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Managing Email

Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > Household Management > Managing Email


October 2003

I think e-mail is beginning to kill me. I'm so sedentary that it literally hurts, because I'm shackled to my computer dealing with e-mail. E-mail has me shooing away my children far more often than I want to, and going to bed so much later than my husband that, well, .... And yet, despite the time I spend, messages get answered too slowly, and my inbox gets fuller and fuller. I can't seem to pare it down because new messages arrive before I've dealt with the old. Most of the e-mail is work-related but some is from people I love who happen to have much more free time than I do.

I'm sure part of the problem is that I am intrinsically distractible and disorganized, and always have to work harder at staying organized than do others. I also have a terrible memory, and tend to hang on to messages to prompt my memory, or as a record of dealings with colleagues. Another factor is that I use a web-based program on a glacially slow network, via a slow dial-up connection. I do this because I want to be able to access all my messages whether I am at home, at work, or on the road, and perhaps you techies will tell me there is another, faster, way to achieve this.

How do the rest of you manage your e-mail so this doesn't happen. Am I the only one for whom it is beginning to be a real struggle? Also, is this perhaps a ''female problem'' or a personality problem? By this I mean: If I weren't trying to be so helpful, so careful in my writing, so polite in my communications etc., would it save me significant time? Anonymous and buried alive


The short form answer to your question is that you need to spend less time on email.

Maybe you can have personal email sent to a home address, work to a work address and set up good filters to get rid of stuff you never needed to see in the first place -- so you can STOP thinking about it all, all the time. (Or, like my husband, get a laptop and wireless internet, so you can always have it with you).

BUT -- given the characteristics you described concerning organization and distractability...I'd suggest doing some research on ADD. You may find that what you read is like a light coming on in your brain. I've been on meds for ADD since May. They work, for me. Email is but one of the problems I couldn't find the solution for, before being treated.

There's a free online screening test you can take, at http://www.amenclinic.com/ac/addtests/. The Amen Clinic (Dr. Amen is the founder, really) is in Fairfield, and specializes in ADD/ADHD evaluation and treatment. If you have medical insurance your provider should also be able to refer you an expert for evaluation. My entire evaluation was a one hour discussion with a specialist ($10 co-pay) with a follow up to see if the meds worked. Since they did, its likely the diagnosis was correct.

More than you wanted to know....but, good luck! Heather


I also feel your pain about email, and I don't even have the problems you do with slow dial-up, disorganization, forgetting things. I simply do NOT have any extra time for all the emails I want to write. The great and awful thing about the computer is that it will save all your messages! But I've made some changes recently that help me to now keep my inbox as close to ''0'' as possible (if you can believe it!) It feels great! You are probably headed for the last straw. At some point, you will decide what you can/can't do and how much time you're willing or not willing to give to email. I would say decide that NOW, and err on the side of spending MINIMUM time on the computer, and simply accept the fact that life is too short to be spent that way. Try to let go of the guilt and obligation that comes with each email message, even if it's from people you love, and simply delete, delete, delete. Don't write back. It's not because you don't love them. They won't hold it against you. They will figure out that you did not have time to write, that your kids, your home, your life required your attentions. (Once you've cut way back, you can let only the most important messages bubble back up.) After a few weeks, months, you'll see that you'll get fewer emails. Then less guilt, less pressure to be on email, more free time for you! Remember also how time-consuming it is to type a short, perfectly crafted email. Try using the phone more; you may have fewer but more meaningful exchanges? When you do email, type very short messages instead of long ones so you don't get into a pattern of exchanging long messages with others. Hope this helps. Resisting email
I use the computer (and email) to escape stresses of everyday life. Once I recognized that I forced myself to take a week long break from the computer. I am now rarely on the computer during the week and if so, only late at night. Yes, there are a number of emails that I do not have the chance to respond to, but if people REALLY want to get ahold of me, they can snail mail or call me.

