Don't Be Overwhelmed by the Crunch! How to Manage Lots of Incoming E-mail

With the rapid growth of the Internet and the popularity of E-Mail as a communications medium in the workplace, managing incoming E-Mail has become a skill that most of us badly need to master and NOW. Adam Boettiger provides strategies for managing incoming email.

Over the past few months I've noticed that we've had a ton of new subscribers to the Internet Advertising Discussion List. We've also had a few people leave this list and comment that they either didn't have time for a discussion list or couldn't deal with the amount of E-Mail, which is typically one digest message four times per week or about ten single post messages per day. I hope the following is useful to you.

With the rapid growth of the Internet and the popularity of E-Mail as a communications medium in the workplace, managing incoming E-Mail has become a skill that most of us badly need to master and NOW. "I can't deal with this!!" "Too many posts!" "Don't have time in the day!!"

Cries of frustration appear in my own E-Mail box as moderator of this discussion list. Is there an effective way to deal with all of these messages, or are we doomed to spend hours each day sifting through message after message, time being sucked from our supposedly productive workday?

I get over 150 messages per day--and it takes me about 30-45 minutes per day to process my mail. So when people complain about getting 10 messages per day from a discussion list, it makes me wonder whether they are truly managing their mail in the best way possible. After all, it isn't the discussion list that is causing you problems; it is your inability to effectively manage it. A discussion list is FOR discussion. That is the purpose.

There are a number of skills that will help you deal with E-Mail more effectively, which I will share with you below. But I think it's important to first understand WHY you have joined a discussion list in the first place and how you can get the most out of any discussion list.

There are thousands of discussion lists on the Internet, on topics ranging from Internet Advertising to the discussion of pet psychology to Uncle Bob's hernia. Well, maybe not Uncle Bob, but the point is that anyone with access to E-Mail has the capability to start a discussion list. YOUR task is to find quality content lists that are directly related to your industry or your interests, for the purpose of:

1. Learning from others in the industry as they share their experiences. Learn from the mistakes and advice of others who may be more experienced than you are. It will save you time and money.

2. Networking with others within your industry

3. Establishing business relationships that could lead to new business for you or your company

4. Participating in lists that are specific to your industry to establish yourself as an expert or at least a knowledgeable participant in the eyes of your peers or potential clients

5. Staying current on trends within your industry

I will use my own Internet Advertising Discussion List as an example. If you are in the Internet advertising industry, be it ad sales, media buying, market research, etc. there are countless reasons why you might subscribe to my list. But do you have the time to read it?

If you don't have the time to read this list, how could you possibly have time to subscribe to all the lists and newsletters pertinent to your industry? The truth is that if you are serious about your job, and your job has to do with online advertising or marketing or even business on the Internet, you are doing yourself, your career and your company a serious disservice by NOT staying current on lists that pertain to your industry.

The more you know about your online job and this industry, the more you'll begin to realize how much you don't know, because this industry changes on a daily basis. Learning is an ongoing process, especially on the Internet. But I'll be the first to admit, it is very easy to get "Information Overload" in this industry. I'm online ten hours a day for my job. I get the majority of my industry news via E-Mail, but the truth is that I really enjoy the physical act of holding a newspaper in my hands or reading a book after work. It's my escape from the Information Overload of Cyberspace.

So, you know WHY you should be on these lists, either reading or participating, but what's the best way to deal with the glut of information? What's the best way to manage your E-Mail so that you control your E-Mail instead of your E-Mail controlling YOU?

Do YOU suffer from POLYMAILAPHOBIA ? (The fear of getting more than twenty email messages per day?) Here are some quick cures:

Tips on Taking Control

1. Join only well-filtered discussion lists and only those that are directly pertinent to your business, industry or personal interests.

Many lists on the Net are unmoderated, some are moderated. An unmoderated list means that every single post that members send to the list address is then distributed to list members. --Even posts that simply say, "Yeah, I agree with what Fred said... --Bob." There are many unmoderated lists that are extremely valuable, but I have found that the number of posts distributed on an unmoderated list is much higher per day than a moderated list. Many unmoderated lists reach postings of 60 messages plus per day or more, as members reply and hold their discussion by E-Mail. It can be quite overwhelming at times.

By contrast, a "moderated" list such as this one, means that posts are submitted to a human being who then selects the best 10-15 per day for passing to the list. Yes, there are drawbacks to this type of arrangement; not everyone's post is included in the list; but overall, there is a much higher signal-to-noise ratio on moderated lists, and this is generally appreciated by list members. I say "generally" because as a moderator you can NEVER please all of the people all of the time, especially when a list grows to over 12,000 members.

2. Always subscribe to the individual post version of a discussion list if it is available and not the digest or compilation version--unless you enjoy printing it out and reading it as a paper publication.

Many people join a discussion list and see the options:

You can receive one large message per day with all of that day's posts, or you can receive 10-15 shorter messages. Which is the lesser evil? Which is easier to manage?

Personal preferences are obviously up to you, but for many people, a post by post version works best. As posts come in, you're able to see the Subject Header, for example,

IA: CPM with guaranteed clickthrough

in your E-Mail program without even opening the message. You can quickly delete the subjects you have no interest in, open those you do have an interest in, forward a single post to a friend or coworker, or file it for later reference. Try doing this with a large digest. It's also pretty overwhelming when several 30K digests stack up for reading.

