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Posted: February 09, 2012

The taming of the inbox monster

Use these tips to avoid email OCD

Dawn Bjork Buzbee

Microsoft research indicates the average Outlook user reads 1,800 emails and deletes an average of 1,500 emails per month. Other sources cite that many corporate email users handle more than 200 messages a day. How do you manage this volume of messages without coming down with email OCD, that is, the temptation to constantly check your email?

Microsoft Outlook, and other email programs, are tools to help you manage not only your email but also your calendar, contacts, and tasks. As such, it is at the center of not only your communications but also your time management. To get the most out of Outlook for handling your incoming email, let's look at some basic principles.

(Note: although some of the features mentioned are specific to Outlook, most of these ideas can help you manage your email and time regardless of the program you use).

Establish a Routine

Every time you move away from your work to check email, you lose focus and productivity. When should you check email? There are a variety of viewpoints, although most time management and productivity experts agree that one of the keys is to have a schedule or plan on how and when you handle your email.

One approach is to check your messages first thing in the morning, sometime around lunch, and then near the end of your work day. Some people shut down Outlook during the other periods in their day just to avoid the temptation. You may find that a different strategy works better for you. Most important is to set a routine you can follow through on so incoming email stops being a big distraction and energy drain.

Tame Your Inbox with the Four D's. When reading your email, decide whether to:

• Delete it. If it isn't important, delete it immediately.
• Do it (respond, file, call, etc.). If it can be done in two minutes or less, do it.
• Delegate it (forward). If it isn't for you or if you can, delegate (forward) it.
• Defer it (using color categories and flags) for a second review in your task list. If you need to do it, but it takes longer than two minutes (including reading) defer or hold off on it.

Choose Your Response

Has this ever happened to you-you get a phone call from someone asking if you received the email they just sent out 15 minutes ago? Apparently, they are waiting impatiently in front of their computer expecting you to respond immediately regardless of what you may be doing at the time. Maybe they should have just called you at the start!

Still, some messages may require a quick response even if you have limited time while others can wait.

• Acknowledge messages that require a more extensive response. If you are too busy to respond with a full answer right away, let the sender know you are looking into the issue and will respond by a certain time or date. Flag the message to do later.

• Disable automatic alerts. Turn off automatic sounds and visual alerts so you are not so easily pulled back into your Inbox every time a new message arrives. Unless you are working with some critical deadlines requiring email communication or are pressed to respond ASAP, stick with your chosen schedule for checking and responding to your messages.

Eliminate the Clutter in Your Inbox

In addition to initiating fewer email messages, look at other ways to reduce the messages in your Inbox:

• Publish frequently requested information on your company website and make sure the website is quickly updated when changes occur.

• When you are sending out informational messages that do not require feedback, discourage unnecessary responses by using formal language and begin and end messages with No Reply Needed or FYI Only.

• Unsubscribe to electronic newsletters you don't read and move others out of your Inbox to folders for reading during travel or other down times. Don't unsubscribe to mailings you never initiated or you may further open the flow of junk mail.

• If you are running Outlook on Microsoft Exchange, setup the Out of Office Assistant or Automatic Replies features to respond to incoming messages when you are not available to answer your email. Clearly state your response time, when you will return, and who can be contacted during your absence.

Apply these best practices and other time management strategies to free you up from your Inbox.
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Dawn Bjork Buzbee is The Software Pro® and a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) as well as a certified Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) Master Instructor, certified Microsoft Applications Specialist (MCAS) Instructor, and a certified Microsoft Office expert. Dawn shares smart and easy ways to effectively use software through her work as a speaker, trainer, consultant, and author of 6 books. Discover more software tips, tricks, tactics, and techniques at www.SoftwarePro.com . Contact Dawn at Dawn@SoftwarePro.com  or (303) 699-6868.

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