Human life requires water. A refreshing trickle is generally fine, yet when it comes in a flood or a torrent, it can be very dangerous.

Human minds at work require information. A refreshing trickle is what most of us need, yet we've seen that when information - in the form of email - comes in a flood or a torrent, it can be very dangerous to productivity.

Part of me loves the river of information that rushes through my email inbox everyday: Story pitches, press releases, queries from readers, newsletters from around the financial industry and around the globe, updates from colleagues, messages from my boss, my wife, my mom - all of it flows in. I marvel at the breadth of information of a single day.

But that's the problem. I'm well past a trickle. I thought when I started this job in April that my email issues would improve. But the day I wrote this column, 300 emails had already gushed past. Did I respond to yours? (Sorry.)

For those of you in a similar predicament - Most of you, right, especially financial planners busy running their small businesses? - I asked Financial Planning's four columnists to guide us on how they keep from drowning in the mighty Information River.

Apparently, part of the solution is not treating every email like the wail of a smoke detector. "I set aside time each day to review my emails, usually after office hours," says Glenn Kautt. "I do not have my equipment set to notify me when I have an email." I admire Kautt's boundaries, and that may be a solution for many people. But the nature of my work wouldn't allow such structure.

Columnists John Bowen and Deena Katz also employ military-like rules. Bowen advocates a Four D's system: Delete it, defer it, delegate it, do it. I've tried that, but my inbox is quickly overrun by fresh platoons of emailers. Katz has advocated inbox folders, but "Soon," she says, "I had so many subfiles that I couldn't keep track of them." She tried an auto-response saying she got too many messages, so she couldn't answer immediately. However, " Nobody paid attention, partially because I was still emailing back messages as fast as I could answer them." Her latest advice: "Don't treat your inbox as a to-do list. If an email requires an action, put it on your to-do list with a due date."

Thanks, everybody, for the helpful ideas. I think the answer is fewer incoming emails, and I'm working to make that happen. In the meantime, I worry about the business that's not getting done. So does our Bob Veres. "I happen to think that email management has become the biggest distraction to focused work in the history of humankind." Now we're talking.

"If you're at all compulsive - and this is the personality type that is attracted to service industries like financial planning - then whenever you're doing real work, you're also keeping an eye on the open email window on your desktop and interrupting your train of thought." But similar to Kautt, Veres counsels setting aside "two hours a day(!) for email correspondence, and not look at it at all for the rest of the day." Veres acknowledges, "It's still a work in progress, as this message indicates." (It arrived at 8:37 at night. I sent a thank-you four minutes later.)

Do you have a valuable email management idea you want to share? Send a message to ... the discussion board on our website.

Read July's Editor's Letter: "A Boss' Job: Firing"

Read June's Editor's Letter: "Help Wanted"


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