I now find that I rarely make much time for the computer; I use it when I have time to spare. Kathy


I get a LOT of email, like in the 3 digits daily, all into the same account. For my paid job, email is my inbox. So I need to read it as it comes in. Aside from work, it's a major mode of communication with my family and friends, because my husband and most of my friends are computer nerds on the computer all day like I am, so I need to read that as it arrives too. Then there are various mailing lists I'm on. And of course, there's the Parents Net mail too!

Here's what I do to keep it from taking over:

1. Filters - I have these set up for incoming Parents Net mail so it doesn't come in to my Inbox, also for some kinds of work email. For instance, all the mail from the subscribe and address-change forms go to a separate folder that I only look at every 2-3 days. Anything else predictable (mailing lists, auto emails, etc.) that doesn't have to be read immediately, gets filtered to a separate folder that I read once a day or less often. This way (in theory) my Inbox has only unpredictable, read-now kinds of email.

2. Daily triage - first thing in the morning, I look at all my new mail, *Subjects & Senders Only* and delete as many emails as I can. I use Netscape to read mail and in Netscape you can scroll through all your messages and just visually scan subjects and senders without reading the body of the message. I delete everything I can - all the spam and junk mail - viagra, mortgage loans, X rated stuff, etc. All the usual virus stuff, and automatic messages I don't need to read. Also ads from places like Lands End that I ocassionally read. If I don't have time right now to read it, I delete it. I delete any mail with a blank Subject unless I recognize the sender, also anything with garbage characters in the Subject. I delete mail from mailing lists I'm on if I don't have time to read it right this minute. If I have a bunch of email about eBay stuff (like I'm buying old postcards right now, so sometimes I'll have several of these at once) I'll move all of them to my "Ebay-todo" folder and take care of it later today when I have a spare 15 minutes.

During this triage, I do as much as I can without opening and reading any emails. I make a snap decision to either delete it, or read it now and take action. Usually I spend 10 or 15 minutes on triage. Even after a few days offline I can do a pretty decent triage on 700 emails in 20 or 30 minutes by sorting all my mail by Subject and then mass-deleting.

3. Read it Once - This is my motto. Do not save mail for later. Once I've looked at the body of a mail message I try to take care of it right then and there, no matter what. If it's a long mail from my sister, I read it but if I don't have time right now to answer, I reply back right away to let her know I got it, and then file it away. If it's from a friend inviting us over on Friday at 7pm, I add it to my calendar that's right on my desktop, forward it to my husband, reply back, and file the mail. If it's from a mailing list and there is some action I really want to do (like write my senator, or reply to an Advice Wanted question) I do it now if I have time now, otherwise I delete it. It's tempting to imagine that I will have time to do it "later" but the reality is, if I don't have time right now, I won't have time later either! I can be pretty brutal about deleting Parents Net mail that I really don't have time for. For instance, if I get a complaint, I will usually reply back immediately, but if the person replies back again, I just delete (sometimes without reading.) I also delete without replying to mails like "Are the newsletters on vacation?" if I already sent out five reminders about a vacation and it's on the website too! I only have so much time in the day, so I have to prioritize my time. All work mail gets done this same way too. Take action and file away, even if it's just a note to say I can't get to it for a day or a week or whatever. I try to either reply, take action, or delete it. At the end of this daily process, I am usually left with 5-10 work-related emails every day that will take me a little longer, like a bug that needs fixing or a problem that needs pondering. This is my To Do list for today and what I will be working on.

This daily process takes me anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours depending on how much time I have to devote to it.

4. Deal with it as it comes in I'm on the computer all day, because I'm a computer programmer. Email comes in at the rate of 5-50 an hour but usually I'm working on something else on my desktop. So during the day, I continually scan my Inbox for anything that might be an emergency or need action right away (like "Let's go get coffee" from a co-worker) Otherwise, I try to ignore my mail and stay focussed on the task at hand, and return back every hour or so for a quick triage.

5. Nobody's perfect! Despite my desire to be organized, I'm only human, sigh. The fact is, I often break my own rules. I get sidetracked on a message like this one when I should really be dealing with a work-related problem. (But strike while the iron is hot, I always say. If you've got the passion in you right now, then now's the time to write it!) And I'm really not so great about ignoring new emails that come in as I'm working - it's tempting to quickly delete junk mail as I'm working on something else, or take a break to read something fun.

