How to keep your email inbox clean and manageable

How to keep your email inbox clean and manageable

A while back I read an article about managing your emails. I don’t recall the original article, which is a shame, but it did motivate me to apply it’s principles. And since then, I’ve been much better at keeping my email inbox clean.

I really wish I could find the original article; but in doing some research for this blog post, I’ve found some excellent sources, one of which might be the original (I simply can’t remember). They basically prescribe similar rules, so I’ll overview the principles I use, then link to the articles I’ve found, so you can review and apply what works for you.

Keeping your email inbox clean and organized

If you read the following articles, or search the internet for “managing your email inbox,” you’ll find most articles prescribe triaging your emails into a few basic categories of actions. You skim your inbox’s contents, and then assign one of these five email triage categories:

  1. Respond immediately: if you can respond to an email in about two minutes, then do it right then, but keep it short. This step is probably the hardest to apply consistently, but it has the greatest rewards. A lot of email can be answered simply and quickly, but we delay doing so for whatever reasons. But by responding quickly, the sender is reassured we’ve gotten the email and acknowledged it, and we become more responsive. Often, I simply respond with “got it” or “we’ll get to work” and this is sufficient. If you search online, you’ll also find articles related to keeping emails and email replies short ñ some suggesting under 100 words. Which isn’t bad when you can do it. But you’ll find, if you keep to the 2 minute rule, you can’t write that much anyway. 
  3. Schedule it: if you can’t respond to it immediately (in 2 minutes), or if it needs further processing or requires interacting with others, then you should schedule it with your to-do or task list. Yes, you should be using some dedicated solution for managing your daily tasks. It should not be your email inbox. For us, we use our project management solution,
  5. Delegate it: if the email requires the action of another or is better suited to be handled by another, then delegate it to them. For some, this might mean simply forwarding the email; for me, again I’ll make a task in our project management system and assign the task to the person who must follow-up. I do it this way, because as the owner of the task, I’ll be notified when it’s completed.
  7. Follow-up later: This is the catch-all, for those emails that can’t be answered in 2 minutes, or which aren’t delegated, and which don’t quite fit into scheduling it; you should corral them somehow for later action. Now for me, this is often best handled similar to scheduling it, where I’ll make the email a task in our project management system and assign it to me. But on the rare occasion, this won’t work. For instance, if a friend has emailed me, and my reply will take longer than 2 minutes, the personal nature of the correspondence doesn’t warrant cluttering my project management task list, so I’ll leave the task marked as unread in my inbox. And once you’re accustomed to keeping your inbox clean, it’ll be really annoying to have that lingering unread message…so it usually only makes it 24-48 hours before I’m prompted to action and can remove it from my inbox. I suppose you could create a folder for personal emails…but if you’re like me, that would simply clog up with unread emails - the ailment we’re attempting to cure, so I treat them just like any other email.
  9. Archive it (or delete it): for me, unless I know the email is clearly spam, or that it’s 100% innocuous, then I rarely immediately delete emails. Instead, since I only view unread emails in my inbox…if I’ve read it while skimming, then it’ll be marked as read and therefore gone from my inbox. Though others will advise you to have a special folder that you’ll sweep emails of this type into. How you deal with this is up to you.

That’s basically it. It seems simple, but it’s actually very hard to break the habit of keeping emails in your inbox. Many friends and colleagues use their inbox as their “reminder list” or their “to-do list” and this is part of the problem. There’s no mechanism for reminding you something needs to be done, or that something is overdue, or what level of urgency something is. And once your inbox fills up with dozens of emails, some with poor and confusing subject lines, very few can skim the list and identify what’s critical and what’s not. And so your email inbox becomes inundated with unread emails and you begin to let things slip through the cracks. It’s inevitable unless you do things better.

To-Do Lists and Tasks…

This is why it’s important to offload your “to-do or task list” to some other solution. For me, this is our project management system. I can forward an email to it and it sweeps it into the system and it appears waiting to be assigned as a task. And once I make it a task, I can assign a deadline, priority, and other cues that will help me to remember it and to act upon it in a timely manner. This solutions works for me, since I interact with our project management system constantly…after all, it runs our business. But there are lots of online options and software applications for managing your to-do lists and tasks. It’s an excellent idea; make it imperative to employ one and to keep up with it. 

Special folders or not?

Some of the articles below and online will offer differing advice ñ some will strongly suggest you don’t automatically shuffle emails into special folders, while other will tell you it’s perfectly fine. For me, I do it in special circumstances. It’s sort of similar to the Seinfeld episode where they explore the importance of being on someone’s speed dial. In my email application, if you’ve got a special sub folder, then you’re extra important and I want to know when an email has arrived specifically from you. I keep this to a minimum. Only my wife and a few key clients warrant such privileges. Your decision to utilize special sub folders will depend on your email application and how it deals with rules and sub folders and how you prefer to work. But regardless, the same triage principals must be applied. Any email received is assigned to one of the above five categories and dealt with accordingly. So my email inbox and the sub folder still remain clear.

Check email less frequently

This bit of advice generally freaks out the “always connected” people I know. They simply can’t believe that I actively try not to keep a constant watch on my incoming email. But the premise is simple. If you check your email less frequently, perhaps at set times through out the day, then you’ll be distracted less. If you check your email constantly, and react to it constantly, how do you have time to concentrate on anything? I find that I’m able to work better and be more productive if I set aside specific periods when I’ll check email. That’s not to say I won’t click my send and receive button on occasion, but for the most part, I’ve set my email application to check for email every hour. Very few of us need to receive and respond to emails with such urgency that we have to keep an eternal vigil. After all, if something is so critical that I must absolutely act upon it as soon as I receive it, perhaps you should be telephoning me.

I usually check my email in the morning as I drink coffee, then again before lunch and after lunch. And usually towards the end of the day. Again, that’s not to say I don’t check more frequently sometimes…but I really try to keep to set times. This way I can concentrate on things without the distraction of perpetual emails. Though I’ll admit it, this one tenet is a bit hard to apply, so good luck.

Reference links:


Aug 28, 2009

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There are 1 comments for this entry. Leave a comment below »

Good points on this William. Will apply these techniques you've mentioned. Thanks for sharing.

Email Guy
Jan 30, 2013

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