When it comes to battling email, the struggle is real

Posted 7/19/19

“The best way to reach me,” I’ve been telling people for years, “is by email.”

Lately, I’m not so sure.

In reality, I love most of what email has to offer. As an introvert and …

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When it comes to battling email, the struggle is real

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“The best way to reach me,” I’ve been telling people for years, “is by email.”

Lately, I’m not so sure.

In reality, I love most of what email has to offer. As an introvert and someone who considers himself somewhat of a techie, it’s naturally my preferred form of communication. Email gives you the ability to ask and answer questions quickly while at the same time avoiding the oft-awkward chitchat that peppers most in-person communication. You can easily start and save important conversations and exchange information with literally the push of a button.

But in the last few months, I’ve found myself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of email in my various inboxes. I have four email addresses — my personal Outlook account, my News + Record work account, a second work account tied to a digital content business I started a couple of years ago, and the Gmail account I’ve had forever (because, well, Google is taking over the planet, and I want “in”) — and I’ve reached the point where I simply can’t keep up.

I’m drowning in email.

Once, I prided myself on being able to keep my inbox “clean,” by ending each day with just a small handful of messages (and occasionally, none) which needed to be read or replied to or dealt with. But lately, I’ve been slaughtered in that battle.

Then came Friday: after spending all day at a newspaper publishers’ meeting in Southern Pines — where we were admonished not to look at our phones or check email — dozens and dozens more messages piled up in my already-crowded inboxes. I got up early Saturday morning to sort through the important ones and realized, to my horror, that the number of messages in my Outlook inbox had ballooned to 1,700 and — this was really a shocker — there were more than 2,000 messages in my main News + Record account.

How many of those messages — dating back to December — are no longer relevant, just need to be deleted, or archived? Probably 95 percent of them. But that still leaves a couple of hundred or so messages that I’d previously flagged as “important,” but not yet managed.

I can’t tell you how many times in the last few of months I’ve dug into those messages, starting at the top of the stack, determined to make a serious dent — only to give up in frustration an hour or so into the job, having barely made a ripple. (And having received, in that same time frame, another 40 or 50 or 80 messages.)

It’s not spam that fills my inboxes. I subscribe to lots of digital content and, being in the news business, am on plenty of subscriber lists. As a result, much of what’s remained in my inbox is, or was, relevant — but at the same time, stress-inducing.

Desperate for relief, I spent part of my Saturday watching online tutorials about ways to streamline (and even automate) the handling of email. Understand that I already have a fairly sophisticated email filing system on my computers. The problem was the volume of legitimate unfiled, unresolved messages that needed to be addressed, and the old, irrelevant messages that needed deleted.

Turns out, one of the best solutions I found was deceptively simple.

First, a rule: if it takes two minutes or less to reply to a message, do so immediately.

For everything else, create a folder system consisting of three files: ACTION, WAIT/UNRESOLVED and ARCHIVE. Any message you don’t respond to immediately, move into the appropriate folder. Then, a few times a day, set aside time to work on — and clear out — the “ACTION” file. Refer to the “WAIT” file a few times a week, and ARCHIVE everything else.

I created a new system for my work account based on that philosophy. Sure, it’s nine folders, not three, but I felt that was out of necessity: four of them deal solely with story ideas for the newspaper (based on timing and priority), and three are “action” folders — one for urgent items to be done today, one for not-so-urgent items to be completed by week’s end, and another for non-urgent items that still require eventual action and consideration.

As I worked on that, my mind hearkened back to the idea of “a place for everything, and everything in its place” — good advice I’ve always had trouble following. I’m still trying to learn that it’s the undone stuff in our lives that causes stress, so if you manage your “undones,” stress should decrease, right?

I hope so. How’s it working? At this writing, I have a grand total of just seven messages from the last five days in my inbox. I consider that a small win. I still have more than old 1,000 messages to deal with in my main work account, but I found that by sorting them by sender, I can “delete” or “archive” large groups of messages easily. That list will be down to the hundreds in a few days, and then, I hope, to nothing.

It’s too early to claim total victory over my email crisis, but feel free to check back with me in a few weeks to ask me how it’s going.

You can even email me.

(And if I don’t respond, well, you’ll know why.)


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