The Upside: Dealing with email overload

I've got issues. Email issues. You know how it is -- you obsessively check your inbox, hoping there's some life-changing opportunity not sent by a Nigerian, then get overwhelmed by the time-sucking correspondence of friends who seem to have WAY too much free time. And suddenly you're 200 emails behind. You meaning me.

So I recently channeled my obsessiveness into research and present it here for you, free of charge. That is, if you don't count the cost of your internet access.


1) Most Important -- LIMIT YOUR TIME

The experts agree -- only check your email at designated times. All those messages coming in are the equivalent of people stopping by your cubicle to chat about the American Idol premiere and how Kara DioGuardi and Victoria Beckham look like they were baked in the same kiln. Instead, close out the program and get something done.

"But," you say, "[insert evidence of how important you are here]."

Well, I hate to say it, but Mr. Rogers was wrong -- you're not that special. None of us are. It's like when the plane lands and everyone whips out their cell phones to say, "We've just landed." Unless there was a terrorist on board with a bomb in his underpants, this is hardly worth reporting.

Instead of focusing on info-stractions, if you're currently employed, focus on staying that way (that means you, Conan). And if you're out of work, do something that'll get you a job, like learn a new skill. (FYI, forwarding adorable baby panda pictures is not a skill.)

According to David Rock's Your Brain at Work, after being interrupted, it takes 25 minutes to return to your original task, if you return at all.

Once you've decided to designate your email hours (noon and 3 p.m. seem to work for many), then what?

2) More Important than Most Important -- FILE EMAIL IN FOLDERS

Sure, but WHICH folders?

I'm loving David Allen's Getting Things Done method, despite his dorky website. (Who designed this thing? My grandpa?) Allen's book can be wonkish and sleep-inducing, so let me break it down for you: nothing stays in your inbox. Repeat: nothing stays in your inbox.

According to Allen, if you can answer an email in less than two minutes, do it. If not, file it under ACTION for important items requiring a response or MAYBE SOMEDAY for that Smilebox your aunt sent you of other people on vacation.

When you do answer an email (at your designated times), either delete it, file it under WAITING while the other party deals with it, or REFERENCE for easy access.

Since I've got more personalities than Joaquin Phoenix, I've implemented Allen's system in triplicate under the headings PROFESSIONAL, PERSONAL and TEACHING, although I've alphabetized them by labeling them DR, MARCO, JUST PLAIN MARC and THAT'S PROFESSOR ACITO TO YOU.

And here's something Allen doesn't say (or maybe he does -- did I mention his book is wonkish and sleep-inducing?): in each category never let more emails accumulate than you can view on the screen at one time. You should be able to open any folder and see everything in it without cursoring down.

If you can't, it's either time to answer some or create another specific topic folder as a subset. (Of course you can always get a new email address.) For instance, inside my DR. MARCO / ACTION folder is another folder marked READER MAIL. Because my responses tend to be similar ("Yes, my books are based on my life;" "No, I can't introduce you to my agent") I bundle them together.

You'll need to review your folders regularly. But having those folders organized and waiting feels as luxurious as having a valet lay out your clothes for you.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.
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