Write drafts for important emails, don't spend all day filing them, and strive for Inbox Zero if you can.

Controlling email overload

At work, you probably don't have any control over your email software, or over the mass of inbound emails you get each day. I can only offer a few tips, most of them based on the Getting Things Done email methodology, to help manage your emails.

Don't go overboard with folders and filing.

Skill at email—other than writing clearly, briefly, and politely—is not highly prized. Don't try to be the best at email. Don't spend time, even if it's just a few seconds per email, filing your emails into project-specific folders unless you really can't manage your work any other way. You don't have to be able to find things that quickly. People will forgive you if you can't dig up really old emails on demand, because they can't either.

Strive for Inbox Zero.

While you shouldn't spend too much time filing your mail for posterity, it is very helpful to keep your current messages, those that you have to refer to or reply to, organized intelligently for the brief time you need to refer to them. You can use flags, folders, categories, or tags (depending on what your email system supports) to sort the emails you currently need into the following categories:

The most important thing is to try to keep your inbox empty, or nearly empty, to help separate what is new and must be acted on from what is old and noncurrent. This is a key tenet of Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero system, which is itself heavily indebted to Getting Things Done.

Just move everything to single archive folder and rely on search to find old emails and attachments when you need them. If you have hundreds of emails in your inbox, just declare "email bankruptcy" and move them all to your archive folder. You aren't deleting anything, just moving them off your radar screen. If something is really important, the sender will ping you again about it.

Writing emails

An email is really a to-do item that you are sending to its recipients. Emails take time to read, to understand, to reply to, and to file or delete. Think of that each time you are writing one, and consider whether your audience really needs to take time out of their day to read it.

Don't write emails.

Help everyone in your office manage email overload by only using email when it is the most appropriate mode of communication. Don't write unnecessary messages. If an email exchanges goes back and forth three times, pick up the phone and call the person.

Write short, polite emails.

Try to keep your emails brief, to the point, and unfailingly polite. Everyone will appreciate it.

Write drafts for your important emails.

Some emails, like those accompanying client deliverables, are really important or sensitive. Consider writing a draft of them outside your email client—say, in your @Drafts folder—to help make sure you get your wording right, and that you don't click "send" before you should.