By Paul Engleman 
The Rotarian - April 2009 

Unless you are one of the few blithe souls who get through life without e-mail, you may sometimes wonder how you managed to communicate with friends and co-workers before it was invented. Perhaps you also wonder how you ended up buried in the stuff. Many of us are up to our virtual necks in e-mail, but as it turns out, digging out is not that big of a task - as long as you're not a procrastinator and you have a healthy willingness to throw things away.


As with any technological convenience, "e-mail can easily become the tail wagging the dog," says Sander Marcus, a psychologist and member of the Rotary Club of Chicago-Near South, Illinois, USA. "It can be a kind of fun busy work, and doing busy work can make you feel as if you're doing something important." But if you find that you spend all your time answering e-mails, he has a question for you: Is e-mail something that's helping you get your work done, or is it getting in the way of it?

"E-mail is a fabulous medium," says David Allen, author of the best-selling book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. But when it comes to reading and responding to messages, most of us are in "emergency scanning mode" - searching through on-screen queues to find what's critical right now. Because of the way most e-mail programs are structured, people think they should keep messages in their inbox. "Many people make the mistake of using their inbox as a filing system," he says. "What they're doing, basically, is avoiding decisions."

Try thinking of e-mail as you do the phone. "You don't leave 400 messages on your answering machine," Allen notes. "So why would you leave 400 messages in your e-mail inbox?"

Dubbed the "oracle of organization" by Time magazine, Allen recommends a simple filing system. "Anything that you can deal with in less than two minutes - if you're ever going to do it at all - should be done the first time you see it," he says. The rest of your e-mails fall into two categories: those that require more than two minutes and those that represent something you're waiting on from others. Allen suggests that you simply create two separate folders - "action" and "waiting for" - and move the messages into them. The catch? You have to remember to check those folders. If you do, you will stay current and have a virtual inbox that's virtually empty.

Process your e-mail at the time of day when your energy is lowest, he adds. "If your best thinking is in the morning, that is not the time to be dealing with your e-mail."

Marcus, who specializes in career counseling at the Illinois Institute of Technology, offers some practical tips for using e-mail effectively. Before you even hit "compose new," figure out whether you could simply have a face-to-face conversation instead. "E-mail enables you to communicate with a lot of people in a significant way," he says. "But it also can be very isolating."

When you do send an e-mail, he advises, do your correspondent a favor and give it a precise subject line. Make sure your missive is succinct ("You want people to get the gist of the message without having to read very much") and well written ("People can get into trouble when they don't edit their e-mails enough - not just for spelling and grammar, but for content. Make sure you are saying what you want to say").

Tone is also important. Marcus prefers a friendly style over a too-formal one, but he cautions against trying to be funny "unless you really know how to be funny. In our society, humor can have a hostile aspect to it - most is at someone's expense." Another tip: Remember that any e-mail can be forwarded. "The Internet is not private," he notes. "My rule of thumb: If I can picture what I've written on the front page of the daily newspaper, then I'm reasonably sure it's OK to send."

Obsessively monitoring your e-mail is another pitfall of the technological age. But what constitutes obsessive behavior? If you feel like you're checking your messages too often, Marcus says, you probably are. He advises that you schedule specific times to check your inbox, ideally no more than two or three times a day.

Ultimately, whatever problems the technology has created are offset by its advantages, Marcus says. "The potential for the world of Rotary to connect has been enhanced a thousand times by the Internet and e-mail. The ability to immediately contact other Rotarians is incredibly useful."