Email is my favorite and the bane of my existence. For better or worse though, it's the Internet lifeline and I am committed to staying on top of it. I love nothing more than a cleared inbox. (Truly, it's a favorite thing which I know is just sad.)
Here are the things I do to tackle email.
I treat my inbox like a to-do list. I don't keep emails in my inbox once they are dealt with. Gmail has an "archive" button that keeps the emails for you, but it doesn't keep them staring at you every day. This is just personal preference, but for me, the more white space, the less overwhelming my inbox seems. (Sometimes I catch a glimpse at Paul's packed inbox - he deals with and labels email but doesn't archive anything - and feel my heart rate increase drastically.) If I have something in my inbox, it needs to be dealt with. If it's not there, it's off my plate (or written down somewhere else).
I recommend other contact methods. Half the battle is just keeping the emails from coming in. On my sidebar, where my contact info is, I recommend folks check out my FAQ page (which I try hard to keep up to date). Why? Because 97% of the questions I am asked via email I have already answered before. I also recommend people get in touch on twitter because I love that the character limit forces a quick and direct Q&A session. If you deal with a lot of blogging related email, I also recommend having an easy to use search function on the sidebar. It can be invaluable for readers, but also for YOU to find posts that answer questions.
I practice the one-touch rule. I have talked about this many times, but I do my best to open an email and deal with it immediately. If I can answer the question right away, I answer the question RIGHT AWAY. If I can act on the email, I act. No delay. No time to stress. No time to sigh about how much email I have to tackle. In the door and in then in the archives with just one click. Exception to this is orders - I wait until I have a few to print shipping labels for and pack up together.
I deal with 90% of my email at my desk. (The other 10% are the e-blasts from stores that I trash or quick emails I can respond to from my phone.) The rest get handled sitting at my laptop with Pandora on and my calendar at the ready. When I have an email with deadlines or other "to-dos," I jot them down on my calendar and immediately file the email away. I can then clear that email from my inbox and move forward with whatever else is in there. Plus, sitting at my desk guarantees I am in "work-mode" and I can type much quicker on a normal keyboard so it's a time saver.
I use labels (or folders) to store emails. I have labels for many different types of emails. A few current examples : stamp shop sale, PDF purchase, wholesale, back order, assignments, queen bee market, travel, addresses. And on and on and on. I probably about 40 labels at the moment which allow me to quickly sort through email and get them out of my inbox but make them easy to recall when I need something. The trick for me here is to not get over-zealous with the sorting. I could get really detailed, but choose not to because after awhile, I think the focus can become about organizing how you deal with the email instead of just dealing with email. I never spend more time organizing than I spend responding. :)
I receive Typepad comments in my email & respond right from there. It's very important to me that I read every single comment and respond to each question that comes through this blog. I have Typepad email each comment into my inbox and I read them there. I currently have "Typepad Connect" set up which means I can respond to the comment by replying to the email. (If you are a Typepad user, you can do this too under Settings > Comments. Select "Enable Typepad Connect" at the bottom of the screen.) It's so simple and means I only have to "check" and respond in one place.
I keep it short and sweet. I cannot stress enough that I am grateful for every email I get. I read every word of every personal one and I respond always (unless it's a generic PR pitch or unless the email is rude). But while I cannot always match each email for depth and breath, I can be heartfelt in my response. I think people think that a long email deserves a long response (which means they wait until they have a lot of time to respond and then never have time so three weeks go by) and I don't think that's always the case. I subscribe to the theory that every email deserves a read and a thoughtful response, but it doesn't need to be a novel.
And those are my simple tips. ;) Happy emailing.