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Learn to make your e-mail work for you

June 28, 2001 

Here are some ways to stay on top of e-mail traffic:

It's not a crime to delete messages unread: Look at the sender, look at the subject line. Usually those two strings of text are enough to determine if you should open the message. Anybody whose address looks too strange or faked almost always is sending junk e-mail. Any subject line in all caps or ending with three or more exclamation points usually is spam.

Reply quickly or not at all: Unless you enjoy hunkering down to catch up with old e-mail, try to reply to messages within a day or two. How long a correspondent is willing to wait seems to correlate with how long it took to write the original message. A two-sentence message usually comes with the assumption you will answer it now. Longer e-mails that read more like traditional paper letters normally invite a more deliberate response.

Use a real e-mail program: If your program won't even indicate which messages you've replied to, let alone sort new messages into separate folders, you're going to wind up in the weeds before long. Consider Microsoft's Outlook Express or Qualcomm's Eudora.

Folders are your friend: Unless you're going to delete every message after you read or reply to it, you will need to separate the important stuff from plain old fluff. Most programs let you set up a list of folders beyond the default in, out and trash mailboxes; use this to organize the old mail. Keep the inbox for the mail that's just arrived and has yet to be dealt with.

Filter wisely: Why should you do all the work of shuffling messages into folders when you can make your computer do it? That's the beauty of automated mail filtering; not only can it delete some of the junk e-mail sight unseen, but it can quickly tell you which messages are worth reading now and which can wait.

Think twice about signing up for mailing lists: An active mailing list will do more than anything else to snow you under. It's not the quantity of the correspondence so much as its quality. Between the endless arguments and the hapless users who mistakenly send their subscription commands to the list, it's easy for a mailing list to degenerate into a waste of time.

Get a throwaway e-mail address: Computer software, sites and services all expect you to cough up an e-mail address when you register. Set up a second account at one of the free Web-based e-mail services (Hotmail or Yahoo) and use that for registrations. Check that account no more than once a week.

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