By Scott Baughman

Whether you still love it or have grown to hate it, email is a huge part of modern life. Back in the 1990s when email was still new and receiving a message was an amazing thing, I was never one of those people who said the electronic messaging was going to fully replace physical mail or the post office one day.

Fast forward to the new millennium and I’m starting to think it may – just in a few more generations. There are lots of positives to using just email. You don’t have to go to certain place to check it, except perhaps in rare instances where you need to move to the other side of the meadow on the mountain to get a signal for your cell phone.

And you don’t need stamps! This can save you all kinds of expense and in one particular case of embarrassment from my college days, it can also save you the shame of licking the back of those self-adhesive stamps before you remove the backing paper. And then having the clerk look at you like you’re a fool and say, “I think that’s the self-stick kind, you probably don’t want to lick it.”

Have you ever tried to say, “Oh, my bad” with a stamp stuck to your tongue? It’s not easy. But I digress.

Anyway, email is here to stay so this issue’s column is about how to help you get better and more use out of those electronic messages that fly across cyberspace at the rate of billions of bits per minute. It’s crazy how much email the average person gets these days. And if you include your work email, too? Forget about it!

The system is still relatively easy to use and lightning fast for sending messages, rivaled only by text messaging – or SMS – these days. But that’s a topic for a different column.

First and foremost, you need to deal with your cluttered email inbox. Did you know that according to a 2012 research study, fully one-quarter of the average worker’s day is spent checking and sorting email? And that was four years ago! Four long, email-soaked years…

And if you decide to slack off for a day or two, when you come back to your inbox you’ve not only likely missed some key messages from your boss (or grandkids, who let’s face it may as well be your new boss, right?) but you have a huge mess that will take even MORE time to clean up.

The whole process can just make you feel drained and looking at that glowing inbox symbolically stuffed to the gills with junk messages and little time-sinks can be exhausting.

But fear not, dear reader, I’m here to help with four tips on how to handle email and make that invention back into the time-saving exercise for which it was created.

  1. Set aside time to read and respond to email every day.

Don’t keep your email software (or app on your phone or tablet) open all day long. Set aside specific time – an hour, or maybe even 30 minutes – to read and respond to email each day. You can even close the door to your office or turn off your phone to avoid interruptions so you can just focus on that one task. Multitasking is great, but when it comes to email, you need to hunker down and slay the beast. You may even want to craft an automatic reply in your email box itself that says something like “I’m checking email twice a day between noon and 4 p.m. If you need an immediate response at other times, call me at 555-1212.” Or something similar.

  1. Take action immediately.

If you get a message that requires a response or immediate action on your part – do it. Don’t wait until later to clear that up. And don’t let important emails sit in your inbox for days at a time. They sent it via email because they wanted a quick turnaround, so prioritize that. It’ll help you reach “Inbox Zero” a lot sooner if you handle things when they arrive.

  1. Organize your inbox with folders and categories and RULES.

Did you know you can set most standard email programs like Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail or even web-based services like Yahoo! Mail to organize things into folders you created automatically when the email message first arrives? I have folders at work set up for the first and last names of co-workers who regularly email me. I then went to Outlook’s mail rules feature and set up individual rules so that when Joe Smith sends me a message – and the computer sees his name in the “from” box – it automatically moves that email to the folder with Joe’s name on it. Boom, now I know when I have 15 messages versus 15 messages including 4 from my boss!

  1. Unsubscribe from unwanted promotional email lists.

I can’t emphasize enough how great it is to start getting rid of some spam or junk mail not just with the filters, but by actually getting J.C. Penny to stop sending me their email catalog! Sure, sometimes I want the latest specials from the Apple Store or Starwars.com, but signing up for one often ends up putting your email address on yet ANOTHER list! Make good use of those “click here to unsubscribe” links and you’ll cut down on email quickly. And if you can’t find one of those, just fire up the junk filter and add the sender to your list. Can’t figure out the sender? Find a common phrase used in the spam email – like “latest offer” – and add that specific text string to your filter for a very robust junk mail killer.

With these few pointers you can get back on track in your inbox.

Until next time…download complete!