Readers give tips to tame the e-mail monster

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2009 - 10:38 PM

What's the first thing you do when you return to work from vacation?

Do you make the rounds, touching base with your colleagues and team members? Do you review your list of goals, prioritize them and jump on the most important or most urgent?

Chances are, you don't. Instead, you check e-mail. In fact, you may have been checking your messages several times a day throughout your vacation, robbing yourself of the break from work you needed.

It's great to stay in touch, and sometimes it's a necessity, but if you're constantly checking your messages, your inbox may be controlling your time.

Here are some suggestions from readers on how to regain control:

•John has his e-mail client sort and deposit messages into mailboxes by rules of his own construction: "I use Apple Mail and all of that is in the part of preferences called Rules. Because I belong to a lot of e-lists, my mailbox layout is elaborate but of my choosing."

•Lawrence endorses my advice from an earlier column: "Don't write when it's more efficient to call or talk in person." He recommends letting the recipient know "at the front end" whether the message is for information or whether it requires action. He also uses blind copies or BCC, "first for privacy/security, and second to thwart those who feel the need to Reply All."

•Glenda, who didn't want to "take up" my time, put her comments in the subject heading, explaining "I thought you would at least see them that way." She notes, "Personally, I liked the old days better."

•Donalda recommends creating a box named "Real Inbox." "You can scroll through your messages" and "when you see a familiar name, check it." After moving those messages to your Real Inbox, "click Clear all."

•Jim, who notes that "in the old days people were often required to sort their mail by importance or sender," suggests creating "subfolders like CC to capture messages you were copied on." Then you can sort messages "in other subfolders" according to rules you establish and you can "set up additional folders for specific people (your boss?) or subjects that require immediate attention."

•Kathy recommends using certain key words in the subject heading: FYI indicates an e-mail containing information you may need to know but requires no action; [eom] = End of Message indicates the subject heading is the complete message; ACTION indicates an e-mail that requires somebody to do something.

All good suggestions.

Like Glenda, I miss the old days, but I also love electronic communication. I love the ease and efficiency and power of it, but I don't love the way some people use it unthinkingly. I worry that, unless we learn to manage the volume of messages in our inboxes, our busy work will keep us from our real work.

Syndicated columnist Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. You can send e-mail to him at You can visit his website at

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