[Editor's Note: My philosophy is different from Adam's. The way I manage some 200-250 posts a day and keep my eyes from falling out of their sockets is to print most of my digests out, read them over breakfast or while keeping an eye on my kids, etc. I don't like to read large volumes on screen; I'm on the computer too much as it is. The busiest (and most useful) list I'm on happens to be unmoderated, and it alone generates some 80-100 posts a day. Then there are the lower volume moderated lists and newsletters I subscribe to. I couldn't stay sane if I did this all on-screen. By printing it out, it leaves a manageable 50 posts or so to look at individually. And I can still copy relevant sections and paste them in a message to a friend. Plus I can mark them up! I'll go through my digests with a pen, note the ones that I want to respond to, follow up to develop a private business relationship, or visit a resource on the web that can help me grow my business. There is no right answer here, it's just whatever works for you. Also, remember--if a discussion list isn't meeting your needs, drop it. And if the software won't recognize your unsub request, filter it straight into the trash.]

3. Use a good E-Mail program with filters and mailboxes. I use Eudora Pro http://www.eudora.com/ , but Outlook 98 http://www.microsoft.com/outlook/ just came out and there are many other programs with these same features.

Mailboxes, Folders and Filters

Set up a mailbox for each discussion list or newsletter that you subscribe to. Set a filter for each list that will automatically place posts from that list into the mailbox. Set aside time each day to quickly scan this mailbox and Subject lines of the messages. For this discussion list, I purposely put out individual posts with the Subject line of

IA: Subject

so that list members may filter on the characters "IA" in the Subject header.

Filters and mailboxes are a Godsend. Use a good Email program and read the manual to take full advantage of these features. They will save you TIME and help you keep your sanity.

4. Learn to SCAN the Subject Line without opening the message

Scanning is probably the most valuable skill you will learn online, and it will reduce the time you spend on reading your E-Mail by at least 30%. Scan the Subject Headers of your mail without opening the messages. Open and respond only to those that require immediate response, such as client messages, raises from your boss, etc. You'll find that you can delete many of your incoming messages simply by looking at the Subject Line without even opening the message. Anything that you don't have to open up and read saves you time.

Using most email programs, you can even set a filter to look for a specific address or domain in the headers and when a message from that person or client arrives, your program will play a sound and even file the message in a special mailbox or change the priority so you know to read those messages first.

5. If you don't like getting junk email, just delete it and move on. [Editor's Note: By setting up a filter--AFTER the filters for all your discussion lists and newsletters, which should be set to "skip rest" so they don't re-filter incorrectly--to catch all bulk e-mail. I do this by scanning for messages not individually addressed to my domain name. This catches 95% of the spam, filters it to my "spam" mailbox. Every few days I glance at it to re-transfer the few things I want that filtered in by mistake, and flush the rest of it down the trash, unopened and unread. Takes under a minute to dump a week's worth of spam.]

It takes 0.5 seconds to delete a message and an average of 15 minutes to become involved in an exchange of email with someone who sent you a piece of junk email. If you are avidly against spam, then delete the message and just don't ever buy anything from that merchant. If no one bought products that were advertised by spamming, it would not be profitable and would not exist.

If you are trying to save time, learn to use your delete key. It will be your new best friend as you learn to manage your E-Mail.

6. Scan the first paragraph

The art of scanning goes beyond looking at Subject Headers, however. Once you've deleted the unopened messages you are not interested in, open the ones you are interested in and read only the first paragraph of these messages. You can tell from the first paragraph - or you should be able to tell - whether or not this is something that requires your attention or not. If it doesn't require your immediate attention, leave it for later when you have time. Prioritize your responses, and only reply to those messages that absolutely require a reply.

7. Don't feel obligated to reply to everyone who writes to you. If you're like most of us, it's not scanning your E-Mail that is taking up your time, but replying to it. Learn to be brief and painfully direct in your responses. Know that the person you are replying to or sending a message to is most likely just as busy, swamped, overwhelmed, insane, etc. as you are, if not more so. If you sent someone a message, chances are they received it. Don't be insulted if you don't receive a "Thank you" back or a continuation of dialog. They'll read your information and act on it or delete it as they see fit.

In the same instance, don't feel like you need to reply instantly. If the message needs a reply but you don't have time for a long thought-out message, leave it in your in box for later in the day or the next day, or until you can get to it. When you do reply to people, be brief and state the purpose of your message in the first paragraph. Often it is this first paragraph that will determine whether or not they will continue reading the remainder of your message. Most recipients will really appreciate your brevity.

7. Use the telephone and include your phone number in a "signature" at the end of every message you send.

E-Mail is wonderful, but often you can save a 15 minute message-writing session by making a 2 minute call. You can't do this, however, unless the person happened to include their phone number in the message. Most email programs will allow you to permanently attach a "signature" to the end of every message with your contact information. Use it.

8. Set your email program so that it will not download messages over 40K in size unless you tell it to. Counterproductivity sets in when you find yourself twiddling your thumbs as your email program downloads the latest Taco Bell commercial video file sent by a co-worker. 10 minutes and a few aspirin later you can finally get back to processing your mail again. The E-Mail Time Vampire has struck again!

These are but a few tips that you can use to manage your E-Mail more effectively. Work SMARTER, not HARDER. You'll accomplish twice as much in a lot less time, and gain a lot more from the discussion lists that you now subscribe to. It can be done!

I hope this has helped some of you who are feeling overwhelmed or are having trouble keeping up with your favorite lists. The answer is not to quit, but to learn how to manage your email properly.

Adam Boettiger is Vice President, Advertising & Marketing for e/y/e/s/c/r/e/a/m interactive, inc., Portland, Oregon (USA) specializing in traffic building, strategic partnering, new media planning, killer creative and design. Reach him at: ab@eyescream.com, t: (503) 292-6987 Ext. 16 / f: (503) 296-0945 - http://www.eyescream.com/ . To sign up for Adam's excellent Internet Advertising Discussion List, where this article first appeared, visit http://www.internetadvertising.org/

  

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