What To Do With It All: Treating E-mail As Correspondence

As a productivity consultant, I routinely hear, “But I just don’t know what to do with it all.”  This, of course, is in response to the vast volume of e-mail, texts and tweets people receive. As an example of how bad it’s getting, I recently met with a social networking maven who confessed to having 10 .pst files just to keep her Outlook from crashing!
Clearly, e-mail and its progeny have gotten out of control and this problem will only get worse as social media continues to develop. What are we mere mortals to do? Wishing it away won’t work. Ignoring it won’t work. Hoping for a technology-based solution only seems to exacerbate the problem. So, it’s back to the drawing board, as well as trip to the past, to craft an effective solution.

E-mail, et al, is correspondence; treat it as such

All these methods of electronic communication are ways to correspond. Simple enough really. However, getting people to treat them as such is more about changing perspectives and behaviors than it is about better understanding how these electronic methods work. Here are a few points to consider by way of explanation:

Inbox used as a depository rather than a transitory collection point

I routinely work with individuals who have Inboxes containing 15,000-25,000 e-mails! Back in the technological Dark Ages (i.e., pre-e-mail), it was literally impossible to even have a 100 things in your physical inbox. How did this come to be?

People are afraid to delete things “in case they need them.” This is a downward spiral once it starts because it gets easier and easier to just leave everything in the Inbox instead of making decisions about the disposition of these items. Consequently, the Inbox becomes the hall closet into which all things go. The problem is that the Inbox was never designed for this use and there are only marginally effective methods for making it work this way (sorting, searching, etc.).

Improper Inbox setup

Out-of-the-box e-mail setups generally promote this depository behavior. A terrific example of this is the Reading Pane in Microsoft Outlook. Many people use Reading Pane to review e-mail. However, only viewing e-mails without actually opening them begins the process of letting it compost at the bottom of the Inbox! Moreover, most programs are set to return you to the Inbox after dispensing with a particular e-mail, so what’s the point of opening it in the first place? This function, as well as the others listed below, contributes to depository behaviors by allowing people to passively collect e-mail in the Inbox instead of processing it along the way.

Failure to develop an adequate electronic filing system

Most people haven’t developed an effective filing architecture for easy location and retrieval of their e-mail. This further promotes the Inbox as a place to store things. Even those intrepid few who develop a folder system in the Inbox suffer from the related problem of overloading their application?s ability to effectively and efficiently manage the application itself which ultimately causes the program (like Outlook) to slow down or corrupt and crash.

Reboot: E-mail as correspondence

Sit back for a moment and consider e-mail and all the other forms of communication that have developed over the last 25 years – voice mail, texting, tweeting, etc. They are all forms of correspondence; ways to pass information back and forth. Acknowledging this fact provides the answer about what to do next. Process it! Get it out the Inbox!

As a side note, identifying these items as correspondence will eliminate overload because you begin to ask yourself whether any particular e-mail, text or tweet is truly valuable ? both on the send and on the receive side. As you re-orient your perspective about these forms of communication, the quantity you send (and, hopefully, receive) will go down and the quality will go up.

But let’s get back to the point – processing e-mail as correspondence. To effectively process e-mail, you will need three things:

  • Proper setup of your Inbox for batch processing.
  • A way to categorize each e-mail.
  • An action to associate with each categorized e-mail.

Setting up your Inbox to batch process e-mail

There are three key changes to your Inbox settings that will allow you to batch process your e-mail. (Note, this segment assumes you are using Microsoft Outlook 2003 or 2007. However, other e-mail programs contain similar settings.)

  1. Turn off the Reading Pane. View, Reading Pane, Off.
  2. Turn off Show-In-Groups. View, Arrange by, uncheck Show In Groups.
  3. Set to Open Next Item. Tools, Options, E-mail Options, select Open Next Item in top drop down for “After moving or deleting an open item.”

Now, your e-mail will appear in the Inbox as a list of things to process. Open the top one and begin processing based on the categories in the next paragraph.

Categories of correspondence

Treating e-mail as correspondence means it can be processed in the same fashion as other types of correspondence. I have only discovered five categories for all the correspondence that we receive – physically and electronically:

  1. Trash. Items that need to be thrown away/deleted.
  2. Archive. Items that need to be stored for possible future retrieval.
  3. Reference. Items we routinely refer to while accomplishing our work.
  4. Reading. Professional reading materials to stay abreast in our field.
  5. Work. Things that need to get done.

Note that the first three categories are all “closed” – nothing further needs to be done with them. The latter two categories are “open” – something needs to be done with them before they become closed.


That’s it. Really. The only things you need to be willing to do are pause briefly on each item and decide what it is. Once you categorized it, you know what to do with it. If not, keep reading!

Actions associated with categories

The final step in processing your e-mail (and other electronic and physical correspondence) is doing something with it so it leaves your Inbox. Each category has an associated action, as follows:

  1. Trash. Throw it away or delete it.
  2. Archive. File it away in a long-term storage area.
  3. Reference. Put it away in an easily-accessed storage area.
  4. Reading. Pile it away so you can grab one or two at time to read.
  5. Work. Develop or adopt a method of managing the work contained in your e-mail.

Processing your e-mail is fairly straight forward once you treat it as correspondence. Categorizing each item and applying the associated action effectively processes 80% of your e-mail (the first four categories), leaving you only the open Work correspondence with which to contend. Those items can be processed as you have always processed correspondence containing Work or you can adopt a more technologically-integrated method.

The cliff hanger here is which method do you choose? QuietSpacing(tm) is one method, though there are others out there. I’ll leave that decision to you.

Also, as an additional note on processing Archive and Reference items, you can either build out a folder/sub-folder system in Outlook or save e-mails (and corresponding attachments) as a file on your local or network storage drive for other documents. (File, Save as, select Save as type: Outlook message format (*.msg).)

Once Processing, Always Processing

E-mail is simply a form of correspondence. Treat it as such. Until you re-align your thinking to view it this way, it will be difficult to effectively and efficiently manage it. However, once you adopt that perspective, the processing of e-mail and its brethren becomes much easier.









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