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Managing Millions of Messages
by Susan Bridges
BDK Communication

Electronic mailing lists, or listservs, can bring an instant sense of community and a speedy support network to an isolated professional or sole proprietor. If you're just starting out, you may find invaluable mentorship as you read postings from and ask questions of experts in your field.

But how to avoid drowning in an e-mail tidal wave? I benefit from 300-400 messages each day in addition to running my busy office -- and if you follow my advice, you can manage your own daily deluge, wringing the value out it with time left to benefit from all you've learned.

My advice will work with recent e-mail software. If you have old software, upgrade -- it will do much of your work for you. Read your help file to learn how to create folders and mail filters as discussed below.

The first principle of successful listserv participation is to know why you are subscribing -- what do you want from this investment of time and energy? Is it living up to expectations? If not -- unsubscribe.

Many listservs let you choose between receiving individual messages and multiple-message digests. The first impulse is to subscribe to digests; fewer e-mails arrive and it seems more manageable. But you can't organize digests. They're time-consuming to read, and I've deleted dozens without opening them. Go for the individual messages.

Print the listserv's rules. Some have agreed-upon keywords to use in the subject line (e.g., BIZ, CHAT, QUERY). These will help you to get organized.

Use your software to get your mail sorted and categorized before you even see it:
1) Make a folder for each listserv. Create mail filters to direct incoming listserv e-mail to the correct folders. With these instantly filed away, your inbox itself will contain only urgent messages and those addressed to you personally -- a few each day if you're like me.
2) Also create filters based on the subject line of incoming e-mail. Entire categories that don't support your goals can be trashed. (That's where I send CHAT.) Many listservs become smaller once you've focused in like this. Even listservs that don't use keyword tags can be filtered by subject once you get to know them.

Don't process listserv e-mail more than once or twice a day (but check your inbox as often as you like, of course!). Schedule a half-hour per day to deal with it. (I do it in the afternoon when I'm not so productive anyway.) Then you won't feel it's taking over your life.
1) Inbox first. Try to empty it every time, leaving only "reminder" messages that you haven't answered yet. Once you've read e-mail, it should be deleted, or if it's too important, file it in an electronic folder (I have one called "Mom"). Don't let it build up in your inbox.

2) One by one, go into other folders with new mail. Before reading any messages, sort by subject (usually by clicking the "Subject" bar at the column head). Scroll down to find subjects you don't want to read. Twenty-seven messages on "BIZ: Y2K Compliance"? Select them all at once using the shift key and down-arrow, and press delete to send them to oblivion (unless you're fascinated, of course).

3) Once you've done this review, you are left with messages that might interest you, in order by subject. The next step is to have a look at the first message in the first subject. If it's just what the doctor ordered, peruse any and all messages in that group. If not, delete all related e-mails immediately.

4) After reading a message, boon or bane, delete it at once! It may seem valuable (well, it is!), but don't fall for "I might need this sometime" -- that's how store-rooms get to look like they do. Even one or two messages retained per day will clog the works.

If it's priceless, print and file it. Why do I say this? I love trees and I know there's too much paper in your office. But if it's the last word on a subject, and you'll need it again, you'll be sure to find it next time. If you just save it in an electronic folder, you'll never look at it again.

Of the thousands of e-mails I get every month, I print five or ten and file them by subject. I do look at these from time to time (and every month I recycle a few too). Another approach I've tried is to copy e-mail text into electronic files organized by subject. This is a bit more time-consuming, but then the text is searchable. If you use either approach, assess it to see if you use what you save.

1) Should you chime in? This sounds funny, because a listserv wouldn't exist without subscribers' messages. But I advise caution about contributing your $.02 -- make sure you only say something of value to fellow subscribers. Another major consideration is the time it takes to write a good e-mail.

2) When to contribute your own queries: I recommend silence until you're familiar with the list -- then you'll avoid gaffes like asking Frequently Asked Questions or raising off-limits topics (e.g., some lists don't like rate discussions).

But 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 Italian lute tablature, somebody, perhaps thousands of miles away (perhaps in an earlier time-zone!) may well weigh in as the world's expert. You'll become friends. It's uncanny. Or rather, it's canny!

If you will be away for more than a day or two, postpone subscriptions until you return, or you might have a thousand e-mails waiting when next you sign on -- not a smiley 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. (Ha!)

Certainly all this advice will break down if you aren't able to do e-mail maintenance daily. When very busy, I've had to delete batches that I had no time to read. However, I usually manage about 300-400 e-mails per day, and I'm happy to be learning a great deal about my profession and how to run my business -- by "listening" to my elders and betters!

Susan Bridges, BDK Communication. All rights reserved.

With her business partners and associates at BDK Communication in Toronto, Ontario, Susan Bridges provides editorial, technical writing, translation, desktop publishing, and administrative consulting services to corporate and nonprofit clients.

BDK Communication Website:
Email: [email protected]
Phone: (416) 979-3135
Fax (416) 979-3136

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