While we’re on the topic of order amidst chaos, I want to talk about email. I hear so many people complaining about being crushed under the weight of their email. At least 10 times a day I see my friends on Twitter talking about how they have no time for their email, that they have 12,000 unread messages in their inbox, that they have emails that are 3 months old they have yet to reply to.

To those people I ask: at what point is the tool just no longer effective for you?

Maybe I’m just weird, but I actually LIKE email. I get a lot of good news in emails – new work opportunities, birth announcements, invites to parties – why wouldn’t I look forward to seeing those things? Sure, sometimes bad news comes in emails, but if I were to average it out, my inbox is usually a source of good stuff.

At this point in the game, I probably get about 50-150 emails a day. I figure I’m about average, or maybe slightly below average. I’m happy to even be way below average, because I think that some people consider the volume of email they get to be some sort of badge of honour – a gauge as to how busy or popular they are. And that’s plain ridiculous. In fact, I used to get a whole lot more email. But I’ve started doing some simple things over the past 6 months or so that have dramatically cut down my volume and made email manageable for me again.

Control the flow. I think the first step to regaining control of your inbox is to stop receiving so many emails. First and foremost – unsubscribe to all those frickin’ automatic notification services and newsletters you never read. Every time you sign up for something or order stuff online you end up on a mailing list. Eventually, your inbox becomes a holding cell for every special offer, email newsletter, and “Tip of the Day” email going. Go through all of those emails in your inbox and unsubscribe to every single one that isn’t relevant, then delete them! That ought to solve about 10% of your influx right off the bat.

Second, if you subscribe to a lot of blogs via email (say, more than 5) consider switching your subscriptions to a news reader. I like Feedly (which works with Google Reader) but there are lots of others out there too. Using a news reader lets you control when you look at your blogs, so your inbox isn’t jammed with 100 unread blog posts.

Third, change peoples’ behaviour. This one takes some doing, and you can’t change everyone, but there are some ways to approach it without coming off like a jerk. First of all, when you send emails to large groups (say, over 5 people), don’t use CC:. That only encourages everyone on the list to hit Reply All, just to say things like “sounds good to me!” or “count me in!” I have had email trails 40 emails long in the past of one word Reply Alls. It drives me bananas. Also, if you are on a copy list for an email, and you only need to acknowledge the email to the sender (i.e. “count me in!”), then don’t reply all! You’re just cluttering up other peoples’ inboxes and encouraging bad reply all behaviour from others on the list. If you must have a large group conversation, seriously consider moving that conversation over to a tool like Google Wave. We’re using it for the Thoughtwrestling blog and I use it to communicate with my web developers. It works like a charm.

A final way to stop receiving so much email that is often overlooked is to stop sending so much darn email! Many people use email as a chat tool, or to send short messages like “don’t forget to print the report” or “Do you want to go for coffee next week?”. I significantly reduce the number of emails I get by using other methods of communication to send short messages. I use SMS extensively, especially with my team and my business partner. I use Twitter DMs as well, and I actually use Twitter and Facebook often to talk with my Mom and brother. Some people like the phone too, but I personally am not a phone fan. I have trouble hearing my cell in loud places and I always forget to check my voicemail. But if it works for you, and saves an email, then try it!

Manage what you’ve got. Ok, so some of those things might help you reduce some of your email. But you’re still going to get email, so learning how to manage it is essential to your sanity. Here are some suggestions.

First, when you sit down to check your mail, deal with each one at that moment. If you have 20 new messages, go through each one and do what I call the 5 second scan. If it’s an ad, a newsletter, or junk, delete it (or unsubscribe from that list). If it’s a reply to a question you’ve asked, read it and immediately make a note of what to do next (i.e. add action item to your to do list, put it in your calendar, etc.). Deal with anything urgent right away. Once you’ve dealt with an email, by replying or writing down the action item, either delete it or file it, but do NOT leave it in your inbox! I have an extensive folder system. I use it all the time. I never have to search for emails for more than 30 seconds. Anything you can’t deal with immediately or that you are waiting for more information before you can reply, leave it in your inbox, and mark it as read, so you can differentiate it from new emails that come in. That way it won’t go missing. I rarely have any more than 20 active emails in my inbox, because I use this scan/take action/file/delete system every time I check my email. At the end of every day, clean your inbox using this method. Do it for your sanity!

Second, and this might be the most important way to keep your inbox inline – you do not need to read every email you get when you get it. For those emails, set up filters. I have filters for newsletters (that I actually want to receive), Twitter follows, and for various info@ email accounts I manage. Emails with these filters skip my inbox altogether and go directly to a folder, where I can then read or clean them up when I want to. That single step probably saves me having to process at least 50 emails a day.

And finally, back to the changing behaviours thing. If you give out your email address, people will use it. If you’re okay with that, then be prepared for the onslaught. But if your inbox is beyond the point of it being manageable (I know there are people out there who get 500+ emails a day, and more), you may wish to consider your email policy. In this environment of openness and transparency, it’s all too easy for peoples’ generosity to be taken advantage of. There’s a sense of entitlement that if an email gets sent, a reply is expected immediately (or almost immediately). It’s a big problem and it stems from a social grace and common sense issue that doesn’t have a simple solution. We can’t control others’ common sense, so we must take matters into our own hands. If that means changing your email address, and only giving it out to a select group, then so be it. Maybe it means re-thinking connections, and transparency. Ultimately we all have a choice about how we connect with others. Some will like our choices, others won’t. In my experience, the latter are usually the same people who only contact you when they want something from you with nothing to offer in return. So maybe that part isn’t so bad.

You can reclaim the usefulness of email. It may mean hitting Delete All and starting again. But sometimes a clean slate is the best way to begin to make positive changes. \

Your thoughts are most welcome! (Just don’t send me an email about it ;)