Conquering a mountain of e-mail


Online advisers help columnist deal with backlog of thousands of messages.

Managing the electronic communication that comes with a strong network and a professional career can be a challenge.

Last week, I found myself feeling paralyzed by the sheer volume of communication that was associated with maintaining my network and servicing my clients.

As I stared at an e-mail inbox filled with messages numbering well into the thousands and thought about how ineffectively I’m managing my online social networks, I knew something had to be done.

So, this week’s reader question is actually the writer’s question: “How does a person manage online communication effectively?”

A powerful use for online networking is to quickly ask questions and easily get different perspectives. In my blog at and through my Twitter account (my user name, or “Twandle,” as I like to call it, is AllisonDGraham) I asked for help.

It was clear that with so many tidbits of communication coming from so many sources, the Information Age can send our brains spinning and leave us feeling overwhelmed.

As blogger Mister IT said, “Believe it or not, when it comes to e-mail, you can over-network yourself, especially if you don’t have a management plan in effect.”

Through conversations, blog posts and Twitter feeds, here are some of the e-mail lessons learned and how I accomplished my mission to take my inbox from thousands to clear in five days.

First, I had to understand that I couldn’t review thousands of e-mails — this realization was liberating. I chose a best before date and moved all prior e-mails to an archive folder. They are there for reference and hopefully I didn’t miss anything too important, but at least they’re out of the way.

Next, I created e-mail filtering rules to make sure all e-subscriptions, blogger feeds, and routine, low-priority e-mails skip the inbox and the mobile e-mail device. These rules have cut down the traffic to my Blackberry significantly, plus it’s easier to scan the feeds folder and pick up any interesting information.

That still left me with a couple of thousand e-mails to process. Rather than sorting by date, I took advice from Margarita Ibbott of Downshifting Professional Organizing Service and sorted by sender. This made it easier to judge the required response and only deal with each person and that often meant each topic, once. It also ensured that the most recent information was being processed.

The advice of another blogger, Lauren Halagarda of the Organization Connection, was very powerful. She suggested that I should stop using my inbox as a to-do list.

Though I’m still prone to the old-fashioned to-do list on paper, I do admit that I tend to flag things and never make the time to find the flags.

Now that my inbox is at zero, she suggested using a folder system that would keep it from getting backlogged again. She recommends: Eliminate, Delegate, Act, Extract, and Archive.

You can visit my blog to see more recommendations from Mister IT, Ibbott and Halagarda.

I’m just thrilled that I took some focused time to clear the inbox. Now, each morning, it feels like I’m starting fresh and I know that nothing was missed.

The key is to keep the inbox from clogging again and to keep it managed over the long term.