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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

Keeping Your Head Above the E-mail Waters*

A recent Washington Post story appearing in the Dallas Morning news, highlighted the concept of "e-mail bankruptcy" as some people's solution to an overwhelming amount of e-mail in their inbox. E-mail bankruptcy is when you just erase everything in your inbox and start over. You no longer owe anybody a reply and you start with a fresh slate. The question is, how long until you are again facing e-mail bankruptcy? As one who relies on e-mail on a daily basis, I can understand how overwhelming it can be to face a list of unread messages, however, the best strategy with e-mail, as with finances, is to manage your activity so that you don't get to the point where bankruptcy is your only option.

While it may be possible to survive in the modern world without e-mail, it's become expected that everyone has an e-mail address and that they'll answer your e-mail as soon as they get it. The reality is that expectations should vary depending upon the circles of relationship associated with a particular e-mail message. I expect to get a reply from someone else in my office. I don't necessarily expect to get a reply from any number of public figures who may have made themselves accessible via e-mail. Likewise, I am more likely to immediately answer someone who is in a close circle of association, such as an officemate or professional colleague.

I have to admit that there have been times when I've grown bored or just not kept up with mailing list traffic. In these cases, I've either "cleared the account" and started reading the current threads, or unsubscribed and gone my merry way. The nice thing about mailing lists is that a response is not expected (that's less for you to owe, e-mail-wise.) The way I've been able to deal with those messages is by segregating them from my other e-mail messages.

With these ideas in mind and a bit of organization, it's possible to keep e-mail from overwhelming your life and I offer these tips that may help anyone who may be feeling the weight of a large inbox.

  • You don't have to read or answer every e-mail. I think it's polite to answer or at least acknowledge communication from others, but I prioritize my responses. If the e-mail comes from someone with which I have an established professional relationship, I will always try to respond in an appropriate time frame (my personal standard is within a day.) However, if I receive an e-mail with a subject heading that does not interest me and from a source I don't recognize, I'm likely to delete it without a response (and if I can tell it's spam, I'll delete it without opening it.)
  • A little organization will go a long way. Use your e-mail filter rules to automatically put mailing list subscription messages and such into their own folder. This allows you to browse such messages and read only the ones which are of interest to you. Most e-mail systems now attempt to identify spam and allow you to use your filter rules to place them in a special folder for browsing (to catch any false positives) and deletion so they don't clutter your inbox.
  • Don't oversubscribe yourself. Back when e-mail and Listserv mailing lists were a new phenomenon, it was common for those new to the technology to subscribe to every list that piqued their interest, resulting in a flood of e-mail. Even these days, it's possible to have too many sources of e-mail. If you are judicious with your subscriptions, then the e-mail you receive will more closely match your interests and you'll be less likely to ignore it.
  • Respond appropriately. Don't write a 5-paragraph missive when a 5-word reply will do. Likewise, if someone is requesting information from you, be as precise and complete as possible in order to cut down on follow-up e-mail exchanges.
  • Stay current. If you ignore your e-mail, then you'll be putting yourself on the road to certain e-mail bankruptcy. Applying the tips above can help make e-mail a much more manageable and useful medium, without it overwhelming your time.
  • Set appropriate expectations. Don't tell someone to send you an e-mail if you know you won't have time to respond. Use the communications medium with which you are most comfortable. If that's the telephone, then give out your phone number instead (and as tempting as it is, don't use e-mail to avoid people.)

If you follow these tips, then you are less likely to be on the road to e-mail bankruptcy. One of the most powerful tools you have in most e-mail clients is the ability to set up filters and to group e-mail into folders. I've used this technique for many years and it takes quite a bit of the pressure off of the inbox and makes it much easier to prioritize which messages will receive your more immediate attention. With a little preparation, you don't have to dread your inbox every morning.

*  This article is an expansion of a UNT News item release on June 5 which was picked up by the Denton Record Chronicle in their June 8 edition.


Originally published, June 2007 -- Please note that information published in Benchmarks Online is likely to degrade over time, especially links to various Websites. To make sure you have the most current information on a specific topic, it may be best to search the UNT Website - . You can also search Benchmarks Online - as well as consult the UNT Helpdesk - Questions and comments should be directed to


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