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Drowning in e-mail and need a lifeline?

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Question: “I am the assistant to our company’s CTO, who is very ‘hands on.’ She is constantly in meetings and on conference calls, which takes a toll on her e-mail inbox. I am tasked with helping to control the outrageous amount of e-mails that come in to her on a daily basis. I have become good at detecting the junk mail, but it doesn’t even put a dent in the total. Does anyone have any suggestions on e-mail management?” — Leslie N. Robus

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy May 5, 2009 at 12:41 pm

I use a system similar to Mary Ann’s for my boss, who is the CEO. But rather than use folders for Action, Info, Read and Personal, I separate her e-mails by priority: Critical, Important, Routine. When she gets back from vacation, she’ll go through her Critical folder first and within an hour or so she will have seen all the hot-button items and will know where they stand. She can move on to the Important and Routine folders as her priorities allow.


Karen Kosmoski October 17, 2008 at 5:34 pm

One thing I didn’t see touched on was asking your boss what e-mails she might like to be excluded from. I have found that people love to send the boss copies of everything. Even though your boss is hands on, she may not need to see every e-mail being sent to her. You might want to print out some e-mails you think she didn’t need to be cc’d on and show them to her. If she is agreeable to your choices (or some of them), you can e-mail around and tell those employees to exclude her in the future.

Ask your boss to think about what e-mails she is reading that she didn’t really need to see and let you know on an ongoing basis. Then check back with her now and then to keep it as an ongoing exercise for her.


Jamie Watson October 17, 2008 at 3:17 pm

Don’t put the folders in your bosses personal folder (pst file), instead make the folders directly in the Mailbox just like the inbox, sent, or draft folders are. If you are running Outlook 2007 it actually works better this way, there are some quirks if you try to put everything in your pst file.


Pat October 17, 2008 at 2:14 pm

If it’s any comfort, I have the same problem with the Executive I support! I’ve tried folders, begging him to delete some himself, sorting by sender, by date, by subject, etc. to see what I can file or delete — but it just keeps growing! I wish I had a magic solution and if you find one, share it!


Bonnie October 17, 2008 at 1:29 pm

(I use Outlook, so all of my comments pertain to Outlook)

Great tip about unsubscribing. I always unsubscribe from as many newsletters, forums, etc as I can. It is worth the extra minute it takes to unsubscribe. If your boss is fond of a particular forum or newsgroup, Admin Pro for instance, and sincerely wishes to continue to receive those emails, create a folder called “Admin Pro”, then create a rule directing all emails with “Admin Pro” in the subject line to that folder. That way, when she has time she can catch up.

I am very fond of creating folders and rules. They are my LIFELINE. I even have a folder labeled “Returns”. Under that folder are subfolders titled “Read Receipts” and “Undeliverable.” This way, even when things are shot back they are in order.

I love the tip about the subject line also. Generally, if you sort your inbox by subject, and ‘arrange’ your inbox to ‘show in groups’, you can delete the 20 back & forth emails that were cc’d to 20 different people and responded to by 20 different people, keeping the very last one.

Rules are incredible if you are using Outlook. You can direct all emails from a certain person or with certain words in the subject line, body, or header, all to different folders.

It even helps to direct people who send her emails on a regular/daily basis to be extra specific in their headers so that you can ensure they are reviewed timely.

Another neat tip that I just learned is that you can color-code emails! All emails from my direct supervisor are hot pink and bold. Emails from her supervisor (and mine too!) are bold and red.


Janice October 17, 2008 at 1:27 pm

I think this is an excellent idea. However, I’m perplexed – in our office if I move e-mails to personal folders in Outlook – the folders reside on my computer and not on my boss’ computer. How has your IT department set up the two computers so that the Personal folders are shared?


Cynthia Sheeks October 17, 2008 at 1:15 pm

Read the book The Hamster Revolution, it’s an easy to read and short paperback for admins and excutives regarding managing your emails. It’s a current book available at bookstores.


Diane Sullivan October 16, 2008 at 10:56 am

I would make subfolders for the unread e-mails. Sort them by subject. That way, when she does get the chance to read e-mails, they are in grouped together and she can focus on the one subject at a time.


Maria October 14, 2008 at 1:59 pm

I find that unsubscribing from unwanted or junk mail helps to recude my inbox.


Eddi October 13, 2008 at 6:29 pm

Does your email software have the ability to create rules that will automatically send emails from certain people or containing certain words directly into folders? For example, I can create a rule that will automatically put all emails from my boss into a folder. I can see when there is new emails in a folder so I know which folders need attention.


Miriam M. Cook October 13, 2008 at 9:57 am

Leslie, I understand your dilemma, that was a problem for me too, in the days when I was in that position. These were some of the things that worked for me.

1. Creating a block of time on her schedule each day for answering e-mails. Since I controlled her calendar I was able to do so. When others scheduled meetings they were able to see that she was busy during that time and did not schedule a meeting at that time. Of course, there were times when that meeting had to be moved to accommodate more urgent meetings but when that happened we rolled with the flow. However, this worked for her the majority of the times.

2. I became more active and not only dealt with the junk e-mails but I knew a lot of what was going on with her so I either forwarded the e-mail to the person who was handling the project or who would have the information needed. When I do that I would then inform her of the e-mail and the action taken, so she would be kept in the loop. This really helped her also and it helped me to become more valuable (knowledge of your business makes you more valuable to your business) to her and the company.

Leslie, I hope these suggestions helps you.



Lisa October 13, 2008 at 9:37 am

I like Mary Ann’s ideas but if your boss’ inbox is anything like mine you could cut a few emails by condensing.

(1)Sometimes there’s only one piece of important info in a long chain of replies involving multiple people. Delete all the polite conversation emails such as “thank you” and “your welcome” and “how was your vacation” and leave her with only the important info.

(2) For anything in the FYI or READ folder, you could summarize for her and then put them into a “digest” email once a week. Then she only has to read the one email from you instead of the 30 assorted ones. A lot of work for you but big time saver for her.


Mark October 12, 2008 at 12:45 pm

I don’t think I can answer it any better than Mary Ann just did!


Mary Ann October 10, 2008 at 6:21 pm

I have the same problem with my executive’s emails. What I have done is created on the inbox several folders — ACTION, FYI, READ, PERSONAL, ect. I will open each note for subject matter, content, ect. and place in the correct inbox. Everyday I schedule in his calendar to go through the folders. If he does not have a chance to go through all of them he will make sure to go through the ACTION folder and handle all emails in that folder. He said this works well for him, especially when returning from vacation, in which I add my own comments as to what action was taken, who handled what, etc.


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