Deluged by e-mail and dreading the thought of wading through it? GEETA PADMANABHAN suggests ways to manage a crowded inbox

It is a mess. The e-mail inbox looks like a combination of Cuddalore after Thane, Staten Island after Sandy and a city on a garbage strike. Unopened mails run into hundreds, opened ones wait for action: social networking alerts scream for attention, online newsletters/magazines lie in piles, messages demand “return-receipt”. The joy and anticipation of opening the day's mail having long gone, I stare at the inbox with rising dread. How will I work my way through this deluge?

“We've controlled spamming and phishing only to make room for social spam,” says Dhruv, an analyst. “We let unwanted, unnecessary mails from social networks choke the box.” The linear timeline arrangement of e-mail makes sorting a nightmare, he added. Why not consider context and topic instead? Sure there are digital solutions to help you swim out: Priority In-box automatically identifies urgent messages, Apple's VIP-tag alerts you to mail from designated VIPs, OmniFocus and Mailplane help manage daily e-mail — if you have time/patience to organise the overflow. Mailbox (iPhone app) groups letters into three columns — urgent mail, junk and those that could be dealt with later, but doesn't identify urgent notes, and demands that you go through the inbox line-by-line for sorting. Spare a prayer for those with inboxes in Twitter, Facebook, SMS, Skype, LinkedIn, Snapchat... In-box Zero (empty it!) is fine, but how? E-mail bankruptcy — ditching the current inbox for a fresh one? Oh, no!

Thanh Pham, blogger at Asian Efficiency, suggests a folder structure and a “workflow” compatible with all providers (Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Microsoft Outlook): learn to view your inbox as a temporary holding place where you process emails, not where you store them, he says. Inbox is for receiving mail. Your management goal should be “In-box Zero”. Looking for messages in a box of 10,324 mails is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Create three folders (Gmail calls them “labels”): Reply, Waiting and Archive, he writes. Reply: emails that take longer than two minutes to respond to. Waiting: those you're waiting for a response to or want to process later (tracking online shopping numbers). Archive: the rest for access later. In Gmail, create “labels” Reply and Waiting. All Mail is your Archive folder. You reply, remove Reply label and move them to Archive folder.

Limit process/reply time for each mail to two minutes. Those that need more time go into the Reply folder for future consideration. Stick to the touch-it-once rule to avoid re-reading mail. When your inbox comes to zero, prioritise those in Reply. Use a to-do list or task-manager in the Reply folder. Create action items to force yourself to stay with the email client/same website so you don't get distracted into following URLs within the mails. Process e-mail only twice a day, at fixed times. Before weekend hits, review the Waiting folder, archive those whose purpose is done. Try it!

Need more life jackets to keep your head above water? Delete immediately/automatically all notification from social networks, all PR, product information, newsletters, app-update emails. (Update notifications appear inside the app.) For repeated messages (confirmation/sign-off for a repeated task), reuse a sent message that's similar. Update the subject line and hit “send”. Set up a group ID (Distribution List?). Start “delete” work at sent mail, using file size or attachment. “Very large” and “large” are out first. Set up an out-of-office or auto-reply message. Empty the trash end of the day or once a week. Classify responses as: Reply immediately, Reply within 24 hours, Once-a-week, Charitable-to-reply, Brand-building/business-building emails. If you have multiple projects and clients, chuck the emails into per-project non-inbox folders. Don’t check Junk or Trash folders, ever.

What if you're staring at a corporate inbox? “Companies need to ensure that the large volumes of daily e-mails are organised to support day-to-day productivity while complying with corporate record-retention guidelines,” says Bobby Balachandran, Exterro Inc. For day-to-day management, cloud-based systems such as Gmail or LiveOffice have risen in popularity with corporations, he says. They preserve business e-mails, while allowing employees full access to critical business information. Advanced spam filters and e-mail-search capabilities help filter and find e-mails by issue or facts automatically. The same facilities let employees delete unwanted e-mail, or send high priority mail from their personal e-mail addresses. “Advanced e-discovery systems like Exterro Fusion integrate with corporate e-mail systems to help legal and IT teams identify and preserve critical e-mail, without disrupting employees' routines.”