7 Tips for Overcoming E-Mail Overload

Tricks and tools for keeping your inbox in order.

September 7, 2010, 4:43 PM

Sept. 8, 2010— -- When it comes to e-mail, it's easy to feel like you're always playing catch-up.

Especially after a long weekend or holiday away, managing an overflowing inbox can seem like a never-ending battle.

But e-mail experts say that with a bit of discipline – and a few tricks and high-tech tools – it's possible to tame the beast.

Take a look at a few of their tips below.

1. Filters Aren't Just for Spam

Chances are that you use a filter to keep irritating spam out of your inbox, but technologists say you can use those filter functions to keep your legitimate e-mail organized too.

Instead of letting every piece of mail pass through the inbox first, use filtering options to direct them straight on to separate folders.

"Have certain messages go directly into folders that you can look at just when you want to," said Joanne Cantor, director of the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and author of "Conquer CyberOverload."

Cantor said she uses them for professional newsletters, sale notices, political messages and other kinds of e-mail that she may not want to delete but wants to read on her own time.

Most major e-mail services offer a filter function that lets you filter messages by sender, subject or key words. As mail comes in, you can create a rule that applies to other similar messages. Or you can create folders after the fact.

"These are things that I don't want to completely ignore but I don't want them to interrupt me day by day," she said.

2. Do You Need to Receive Messages in Real-Time?

For some people, always-on e-mail applications are a necessity. But for others, receiving e-mail messages as they arrive can be distracting.

If your job or personal life doesn't require that you respond to messages instantaneously, Cantor suggests changing the settings so that messages only arrive, say, every half-hour or hour.

"Make interruptions less frequent," she said.

Cantor herself has taken her advice to an extreme, adjusting her settings so that messages don't show up in her inbox at all -- unless she knows she's expecting something.

"I make an affirmative choice to look to see if I have mail," she said.

The strategy may not work for everyone, but she advises those who can to limit the disruption.

Consider Different E-Mail Accounts for Different Kinds of Correspondence

3. Keep the Inbox Clean

When your inbox is one giant mess of messages, it's hard to separate the urgent from the unnecessary.

But filing away each message as it comes can be very time-consuming.

Cantor suggests making a "Holder" folder that can be a kind of purgatory for incoming e-mail. If you know you want to keep it but it isn't time-sensitive, you can tuck it away in there.

"Keep your inbox to things that can be seen on one computer screen – pending things," she said.

4. Should You Split Your E-Personality?

Another strategy for keeping the flood of e-mail at bay is to use different e-mail accounts for different kinds of correspondence. You might already separate personal and professional messages, but Cantor said it couldn't hurt to take it one step further.

If you do a lot of online shopping, create a specific e-mail account for those transactions. You might also consider creating a top-secret account for high-priority messages and giving the address only to a select few.

5. Send Calendar Reminders Before Vacations

As if managing the day-to-day load of e-mail isn't difficult enough, sifting through days of accumulated messages after time away can be even more of a headache.

A survey by the e-mail management service Xobni and Harris Interactive found that even on vacations, people don't take vacations from their e-mail. Sorting through a post-vacation inbox can be a daunting task.

One way to minimize the pain is to give people you e-mail with most frequently an extra heads-up.

"Before you go on vacation, send calendar reminders to the people that e-mail most often that indicates you're going to be out of town," said Terra Carmichael, head of communications for Xobni. "That way you can take care of anything urgent (and potentially e-mail heavy) before you leave."

Keeping Your E-Mail Under Control

6. Know Your Audience

Another idea is to send different out-of-office messages to people inside or outside your office, Carmichael said.

You might just want to give external e-mailers a way to reach a colleague or the number for the main line. But maybe it makes sense to include your cell phone on messages for internal contacts, she said. If an urgent matter arises, one quick phone call might be less time-consuming than a thread of messages after the fact.

But no matter what, she said, make sure include an alternate contact.

"If you don't, everything is on hold. And then every e-mail you got requires an action from you," she said.

7. Expand Your Tool Belt

If you still feel like you need help controlling your inbox, try fighting technology with technology.

A number of companies offer e-mail management services, and many of them are free.

For example, last week, Google unveiled a new "Priority Inbox" feature for Gmail. Once activated, the free service automatically spots important e-mails and moves them to the top of your inbox so that you don't miss them.

Xobni offers free and paid versions of its software that plugs into Microsoft's Outlook and gives users an easy way to search for e-mail messages, contacts, attachments and more.

Another San Francisco start-up, Rapportive, offers a plug-in feature that can show users a person's entire online identity right next to their e-mails. It doesn't necessarily help you find e-mail messages but it can quickly connect you to their Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn accounts to make it easier to get in touch with them and identify common interests.

If you're willing to pay for performance, you could check out ClearContext (a 30-day trial is free but basic membership starts at $25). The service helps organize messages by suggesting appropriate folders for them. It also automatically turns messages into tasks and appointments and lets you defer e-mails to a later date so that you can address them when you're ready.