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From the Editors' Association of Canada
Managing Millions of Messages
By Susan Bridges
How can you avoid drowning in an E-mail tidal wave? I benefit from
the 300-400 messages I receive daily while running my busy office
- and if you follow my advice, you can manage your own daily deluge,
wringing the value out of it with time left to apply all you've
My advice will work with recent E-mail software. If you have old software, upgrade - the program should do much of your work for you. Read your help file to learn how to create the folders and mail filters I describe below.
The first principle of successful E-list participation is to know
why you are subscribing: what you want from this investment and
time and energy. Is the list living up to expectations? If not,
The next principle is to get organized. Many E-lists let you choose
between receiving individual messages and multiple-message "digests."
The first impulse is to subscribe to digests; fewer E-mails arrive
and they seem more manageable. But you can't organize them and they're
time-consuming to review. I've deleted dozens without opening them.
Go for individual messages that can be grouped, ranked, and selectively
Use your software to sort and categorize your mail before you even
1) Make a folder for each E-list. Create mail filters to direct
incoming E-mail to the correct folders. With E-list messages automatically
filed away, your inbox folder will contain only urgent messages
and those addressed to you personally - a few each day if you're
2) Also create mail filters based on the subject line of incoming E-mail. Entire categories that don't meet your needs can be trashed. (That's where I send CHAT). Many E-lists become less fearsome once you've narrowed your focus. Even E-lists that don't use keyword tags can be filtered by subject once you get to know them.
Don't process E-list E-mail more than once or twice a day (but
check your inbox as often as you like, of course). Schedule a half-hour
to deal with it, so that you won't feel it's taking over your life.
I do it in the afternoon when I'm less productive.
1) Inbox first. Try to empty it every time. Once you've read a
message, delete it, or if it's too important, file it in an electronic
folder (I have one called "Mom").
2) One by one, go into the other folders with new mail. Before
reading any messages, group them by topic (click the "Subject"
bar at the column head). Scroll to find subjects you don't want
to read. Twenty-seven messages on "BIZ: Y2K Compliance"?
Select them all using the shift key and down arrow, and press delete
once to send them to oblivion (unless you're fascinated, of course).
3) Once you've done this review, you're left with messages that might interest you, ordered by subject. Next, look at the first message in the first subject. If it's enthralling, peruse any and all messages in that group. If not, trash all related E-mail immediately.
4) After reading a message, boon or bane, delete it at once! It
may seem valuable, but don't fall for "I might need this sometime."
That's how closets get crowded.
1) Should you chime in or just lurk? I advise caution about contributing
you contributing your two cents' worth to list subscribers, particularly
if you're not a subject expert. Make sure you say something of value
to that community of subscribers.
2) When to submit a query? I recommend silence until you're familiar
with the list; then you'll avoid gaffes like raising off-limits
topics. Make questions brief, identify yourself fully, and state
why you need the information. Basic netiquette almost always generates
3) If it's 1:00 a.m. on a deadline and you don't know how you'll ever find the answer to your obscure question about 16th-century lute tablature, somebody, perhaps thousands of miles away (perhaps in an earlier time-zone!) may well weigh in as the world's expert. Contact your expert off-list to continue your discussion. (Start by verifying your new source's identity and qualifications. E-mail correspondence can be misleading.)
If you will be away for more than a day or two, postpone subscriptions
until you return. Otherwise, you may be swamped by a thousand e-mails
when next you sign on - not a happy thought. You will never receive
what you have missed, but most lists have archives you can peruse
if you feel you must get caught up.
This system may break down if you aren't able to maintain your E-mail frequently.
When very busy, I've had to delete batches that I had no time to read. However, with some preparation and self-discipline, E-lists become invaluable tools that can reduce research time dramatically and put you in touch with globe-spanning networks of knowledgeable people. Considering these benefits, how can you afford not to take the plunge?
Published in Sources, Number 44, Summer 1999.