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Seven rules for a tidy inbox

By Laura Morsch

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If you're like most workers, the e-mail message icon is a regular fixture on your office computer.

Now the preferred medium of communication in many workplaces, Americans process 76 e-mails each day, according to a study by the Radicati Group, a market research firm.

By 2007, the survey found, Americans will be sending and receiving an average of 100 messages per day.

With all of those messages flooding your inbox, it can be almost impossible to find the ones you actually need. Fortunately, a few simple rules can help tame your escalating inbox, say David Teten and Scott Allen, co-authors of "The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online."

Teten and Allen researched effective systems that workers have used to tackle their inboxes. Although everyone has his or her own best way of dealing with e-mail overflow, the duo's book outlines these seven rules for keeping your inbox under control:

1. Keep your inbox empty: "If you do not quickly respond to every e-mail you get, you will rapidly lose control over your entire work flow," Teten and Allen write. David Allen, in his book "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity," says you have three choices to handle each e-mail you receive: Do it, delegate it or defer it.

If the task can be done in two minutes or less, do it right away. Otherwise, give it to the most appropriate person or place it in your organization system to do later.

2. Organize around action, not data: Organizing your e-mail with a folder for each project you're working on may seem like the obvious choice, but it's not the most efficient way to plan your workday. This type of arrangement makes it impossible to look at e-mails quickly and decide what to do next, Teten and Scott Allen say.

Instead, organize your folders around the required action. Teten and Allen recommend organizing your e-mail into these folders, which can help you prioritize your tasks:

  • Inbox
  • Deadline-driven
  • As soon as possible
  • Delegated
  • Archive
  • 3. Save everything: "Disk space is cheap," Teten and Allen write. You never know when you'll need to look up an old acquaintance or find a file, so think twice before hitting delete. The only e-mails you should send to the trash bin are spam, e-zines you're done reading and notifications of new messages elsewhere.

    4. Organize just enough: What's worse than looking for something you've already deleted? Looking for something because you've forgotten where you put it. Instead of having a multilevel folder system, stick with a few high-level categories. "As a rule of thumb, you want to have no more folders than you can see on one screen," Teten and Allen write. "This allows you to properly file any message with a single mouse motion."

    5. Review regularly: Organizing your inbox once isn't enough. You also need to keep up with the daily onslaught of messages. Teten and Allen recommend these review cycles:

  • Daily: Empty your inbox.
  • Weekly: Review your ASAP folders and review your deadline-driven items when planning your week.
  • Monthly: Update your folders and move completed projects into the archive area.
  • Yearly: Go through your archive and move obsolete files to a separate folder.
  • 6. Keep your file sizes manageable: If you file all your e-mails to the same few folders, they're bound to get huge after a year or so. If your files are getting too big, sort your old e-mails by date, Teten and Allen suggest. For example: "Archive 2005 -- January."

    7. Filter spam: Set up your automatic spam filter and then review the suspected spam folder once a week. Once you've reviewed it to ensure there's nothing in there that you want to save, delete all the messages.

    Laura Morsch is a writer for She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

    © Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority
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