Finally, I have to confess that I do save things in my Inbox that I think I will eventually get to but never actually do. Right now I have 161 messages in my Inbox *after* having already done my daily triage (and despite having around 200 other folders to file stuff into.) About half of these are over a month old. Some are well over a month old. Sometimes people give up on me after a few months, and the problem "solves" itself and I can delete their email. But sometimes not. My two oldest emails that are still "pending" in my Inbox are both from March 2001 - one's a message from my husband with some digital photos attached that I keep thinking I will put up on my website, and the other is from a friend of a friend saying let's get together. I think she has since moved out of the area but I need to investigate. And I will, really! As soon as I have time! Ginger


I got this As ''The Tip Of the Week''- Don't be a slave to incoming e-mail. Turn off the sound that alerts you to new incoming e-mail, and check your e-mail at scheduled intervals throughout the day. -Anon
Dear Drowning, As a distractible person who also perceives the risk of getting too engaged in e-mailing, here's my advice: Get a schedule going. Work related e-mails should only occupy your time when you are ''at work'' whether you work from home or not, in which case, you're not shooing the kids away because presumably you've set up a time when mom is off limits and the kids have other supervision. If you're getting too many to deal with in work time, then set up an auto reply: ''I'm currently very busy and the best means of contacting me for quick response is to call me between the hours of x and y.'' Meanwhile, you should keep separate work and ''leisure'' e-mail accounts, so that you're not tempted to break the boundaries between the two. As for personal e-mails, I think it's totally okay to reply to a long e-mail by saying, ''I got your e-mail and read it with (pleasure, sorrow, hilarity, whatever). I'm super busy these days but let's keep in touch.'' If you have half and hour to spend on e-mailing, you've got to be efficient! Okay, and here comes the big one. Limit your time on the Parents Network!!! This is a great resource, but seriously, if you took time to read every posting or even skim through every e-mail, you'd be spending too much time on- line. Pick and choose! On the technical front, you may want to look into a faster connection -- you can usually bargain with the rep for a lower price, and DSL or cable can really change your whole feeling about e-mail. We use SBC, which basically isn't great, but there are many options. Former e-mail junkie
I absolutely sympathize! I have a few paying jobs, some volunteer work, various newsletters, some message boards, friends and family... all piled together to clog up my inbox on a daily basis. I use my inbox as my ''to-do'' list, so if a message still sits in there, it means I haven't dealt with it in one way or another.

One thing I've learned over the years is to be much more generous with the ''delete'' button. A strategy I've started using is, if I reply to a message, I know a copy of it will be saved in my ''Sent mail'' folder, which means I don't need the original message anymore, so I can trash it. So I try to respond to every message, even if it's just to say ''okay, thanks.'' Otherwise, I would think that I might need to access this information again some day, so I should keep it.... but NO! Delete it!

Another thing I do is sort my mail into categories: Green for personal mail, blue for this particular job, red for that volunteer job, brown for the other newsletter, etc. I programmed my email client to automatically assign a category to all incoming mail; then every once in a while I'll filter my mail into just that one category. ''Today I'm going to clear out all of my personal mail!'' And I'll go through them one at a time, do what I need to do, and then... DELETE! It's very satisfying to see the list grow smaller and smaller, even if I know there are still hundreds of other ones still waiting for me. But it also helps to prioritize.

I also know that there are many many other options you can use if you want mobility for checking your mail in other places. If getting a faster connection would help you even the slightest bit, DO IT! LMI.net is a local company that has great service and offers a web-based option when you're on the road. As for the ''female problem,'' I really don't think that's a factor, at least not for me (as a woman). I don't spend much time carefully crafting my words, I just have a lot to do. And as we become increasingly dependent on email as our major means of communication, it's just going to become more of a problem, whether or not we're polite communicators.

Hope that helps! Email me if you have any questions.... NAAH! I'm just kidding ;) Jill


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