Welles: Vacation's over

Some simple tips for not getting overwhelmed by a torrent of e-mail

School has started for many areas, so like it or not, summer vacations are ending. Getting back to the office can stir a number of stressors, not the least of which is the string of e-mail messages that greet you when you return.

Rule No. 1, many experts say, is to start with your e-mail messages on your first day back, but avoid meetings.

"New e-mails aren't the problem," said Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity trainer and author of "Conquer Email Overload with Better Habits, Etiquette and Outlook Tips and Tricks." "It's the mess that's already there."

Returning from vacation is as good a time as any to have a quiet session with your e-mail inbox.

Duncan suggests that if you can do the work sent via an e-mail request quickly — in two to five minutes — do it. If it will take longer, add it to your calendar or to-do list.

Do something with your messages when you first open them. Delete a message, move it to a folder, put it on the calendar or get it into a database. Ask yourself if you need to keep the information or can get it elsewhere.

For messages you must keep, Duncan recommends creating folders and subfolders, starting with broad categories. The most frequently saved messages in government workers' inboxes are those they save to cover their bases by copying the boss every time they comment on or reply to an official e-mail. Such messages probably account for 80 percent of an inbox's volume. If you're saving messages to cover yourself, create a folder and get them out of your inbox.

Also consider a folder for messages from the boss and one for people you support. The boss folder could be the first folder you view.

The inbox is for temporary storage only; it is not a to-do list or file system, Duncan said. She said to ask yourself: When was the last time I referred to this message? If it has been weeks or months, delete it. Do I need to keep this for legal reasons? If not, delete it. If I delete the message and need it later, can I live with the consequences? If you can, delete it.

Most importantly, she said, establish a routine for checking e-mail messages that best fits your schedule. If you go through the process and get a handle on your e-mail, you will save an hour a day, she said.

"Next time you go on vacation, tell people you'll be back Tuesday, but come in Monday to get caught up," Duncan said. "Better yet, come in the weekend before and [clean out e-mail messages]. You are doing this for you and your sanity, not the agency."

Back in the kitchen

The White House has for the first time selected a woman as head chef to lead the kitchen staff for everyday and state dinners. Cristeta Comerford was promoted to the position after 10 years in the White House.

A national group of women chefs had urged Laura Bush to appoint a woman, saying that women hold less than 4 percent of those top jobs. Bon appétit! n

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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