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Less is more

Taming your e-mail inbox


Roman Lubynsky is a technology
consultant based in Boston. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he has an MS in Management of Technology from MIT.

Roman can be reached at

The most universally used function on PCs is e-mail. A recent study found that there are more than 1 billion e-mail users worldwide and that some 40 billion e-mails are sent each day. Even if half of them are considered to be Spam, that’s a lot of messages. And the numbers continue to increase each year. Most people I talk to have effective spam filtering, but still face a growing struggle to get the flood of mail under control.

Recently a well-known Internet businessman declared “E-mail Bankruptcy.” Frustrated with the thousands of backlogged messages in his inbox, he finally just deleted them all and sent out a message to everyone saying that he was sorry, but if someone really needed a reply they’d need to send a fresh note. While this is one way to start off with a clean slate, there may be alternatives to resorting to the equivalent of nuclear winter.

I, too, found my old systems of managing e-mail were lacking and realized that I needed a new strategy. I came up with a simple system that works well. Although I use Microsoft Outlook, these methods should work for most any e-mail client.

Lose the folder tree

First off, get rid of the complex folder tree that most people have built for storing messages. I can sympathize, as over the years I had constructed an elaborate (and enormous) hierarchy of folders within Outlook. But I found that as the number of folders grew, so did the complexity involved in filing. It took a bit of thinking and multiple steps to select the proper spot to either file away an e-mail or delete it. So I would put off filing until my inbox was stuffed with hundreds of messages and nearly unmanageable, and then end up spending an entire evening cleaning up.

Plus, there would usually be a surprise in there: An important message I’d received a week or two ago that had set aside, then forgotten as it scrolled off the window, and now the action or response was late. Raise your hands now—how many of you have used the “gee, my spam filter ate your message and I just found it” line as you apologetically scrambled to save face?

Search has improved tremendously, so use that power to combat e-mail bloat. I’ve replaced my dozens of Outlook storage folders with just a few and use search to rapidly find the messages I need. The three main folders are simply labeled REPLY, HOLD and FILE. As I go through new mail in my inbox, I immediately do one of five things: If it is junk, I delete it. If it is informational, but no further action is required, I move it to FILE. If I reply immediately, then I move the original to FILE. If a reply is needed but I can’t respond right away, I move it to REPLY. If it is important and doesn’t require a reply, but may need to be referred to again soon, I move it to HOLD.

I will admit that I do have two or three additional folders for the most important work projects I have currently active; these are essentially treated as the FILE folder. But resist the urge to create more folders—they are your enemy. You can further cut down on what comes into your inbox by creating rules for recurring newsletters and other unimportant traffic to automatically move them to FILE.

To be honest, I can’t claim my inbox is now empty, but I rarely have more than a dozen items hanging about. I have to say it feels good—and I didn’t have to declare e-mail bankruptcy to get there.

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