Taming e-mail clutter is easier said than done

* Clear out the file clutter

Everyone in my company recently got a memo from the boss reminding us to clear out our e-mail clutter. We outsource our Exchange operation to a third party. One of the reasons we did this was to reduce the cost of hosting our own e-mail. Outsourcing has helped us control costs, but we noticed our bill creeping upward every month due to increasing storage demands. It turns out that some of us (Cheryl!) lack discipline in maintaining a clean and healthy file system.

Many of us would acknowledge that we’d be lost without e-mail. It’s now a basic means of communication, often surpassing the use of telephones for many businesses. On an average day, I send and receive at least a hundred e-mail messages - and that doesn’t include what my spam filter catches.

With the way I have my Outlook configured, every message I send is automatically saved in a Sent file. I like that, as I sometimes go back to see what I sent, and to whom. The problem is my Sent folder currently has more than 1,100 messages in it, many with space-hogging attachments. I rarely take the time to weed through that folder to eliminate the stuff I know I’ll never need again, like the note to my husband reminding him about our son’s dentist appointment last April.

I don’t think I’m unique in that respect. Be honest, now. When was the last time you cleaned out your Sent folder and properly filed or archived the few messages you’d like to keep? Yeah, I thought so.

Even when I do delete messages, I’m not always good about permanently removing them. For instance, my Deleted folder currently has 735 files sitting in it. I guess I’ve just been too busy to take the five seconds necessary to select the “Empty ‘Deleted Items’ Folder” tool and ditch those unwanted messages for good.

And then there’s the Inbox, the great monolith of unstructured information. My Inbox, with 500-plus messages, holds everything from vital project information to jokes from friends that are just too funny to delete (the jokes, not the friends). I resist moving information from my Inbox to personal folders, even though I have a dozen or so folders just waiting for themed content to be dropped into them. My warped way of thinking tells me that if something is still in my Inbox, I will take care of it some day. Never mind that some messages are more than a year old. (If e-mail messages were like food, the contents of my Inbox would have gone green and moldy long ago.)

Now you know my dirty little secrets about e-mail. It’s no wonder the boss had to remind me to clean my clutter to help hold the line on our growing monthly fees. The funny thing is the boss has kept every e-mail she has ever sent or received. In her life. No kidding. She thinks of e-mail as a permanent record of life. Her motto is, “If it’s not in e-mail, it didn’t happen.”

So, with clutter queens like us around, you’d think the storage companies would love us. Our Exchange provider, which bills by the megabyte, certainly does! But life shouldn’t be like this, and a bit of discipline would help us save money and find our important messages more easily. And thus I will take the “E-mail Efficiency Pledge” today. Feel free to forward my pledge to your colleagues whose e-mail habits also suffer from illusions of grandeur. (Oh, what the heck! Forward it to everyone you know.)

“On my honor, I will try to be a more responsible e-mail user. I will do so by:

* Treating my Inbox with respect - It will no longer be the junk drawer of my electronic life. I will read the mail promptly, act upon what I can promptly, and mark other messages for follow-up before filing them in appropriate folders. I will adhere to my company’s policy on retention of electronic records and file or delete messages as appropriate.

* Establishing personal folders and storing messages off-line - I will acknowledge that it’s OK to keep all the messages I want, as long as they go to my hard disk and don’t ring up storage charges on the server.

* Using the Delete tool at least once a week - I might even feel confident enough to set my deleted items to disappear automatically when I exit e-mail.

* Resisting the temptation to copy everyone in my high school yearbook on useless messages - It’s fun to share jokes, but I really don’t need to send them to all the ladies in my mother’s bridge club.

* Using my company e-mail for company business only - If I want to run my daughter’s soccer team via e-mail, I’ll set up a Yahoo account to do so.”

Confidential to my readers: If you see yourself in this article, send me e-mail and we’ll start our own “Self Help for the E-mail Addicted” society.

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