-mail message, ask yourself if it is important to what you are working on, or if you could easily get the information elsewhere. If you save less, you’ll find more.

  • File smarter. A folder labeled “Stuff from the Boss” could contain anything from a performance review to a brown-bag invitation. Folders labeled according to the content rather than sender can help you find information faster. But if you are worried about losing what the boss sends, try a folder labeled Action for time-sensitive e-mail content.

  • Help others. You can improve your e-mail messages, send less, and share these and your own tips with others in the
    office.

In response to the “Get a Life!” blog responses on e-mail, readers offered many valuable comments with suggestions, such as color-coding messages from key people such as the boss.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work/life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at jwelles@1105govinfo.com.

About the Author

Judith Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md.

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