Building a Better Inbox

How to cut through the clutter and spend less time reading and responding to e-mail

E-mail overload is epidemic in the workplace today. Employees in this country spend more than 40 percent of their workday on e-mail, and they consider more than a third of that time a waste, per a survey of U.S. workers conducted by Guilford, Conn.-based Cohesive Knowledge Solutions.

What’s more, the time employees expend on workplace e-mail is causing companies to bleed big bucks -- an estimated $300 billion a year -- in lost productivity and profits. Following are some simple strategies for getting through e-mail more efficiently.

Cut Back

The best way to get less is to send less. How? Reduce the number of recipients per e-mail by ceasing to use and abuse the “reply all” and “cc” features or group distribution lists. You might not realize how prevalent this practice is: More than 75 percent of professionals surveyed by Cohesive Knowledge Solutions complain that their colleagues overuse the “reply all” feature.

Label Well

Weak subject lines don’t work, since people tend to scan their inbox first before deciding which e-mails are worth reading and which should be deleted without opening. Label every message with a clear, brief and to-the-point subject line.

File Better

Most people have a large number of e-mail folders and fail to organize their content well. Something labeled “stuff from the boss” might hold anything from a performance review to a movie review.

File smart: Create a limited number of mutually exclusive folders that are based on content, not sender, date or some other criteria.

No Thanks

Business etiquette needs to be modified somewhat where e-mails are concerned. Not every e-mail requires a reply or acknowledgment, especially a trivial “Thanks!” Make an agreement with your key contacts to reserve thank-you e-mails for extraordinary efforts. You can even adopt a shorthand for your subject lines, such as NRN (no reply needed) to nip unnecessary e-mails in the bud.

Make a Call

Just because e-mail is the easiest way to communicate with co-workers or clients doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Before sending a message that invites a long back-and-forth discussion, consider picking up the phone or even scheduling a brief meeting instead.

Clean up Copy

E-mail can help -- or hinder -- your professional image. Place a high priority on spelling and grammar (a simple step, since virtually all e-mail programs have functions that check for you), and go easy on things such as all caps, abbreviations, acronyms and exclamation points.

Wait a Day

Practically everyone in a work environment has sent an angry e-mail in the heat of the moment, only to regret it later. Prevent sender’s remorse by following the 24-hour rule: Write the e-mail, save it as a draft, and wait a day before sending it. This gives you time to cool down and create a new message that will be effective, not emotional.

Block Time

It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of reading and responding to e-mails right as they come in. Stop these endless interruptions that can keep you from doing your job by setting aside short blocks of time each day to check your e-mail.

Another tip: Disconnect or mute your “ding,” the sound or symbol that alerts you to new messages, and program your e-mail to synchronize every half hour instead of every few minutes.

Tim Burress, Vicki Halsey and Mike Songare co-authors of The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your E-mail Before It Manages You(Berrett-Koehler).