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You’ve got mail–take cover!

Now that telemarketing during dinner is dwindling, it’s time to conquer your e-mail inbox.

I used to enjoy communicating, once upon a time. Getting and sending letters, using the telephone, and exchanging e-mail used to be a source of great entertainment. Then salespeople went and spoiled it all. Junk mail and falsely chirpy phone calls during dinner are bad enough, but unwanted e-mail is becoming an unmitigated nightmare. More than 60 percent of my incoming messages are offers for herbal drugs, invitations to crass pornographic Web sites, and promises of unlikely physical enhancements.

I’m simply not going to take it anymore. I’ve already stemmed the tide of direct paper mail and phone solicitations, now I have spam in my crosshairs. And better yet, after filtering out unwanted e-mail, I’ve found a way to handle the messages I want more efficiently too.

Can the spam

After deleting dozens of unwanted e-mails, it’s tempting to go after the perpetrators just to vent your frustrations. But although it’s relatively easy to track down the servers that send spam, I’ve found it’s a big time waster. Unless you’re in charge of maintaining deluged mail servers–and Spamabuse is a great tip and technique resource if you do–the best way to use your time is to cut out the messages fast and get on with your real job.

The effective antispam approach is to filter out unwanted e-mail before it gets to your regular e-mail program. After testing a few products in this class, I’ve found the best general-purpose spam catcher is SpamKiller from McAfee. Unlike plug-in programs such as the excellent IhateSpam for Outlook or Outlook Express, the $40 SpamKiller works with more or less any e-mail program. It picks up your e-mail accounts from your default e-mail program during installation, and runs whenever Windows starts. It polls your e-mail box or boxes and sorts through each message, tagging those that look like spam. When you pick up e-mail using your regular e-mail program (Eudora, Outlook, or whatever), you get only the messages that have passed muster.

Like all programs in this class, SpamKiller does let some spam through and can be overzealous in classifying wanted messages as spam. So it pays to click its envelope icon next to the system clock and check its Killed Mail folder for messages periodically. If you see a message you want in the Killed Mail folder, you click on the Rescue option so your e-mail software can pick it up, and click on Add Friend so the program won’t stop mail from this source again. If you get mail you don’t want, you have to open SpamKiller and find the entry in the Inbox and click Add Filter.

The next version of SpamKiller will integrate into Outlook, which will add a level of convenience for some. But even now, SpamKiller provides a great resource. It knocks at least 30 messages a day from my e-mail box, and now that I’ve added a few filters, it rarely strikes a message I actually like. This is just as well, because McAfee’s phone support cost $3 a minute or nearly 40 bucks on a per-incident basis.

Real e-mail efficiency

There is more to using e-mail efficiently than just getting rid of junk mail. And even though Microsoft Outlook ostensibly combines e-mail and personal organization in one program, it doesn’t really integrate the two functions well at all. Even the upcoming Outlook 2003, which sorts mail into helpful chronological folders like Today, This Week, and Last Month, doesn’t turn e-mail into action items nearly well enough.

That’s why, as a longtime Outlook user, I have embraced Caelo’s Nelson Email Organizer, or NEO. This $40 program isn’t a new e-mail program; it’s a companion to Outlook 97 and later versions, providing a much more sensible interface for getting your work done. While most versions of Outlook dump messages into your Inbox and leave you to sort it all out, NEO sorts messages into handy folders like Today, Yesterday, and This Week. It provides a set of tabbed views so that in a few clicks, you can look at all messages to and from a particular e-mail address, or the names of all the files you have received as e-mail attachments. And when NEO picks up new mail, it doesn’t just tell you that you have mail; it shows the names of all the senders in a little pop-up bubble, so you can decide whether or not to read mail right away.

So far so good, but NEO’s biggest efficiency is its Active Mail and To-Do folders. All new mail goes into Active Mail, where you can keep it, delete it, or turn it into a to-do action item from a right-click menu. Having e-mail messages in a To-Do folder is a great way to handle tasksÑespecially since you can delete items as you complete them without deleting the original message. I was surprised how easy it was to become more efficient with NEO, even though I’ve racked up years of experience with Outlook. It’s also easy to switch between NEO and Outlook if you’re more comfortable with the Microsoft way for certain tasks.

Another real treasure is NEO’s speedy and effective search feature. Here’s a case in point: I used both to look up a product I reviewed last year with the distinctive name Exilim. Outlook churned through almost 8,000 mail messages over several minutes and uncovered nothing. NEO took five seconds to find two hits: One message in my Outbox, and a compendium of news links in a personal folder.

Why Outlook couldn’t find these messages, I don’t know. And I don’t care, because I doubt I’ll be looking at it again. Why should I when I’m aiming for efficiency?

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