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Emails piling up? It's time to 'be ruthless'

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

I'll admit it, I'm an email hoarder, possessed by an unrealistic fear that I will need to refer to my old emails again, “someday.”

But someday rarely (and usually never) comes. Nonetheless, that's how I came to acquire 4,197 emails in my inbox.

Wondering how to manage this rather unmanageable habit, I happened to read “Unload Email Overload” (Balboa Press, 2012) by Bob O'Hare, a coach who specializes in organization skills, and was thereby inspired to change my habits. Perhaps you will find O'Hare's suggestions helpful, too. Having done his research, O'Hare says email overload results in a host of bad outcomes: lost productivity, loss of priority focus, less creative thinking and a negative impact on work/life balance.

What email habits should we change? One of O'Hare's key principles is to “delete aggressively.” In fact, O'Hare says the goal is to completely empty your inbox each day! How, I wondered, can I possibly do that? The answer, says O'Hare, is to “be ruthless.”

So I decided to try it out, and I ruthlessly deleted 3,203 emails, leaving me with a mere and manageable 994. O'Hare would probably cluck his tongue at me, but I am proud of the accomplishment.

Another of O'Hare's email-management recommendations is to create a “Read It Later” file, and you certainly know what kind of correspondence goes in there. Mostly junk, but hey, we like to read junk. Once you've established your “Read It Later” file, you can dash through that pile of unimportant emails when you have the time and inclination, then quickly dispose of them.

I found the “Read It Later” idea to be not only a time saver but also an easy-to-locate occasional respite from the normal intensity of the work day.

O'Hare recommends reading emails only two or three times a day. My schedule is far too erratic to adhere to that recommendation. If you have a more predictable life, however, this recommendation might be one to try.

Another simple but worthwhile email suggestion is to write a meaningful subject line. I have often been guilty of lazy subject-line writing, with my favorites being “Touching Base,” “Checking In” and — laziest of all — “hi.” Now that I am a reformed email writer, I am writing more pointed subject lines such as “Can we meet this Friday at 10?” or “Need your input on Client X today.” I have found that I am getting better email responses as a result of better subject lines.

O'Hare's best suggestion of all, in my opinion, is to sometimes skip sending an email entirely and instead, have a face-to-face conversation or a phone conversation. Let's face it, we have all probably gotten ourselves in hot water at least once by firing off a thoughtlessly worded email or by creating a cycle of miscommunication by not writing with clarity. Having a verbal dialog can avert many of those issues, and it brings the added benefit of strengthening our relationships with others.

So, now that I have learned through proper management of emails to save time, be more creative, prioritize better and have better work/life balance, for my next challenge, I just might tackle organizing my three enormous file cabinets.

Chris Posti, president of Posti & Associates in Pittsburgh, is author of “The Shortest Distance between You and Your New Job,” available on Amazon.com. Email your questions to her at chris@postiinc.com.

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