Getting the upper hand on your e-mail

There was an interesting discussion on one of my favorite mail lists about how people organize their e-mail. What kicked it off was an article on "CNN Money" titled Secrets of greatness: How I work.

The somewhat over-exposed Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience, says she gets 700 to 800 messages per day (presumably after de-spamming), and she says she uses the weekends to catch up: "I'll just sit down and do e-mail for 10 to 14 hours straight." Lucky gal.

Also mentioned in the article is Amy Schulman, a partner at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, who claims a measly 600 messages per day. Her strategy is to divide them into four categories and then deal with them immediately: "First are e-mails that I forward to someone else. Next are messages where somebody's giving me information that I need to cascade to somebody else with instructions. Third are the ones that I can read later on an airplane. Fourth are those that require me to respond immediately."

I checked out my own e-mail load. I used to run my own mail server, and in those days it was handling about 2,500 messages per day, but most were spam. I assume the spam is still at a similar level but now I use Everyone.net to host my e-mail services so I only see around 200 to 300 messages per day (a total lightweight, I know, but then, I'm not a highly paid corporate type with ulcers).

Of my 200-plus messages per day about 25% are spam that squeaked past the filters, so I have around 200 real messages to deal with.

I use Outlook, and as I have a lot of e-mail aliases I have a ton of rules that do things such as route messages sent to backspin@gibbs.com, gearhead@gibbs.com and webapps@gibbs.com into my Feedback folder.

Everything personal stays in my in-box, while news@gibbs.com goes into my News folder and pr@gibbs.com goes into my Press folder. I also have a Hell folder where I route messages from the likes of Russian pizza parlors and The University of Phoenix.

Messages from lists get filed into separate folders and finally, personal messages from my consulting clients get routed to individual folders and notification pop-ups are created.

My messaging management strategy is simple: I use Outlook's Search Folder feature to create a virtual folder that lists all unread messages in my in-box and Feedback, News and Press folders, grouped by their folder names. This means that once I have read the message it will disappear from the unread view.

Messages listed in my in-box under the Search folder get read immediately; if they need future attention, I tag them using Outlook's flags. Feedback gets read several times each day, while News and Press get read first thing in the day. Messages that need action items are tagged red, follow-up messages that can be deferred are green, information messages are blue; another Search folder for tagged messages gets reviewed every couple of days.

I tried to use Outlook's Junk Mail facility but it is useless. Since then I've been using the AntiSpam feature in Norton Internet Security, but it isn't very smart so I'm going to go back to using Openfield Software's Ella.

I use Google's Desktop, but it doesn't help me find the messages I need to track down. Desktop's biggest problem is having messages indexed that it can't find because it no longer knows where they are! I think I might go back to Nelson Email Organizer.

So, how do you handle your e-mail? Do you use Outlook, are you hooked on Eudora, or is Pine the only way for you? Does your CrackBerry never leave your hand? How do you file messages? What are you doing about spam? How complex are your mail handling rules?

Log on to Gibbsblog and let me know or, if you must, send me a message at backspin@gibbs.com.

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