Saturday, May 15, 2010

Virtual Clutter, Real Problem

The way we send and receive mail has come a long way from when Benjamin Franklin became the first Post Master General in 1775, to the pony express--brave riders on horseback who traveled across dangerous territory, risking life and limb, through all kinds of weather, to carry mail from one part of the country to another between April 1860 to November of 1861, to the present day. Mail has been transported by trains, ships, trucks, and airplanes. Delivery times were cut from several months to, in some cases, same day delivery. Then came the computer age and electronic mail (e-mail), delivering correspondence instantly -- sometimes to the embarrassment of the sender when the "Send" button was hit too quickly, resulting in only half a message being sent, or worse, sending it to the wrong person.

E-mail has certainly made communication easier; but, as with postal (or "snail") mail, e-mail can become another clutter trap. I remember the first time my in-box maxed out at 1000 pieces of e-mail. How did this happen? For one thing, as with paper mail and magazines, I had sometimes been in a hurry, or been ill and unable to check e-mail for a few days, resulting in a backlog. Or, I would save the mail in my in-box because there was an article or a newsletter I wanted to read "later." Although I had created files for various categories of mail, there were some things that just didn't seem to fit anywhere, so they, too, ended up hanging out in the in-box indefinitely.

If you struggle to keep e-mail under control, here are some suggestions to help tame it:
  • If you get a lot of e-mail, check it at least once a day, if possible.
  • Delete obvious junk mail without opening it. Set up your spam filter to catch most junk mail before it even enters your in-box.
  • As with paper mail, open it only once. Then either answer it, discard it, or file it.
  • Set up folders to organize those e-mails you want or need to save, but be selective in what you keep. Name the folders so you can find the material easily.
  • If you're in a hurry, flag e-mail that needs further action. That way, the next time you log on, you won't waste time hunting through your in-box trying to find those items that need your attention.
  • Don't sign up for anything online unless you know you will read and use it.
  • Remove yourself from newsletters that you don't have time to read.
  • Ask your friends to remove you from group mailings they send out. Instead, ask them to use the BCC (blind carbon copy) feature to minimize the risk of spammers getting your e-mail address.
  • For message boards and newsgroups, either read the posts on the web, or change your setting from having all posts sent to you to having a daily or weekly summary, instead.
  • If you send out newsletters or other information to a group of people, set up a distribution list. This saves you from having to write the same letter over and over to each individual, as well as minimizing the number of copies you need to keep for future reference.
  • Delete everything you don't absolutely need. Will you REALLY go back and read an article in a newsletter that is number 899 out of 1000--that is, IF you even remember that you wanted to read it, or have any idea where it is in that sea of e-mail in your in-box? Could you find the information by using your search engine instead?
  • If there is mail you really need to keep indefinitely, burn it to a CD or save it on a thumb drive or other external drive. That way you can delete it from your in-box.
I hope these tips will help you stay organized and keep you from becoming overwhelmed by virtual clutter. How do you deal with your e-mail? Share your tips and comments in the comment section below.


  1. Excellent advice. I've spent the past week dealing with a bloated in-box. And I'm about to have my name removed from an online discussion group I joined in a burst of ill-considered enthusiasm. Regarding e-mail, less really is more.

  2. The desktop can be a real clutter problem, and you will have a hard time finding your files.

    You can unclutter your desktop with a simple solution, and that is using folders. For instance, I have a folder labeled "photography" for all of my pictures. In that folder are other folders for each category of picture like landscapes, portraits, street, family, travel, etc. This way I can quickly find any picture I have ever taken in a matter of a few seconds.

    You can do this with all of your files. And don't forget to back up daily, your hard drive will fail one of these days!

  3. Kathy, thank you for your comments. It is really easy to overextend ourselves when it comes to newsletters, discussion groups, etc. Good luck with your down-sizing and decluttering.

  4. David, thank you for posting about desktop clutter. It's easy for the desktop to become a "catch-all" if we aren't careful.

    Also, great tip about backing things up. This can be done using an external drive, a thumb drive, or by burning files to a CD or DVD. This is a weak area for me, and definitely one I need to pay more attention to!