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You've Got E-Mail? Don't Let It
Get You Down, Says Chambers
November 29, 1999

Are you overwhelmed by hundreds of e-mail messages? Kim Chambers has some tips for how to manage your e-mail - before it manages you.

Chambers, manager of the Instructional Resource Center, says dealing with the increasing amount of e-mail has become a significant problem for many. The ease of communicating via e-mail and the proliferation of discussion lists underlie the e-mail explosion, he says. In addition, there's growing pressure to respond.

"People's level of expectation about responding to e-mail is getting jacked up," he says. "There used to be an expectation that a phone call would be returned within 24 hours. That same phenomenon is being transferred to e-mail."

It all adds up to quite a burden, especially because e-mail has been added to, rather than replacing, other forms of communication - postal mail, phone calls and face-to-face interaction.

The focus of the problem sits squarely in the in-basket of most e-mail software packages. Chambers says it is not unusual for people to have up to 700 messages in their in-box at any one time.

To deal with this, he says, "first you need to answer some questions about time, place and space: When you check your e-mail, where you check your e-mail and how frequently."

Reserve a specific time of day to check e-mail, he suggests, and decide whether you will check it only at work or also from home. Decide, as well, if you want to segregate categories of e-mail, such as class-related, colleague-related or administration-related.

The next step is to select an e-mail software package, such as Eudora, Pegasus, or Microsoft Outlook. Each of these has features that will help you to manage your e-mail, he says, such as the ability to set up new mailboxes that act like drawers in a file cabinet.

Once the system is set up, the old administrative tip - when you get a piece of paper, handle it at once - works well when translated to its electronic equivalent, says Chambers, who has given two workshops sponsored by the Institute for Teaching and Learning on how to manage e-mail. The choices are to open up and delete a message; open it up, read, respond and delete; delete without opening; or open, read, respond, then archive. "It's doing something with it that's important," he says. "That's the key to the system."

Chambers suggests setting a personal limit for the number of messages retained in an electronic in-basket. "My goal is a maximum of 20 messages in my in-basket," he says. "It's an arbitrary number, but it should certainly not be in the triple digits."

But if Chambers is ruthless with his in-basket, he's more cautious with his out-basket and his e-mail trash.

"When I come in in the morning, I check my trash and then delete everything. This lets me make sure I'm not getting rid of something I should have saved. It also reminds me what I did yesterday," he says.

He also saves all his outgoing messages, often using them for future reference, taking content and cutting and pasting to a new message. For this, he says, it's helpful to choose a software package that includes word processing features. After a few months, he archives the messages by transferring them to a zip disk.

To cope with a large number of e-mail messages, Chambers advocates creating mailboxes. Examples might include a folder on conferences or a discussion list folder, containing different sub-folders for particular discussion groups.

He also suggests establishing a folder for spam and junk mail. "A lot of e-mail programs allow you to filter messages," he says. "Any time I get junk mail, I put that address into a special mailbox so any further messages go directly to a spam folder that I don't ever open. Every month or so, I delete them."

Another way to keep control of an e-mail in-box is to filter messages based on who sends them. Mail from your boss could automatically appear in red, for example; messages from a discussion list in another color. And if you transfer to a new e-mail address, you can have messages that are still being sent to the old address forwarded, then appear in a different color so it's easy to identify them and ask the sender to use the new address.

Other ways to differentiate between categories of mail include using a course management software package such as WebCT to divert course-related e-mail to a course site, and setting up different e-mail personalities. A faculty member engaged in national and international communication with colleagues on a particular research topic, for example, could set up a separate address for that purpose. The messages to that e-mail address could be directed to the same place the researcher receives other e-mail, but would be easily recognizable.

There are also steps you can take to help keep other people's e-mail manageable. "It's a matter of etiquette," says Chambers, who is particularly alert to these issues as manager of the University discussion list, UCForum. When you respond to a message, for example, only quote that part of the message to which you're responding, he says. That saves e-mails from getting too large.

Still not sure what to do with those 500 messages in your in-box? Chambers suggests creating a false in-box and transferring all 500 of them there. "In the space of the 15 seconds it takes to do that, you've gone from 500 to 0 messages in your in-box, but you still have the security of knowing they're there if you want them," he says. "Then you can use e-mail management techniques to manage the e-mail that comes in from now on. It's like cleaning off your desk and starting from scratch."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu