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Get Out of the In Crowd

How to avoid drowning in email.

We're drowning in email. Is it all because of spam and those CCs?

Michael Linenberger, author of Total Workday Control: That's a misconception. How long does it take for you to identify that an email isn't important? If it's spam, it takes a second. For a CC, you can usually tell in a couple of seconds.

So what's the real problem?

ML: What really slows you down is the email that matters. See if this sounds familiar. You have a screenful of mail. The first one is just informational. The second, informational. In the third email, there is something that someone is kind of asking you to do. And that's what's going to bog you down. You spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the next step is. And then you say to yourself, "If I move on to the next email and the next one, then I am going to forget about this, so I probably ought to do it now. But wait, if I do it now, I am not going to get through my email. And I know how I am. If I don't do it now, it won't get done." So you give that person a call, and that one email wastes 20 minutes. Now you have a meeting and you still have 36 emails to go.

How do we fix it?

ML: When you see a requested action in an email, don't do it immediately. It might be one of the least important things for you to do that day. Instead, immediately identify what the action is and put the email in a task folder. Change the title so that it states what you need to do, and put a due date on it and a priority level. You can do that in 15 or 20 seconds. Then you move right on to the next email. Now you'll get through your to-do email remarkably fast. Drag all of your other emails into a process folder, so you now have an empty inbox, which is a really nice feeling. The next thing you do is go to your task list and ask, "What are the most important things I need to do today?" That's the stuff that would keep you from going home at the end of the day.

How often should we check email?

ML: Research has shown that if you can't spend 5 or 10 minutes with a task, you aren't going to get very far. Don't let yourself get interrupted all the time. Turn off the ringer and check email less frequently than you do now.

How do "crackberries" fit into managing our email?

ML: The BlackBerry is a good way to read and digest informational mail. For action-oriented emails, mark them as unread, and when you get back to your desk, start using the system.

Won't we still spend a lot of time cleaning out the process folder?

ML: I generally don't toss out mail. Storage space is so cheap these days. If you aggressively throw out email, it takes time to decide what can be trashed. Time is precious, but disk space is not.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.