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5 Tactics To Tame Your Inbox Avalanche

Last week’s post looked at the prospect of using activity streams to eliminate, or at least reduce, email overload. As I wrote in that post, I firmly believe that email is not going anywhere soon. But new social tools will augment email and may help reduce overload, but only if they are used properly. Here are some practical solutions for using email and activity streams together at work.

1. Each according to his own kind. 

Take the Bible’s advice and use the appropriate channel for each type of information. For example, status updates, general inquiries, and informational messages are best served via activity streams. Broadcast the "server going down for an hour" message once and let it dissipate into the ether, rather than forever clutter up your colleagues’ email boxes. On the other hand, messages that require a reply should be sent by email. When using email to ask a question, avoid sending the message to multiple recipients without specifying who is supposed to answer. Educate your workers to follow these rules. "Punish" those who violate these rules…by ignoring them.

2. "If the solution doesn’t fit, you must limit."

Paraphrasing Johnny Cochran’s advice, limit clutter by aggregating multiple information feeds into one. There are aggregation tools for email as well as for activity streams. These are client-based software products or cloud services to which you add your various account information and passwords to retrieve and display messages in one window. There is a great convenience in having only one place to go to get all your mail or activity stream information. Some aggregators also provide additional services like prioritization of important messages.

For email, one reader from last week suggested EmailTray, although there are others like Windows Live Mail. With the advent of standardization, commercially available activity stream aggregators also exist (like FriendFeed). Some tools like Zimbra provide aggregation for both email and activity streams.  One caveat: Just having all the information in one place won’t make it simple to follow. First of all, all these tools require you to learn a new user interface. More importantly, incoming messages are by nature out of context, so it will still require some work to figure which end is up. But at least you only have to open one window to see it all. 

3. Filter, filter, filter. 

Filtering is one of the most potent tools in the war against information overload. There are two basic types of filtering: collaborative and content-based.

With collaborative filtering, you define messages to categories according to who sent them, or to whom they are addressed.  Products like Microsoft Outlook, HootSuite, and TweetDeck support this out of the box, but you have to manually set up and maintain the filters. If you are like most people, your filtering requirements change often, and maintaining these filters is a hassle. However, when you are working together on a project, collaborative filtering works really well for the duration of the project.  The problem is that when you use multiple tools, you need to set up filters separately for each tool.

Content-based filtering focuses on locating specific subject matter. For example, creating a Twitter list based on the presence of hashtags (#) is an example of content-based filtering. Other examples include using tags, topics, or keywords to locate content in messages. Enterprise products like SharePoint, Connections, Yammer, and Chatter support tagging and keyword filtering. These tools make it easy to follow interesting topics, without having to create a link with those who are participating in the discussion. However, since there is no standard for tagging taxonomy, figuring out what words to follow is often difficult. Also, mail programs treat message content differently than activity stream tags, so you usually need to create multiple filters.

4. Start small. 

Companies adopting activity streams as an adjunct to email are advised to start small in order to let workers understand the impact of the tools, and to flesh out the technology’s value.  Start with a motivated team and then publicize the results. Just remember that only about 10-20% of workers are early adopters, so early wins don’t translate into corporate-wide successes. Adoption strategies are needed to get typical business users on board. But that is a story for another time….

5. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. 

Whatever strategies you employ to simplify communications, take this last piece of wisdom from Thomas Jefferson and get everyone on the same page. People are loath to change work habits…particularly when related to technology, so preparing them properly and setting expectations is really important. Furthermore, some workers are afraid to broadcast what might be seen as silly or inappropriate content to unintended recipients, so training them is critical.

In my next post, I will present a vision for what I believe we can expect from the future communications platforms, and the path to getting there.

What do you think? Comment below.  You can also email me at or tweet me at @dlavenda.

Author David Lavenda is a high-tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

[Image: Flickr user Mona Loldwoman]