Managing Your E-mail Inbox

You are not only what you eat, but also what you keep—in your e-mail inbox, that is. Indeed, if the inbox is a metaphor for your personality, you likely fall into one of two camps: The type who relentlessly checks e-mail, deleting or archiving them as they arrive, or the type who actively avoids the inbox and has hundreds, if not thousands, of unread e-mails awaiting replies.

In fact, your inbox likely offers some insight into your behavior in all areas of your professional life. As a result, making some adjustments in your e-mail habits could lead to positive changes elsewhere. Following are some suggestions for those at both ends of the e-mail management spectrum, from the E-Mail Perfectionist to the E-Mail Procrastinator.

E-mail Perfectionist
Every time this person hears the computer trumpeting the arrival of a new e-mail, the Perfectionist stops what he or she is doing to check on it, immediately responding, archiving or deleting the message. While the E-mail Perfectionist is likely highly organized, responsible and responsive, there are some downsides to having a Pavlovian-like attachment to your inbox. For one thing, because you’re always interrupting yourself to check e-mail and breaking your workflow, you may find it difficult to focus on projects, especially those that require hours of concentration. You’re also likely wasting a lot of time: When you stop one assignment and start another, you will require a few minutes to re-start the initial task. Instead, try relegating yourself to checking e-mail once every two or three hours (or, if you absolutely must, every hour). You’ll be able to focus on the projects at hand and likely do a better job on them because you have dedicated time to concentrate.

E-mail Perfectionists frequently have a hard time saying "no," and other people can easily take advantage of this. After all, if you always respond to e-mails right away, you’ll be one of the first people contacted in a crisis. While you want to help out when you can, you also want to avoid becoming the "go to" man or woman for every emergency.

One last point for the E-mail Perfectionist: By responding right away or immediately filing away your e-mails, you may miss the nuance of what someone has asked or said. You also may give an unhelpful answer simply because you wanted to reply right away. How many times have you sent a message only to remember useful information a little later? If you have flexibility, give yourself some time to contemplate the contents of an e-mail before responding. You may find you have more substantial information to share a few hours after it arrived. If you fear forgetting to respond, hit "reply" and then save the e-mail in your drafts folder so you can attend to it when you have more time.

E-mail Procrastinators
You know who you are. On the bright side, you’re not obsessed with cleaning out your inbox. However, you average hundreds or thousands of unread e-mails in your inbox and frequently "misplace" messages from friends or coworkers. You have no system of inbox organization and probably feel a sense of dread or guilt (or both) whenever you open your e-mail.

Surprisingly, many E-mail Procrastinators suffer from overpoliteness. That is, they feel they need to respond at length to each and every e-mail so, lacking the time, they ignore the messages altogether. Instead, try sending a quick, short message saying you’re in the middle of a project and will provide a fuller answer, if warranted, later in the day or week. (And then do exactly that!) A brief response is frequently enough and better than not sending one at all. If you have a particularly chatty friend, offer to meet him or her for lunch or after work to talk.

It’s important that E-mail Procrastinators get organized. You don’t have to become an E-mail Perfectionist; you just need a workable system to manage your onslaught of e-mail traffic. You can cut through hundreds of e-mails by simply deleting spam, reminders about meetings that have already occurred, or messages you were copied on but don’t need to respond to. You might also create folders for e-mail that needs to be addressed today, tomorrow or within a week. Set aside time each day or week to comb through the e-mails you’ve put in folders so you can be sure you follow up on them; otherwise, you’ve only created a more complex system of procrastination.

If you have to repeatedly send out the same information, such as a monthly report, consider creating a template that includes standard text. You’ll save time and move through your inbox at a faster pace.

The Perfect Procrastinator
If you found that you don’t quite fit into either category, but many of the behaviors described sound familiar, you’re probably a Perfect Procrastinator: This hybrid personality type might, for example, respond to e-mail immediately but have an inbox overflowing with messages. This individual can learn a few things from the solutions to both the Perfectionist and Procrastinator, picking and choosing lessons as necessary.

No matter what e-mail type you are, considering how you behave and making some positive changes in your habits can make you better at your job. And you may even take it one step further: Both E-mail Perfectionists and Procrastinators can recognize patterns and places for improvement in areas other than their inbox. Next on the list: voice mail, project management and meetings!

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