5 tricks to keep your inbox from overwhelming you.

By Susan Gregory Thomas
Updated August 11, 2004
Andrew Woffinden

E-mail maintenance is often a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't scenario. Either you're wasting half the day trying to control the deluge by responding to every message, or you're ignoring your in box until it swells like a municipal landfill. Sorting and replying techniques are the keys to staying ahead.

  • Use your e-mail program's preview feature, if it has one. This will let you peek at the first few lines of a message via a separate window, so you won't have to open an e-mail to read it and you can delete junk instantly. This reduces your chances of opening a message with a virus attached.

  • Make use of your e-mail program's drafts folder, a temporary holding bin for messages. "If I know I need to respond to an e-mail but don't have the time or the inclination to do so right away, I usually click on Reply or Reply All and then just save it in my drafts folder," offers Walter S. Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal's personal-technology columnist. "Then I devote a block of time to working my way through the drafts, composing the replies, and sending them off." It's wise to set aside a specific time each day for this task.

  • Set up folders in your e-mail program. This will help to organize the mess both visually and logically. From your inbox, create folders for projects (book club, kitchen renovation, camping trip) or for people with whom you regularly correspond (siblings, friends, colleagues). Move mail you want to keep into the appropriate folders as a record of your continuing correspondence. Important information won't get lost amid the clutter or be deleted automatically by your program.

  • Trash as you read―advertisements, chitchat, notices you've read. But don't overdump: E-mail can be a great archiving device. "I regard e-mail as a valuable database, over time, of people and issues and dates," says Mossberg. For example, if a high school chum e-mailed you an old friend's phone number a year ago and you forgot to jot it down, you can find it easily if you've saved the message. Or you may want to get in touch with that headhunter who sent you a feeler back when you loved your job. Just be sure to keep the important e-mail in folders on your hard drive.

  • Consolidate all your mail into one inbox. Many people use several e-mail services: the work account, the one at home, another used only for making purchases. If you travel a lot or need to see all your accounts at once, you can. Most e-mail programs will let you send and receive messages from all your accounts. Visit your mail's help section to find out how to set this up.