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Force yourself to deal with email more efficiently

(MoneyWatch) Your inbox is probably a chaotic scramble of unread messages, mail that you've scanned and plan to return to, as well as email you will probably never reply to or act on. If you are looking for a way to force yourself to deal with email more efficiently, I have a trick that might work for you.

I am sure that you already know the old best practice to "handle every piece of mail once." Your inbox is seemingly designed to make that hard to do, though; it's easy to browse messages, cherry pick a few, and leave the rest for another time, where they tend to get lost amid a sea of other emails. So what to do?

Lifehacker recently explained how to configure Apple Mail to hide read messages. That's an interesting approach: If your inbox is set up to only show unread messages, the stakes are (a little) higher. When you open a message, you know that you must act on it, right then: Reply or delete. If you don't, it'll disappear from your inbox, making it harder to get to later. This approach, in effect, forces your hand to act decisively and promptly on incoming email.

While the Lifehacker post focused on Apple Mail, it's easy to do this in Outlook as well. In Outlook, click Inbox in the navigation pane so the Search tab appears in the ribbon. Then click Unread. That's all there is to it; now your inbox only shows unread messages -- so you're well advised to touch your mail just once, or it'll disappear from view.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you need to always handle email once and only once; often you have no choice but to defer a message till later, since you can't take action yet. If you need to preserve a message for later, you can always right click on it and choose Mark as Unread -- that'll ensure it stays in the inbox until you need it later.

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