One of the most time consuming business tasks is reviewing e-mail. Since e-mail is the primary source for sending business communications, the sheer volume of it can be overwhelming. When you can’t find an e-mail, you waste time and the adage “time is money” is true for all businesses. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to control your e-mail and get back to business.

Organizing your email: action vs. reference

According to productivity specialist Sally McGhee, there are two types of e-mail: reference and action. Reference e-mails can be saved for later. Action e-mails contain information needed to complete an action, such as meeting dates. These e-mails should be transferred to your calendar or to-do list. If a reply is required, make the reply right away.

McGhee recommends that people set aside a scheduled time every day to review their e-mail. Set an appointment on your calendar and review without distractions. Decisions regarding some e-mail require focus which is difficult with phones ringing or people stopping by. McGhee admits this is tough to do at first, but once it becomes a habit, it takes less time to review the inbox.

Using flags

Personal productivity expert Peggy Duncan suggests flagging certain senders, such as your boss or sales reps you deal with regularly. When you periodically scan your e-mail during the day, you’ll see those flags and be able to attend to them immediately.

The 4Ds of email organization

Both Duncan and McGhee agree that there are “4 Ds” to organizing e-mail:

  • Delete It
  • Do It
  • Delegate It
  • Defer It

These 4 steps can be used for any e-mail. Their consistent use will keep your mailbox organized and allow you to access saved information immediately.

1. Delete It.

Both experts admit that this is the most difficult step. Most people have the mistaken impression that they will need the information at some point so it must be kept. When deciding to delete you should ask yourself if the e-mail is meaningful to your current objectives. Can you find the information elsewhere? Will you refer to it in the next six (6) months? Is the information legally required to be retained? If you answer no, then delete.

2. Do It.

If you can respond in less than two (2) minutes, do it. Put the appointment on your calendar, and delete it.

3. Delegate It.

If it’s not part of your job, forward it to the person it belongs to. Why keep something that’s not yours?

4. Defer It.

According to McGhee, this is 20% of e-mail. When you defer e-mail, file it in meaningful categories. Rather than just having a file marked “accounting,” create meaningful subfolders. If you recently went to a conference and have receipts and data from it, filing everything under accounting isn’t the wisest choice. Try creating a folder for the seminar, or create subfolders in accounting for “travel invoices” and another under vendors under “vendor data.” Just be sure you periodically check the information you’ve deferred. If you haven’t used it in 6 months, return to step one.

Duncan recommends taking step 4 further by creating rules that will automatically move messages to specified folders based on the sender or key word in the subject line. Any e-mail received from a supplier can automatically be forwarded to a folder for that specific supplier. She also recommends setting e-mail security settings on high to help block spam.

By taking some simple steps and a little time, you can turn your unruly e-mail box that manages you into a smooth running system that you manage allowing you to spend time doing your job.

Ian B writes for Oasys Software which specializes in mail management software.

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