Work Smart: Conquering Your Email Inbox

Work Smart

How many messages are in your email inbox right now? A few dozen? It's probably more like a few hundred, or even a few thousand. We all get too much email.

A 2008 survey at Intel showed employees receive 350 emails per week on average; at Morgan Stanley, employees get 625 new messages per week. Executives' incoming email volume was much higher. In some cases, workers spent 20 hours a week just dealing with email.

Getting through all those messages every day isn't easy. Certain kinds of email are harder to deal with than others—the ones that require you to check your calendar or look up more information, type a lengthy explanation, or make a tough decision. It's easier to procrastinate and leave those messages in your inbox when they mean work you weren't planning to do right away. But new messages just keep piling onto old ones like a game of Tetris you're about to lose.

Start using your email inbox like your postal box: empty it, every single time you check it. It's not that hard to do. If you get into the habit, you'll feel on top of your game like never before.

The key is to train yourself to make an on-the-spot decision about what you need to do with an email message—and put it in a place where you know you'll get to it on time. You don't need a complicated filing system. There are only three kinds of email messages: stuff you need to do, stuff you're waiting on, and stuff you might want to refer to later. Make three folders in your email program: To-do, Reference, and Wait. (In the screenshots here we're using Microsoft Outlook, but this system works in any email program.)

email inbox

When you read an email, if it just needs a quick response, reply on the spot. If it's trash, delete it. Everything else will go into one of your three folders.

If the message is a task you've got to complete—like a request from the boss—file it into your To-do folder, and add it to your to-do list. If the message is about something you're waiting for—like a package shipment notification or a promise from a co-worker to get you something by next Tuesday—put it in your Wait folder, and maybe even on your calendar. Everything else—the CC's, the FYI's, the "just thought you should know"s—file these in Reference. That's your library of email that you can search any time to look up information you might need later.

The hardest part about trying an empty email inbox is starting with thousands of messages. Do yourself a favor: Select all the email in your inbox that's more than three days old, and move it into a Backlog folder. Process whatever's left using your new three-folder system. When you have time you can work your way through the old message backlog—but don't worry, there will always be new email to deal with.

Set aside time each day to deal with your email (including the backlog) in batches—we'll talk more about that in an upcoming segment.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life  and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com.

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18 Comments

  • Steuart

    A couple of things that take your excellent idea a step further Gina are;

    1: Rather than simply add emails to a To-do list, convert them into the Calendar (drag n' drop or copy/cut 'n paste). Adding it to a to-do list answers the WHAT question but not the WHEN. It's even better to take a few extra seconds to ask when we will actually complete that task and add it to the Calendar. This gives us much greater control of the task (it's 81-82% more likely it will get done in the Calendar than on a To-do list).

    2: Likewise, emails added to a WAIT folder tend not to get done because the WHEN question is not answered. The easy way to manage this is to add a reminder to these emails before moving them to the WAIT folder so that they are not forgotten or left out of control. That way they are out of sight, out of mind but not out of control.

    Love the backlog folder too!

  • Mr. Lucas Brice

    What a wonderful and powerful solution! It was even more wonderful and powerful when the idea was new, back when David Allen came up with it years ago. Way to recycle old information and make it your own!

  • Victor Norman

    Has the "upcoming segment" about tackling your backlog come out? If so, can you post a link?

    Thanks

    Vic

  • Paul H. Burton

    Viewing e-mail as just a form of correspondence is the best way to process and manage it. I would add that there is an additional category of e-mail not listed above - Archive. These are emails that need to be saved for potential future reference. The best way to handle Archive e-mails is to add a Correspondence sub-folder to your normal file system (clients, projects, months, etc.). File each Archive e-mail via the Save As function on the file menu as opposed to just saving it in your e-mail client due to speed and space constraints.

    Here are two additional articles on setting up your Inbox and managing your email that might be useful:

    Setup for Power Processing E-mail - http://ow.ly/Qrvw
    Treating E-mail as Correspondence - http://ow.ly/29ItW

    Zero Inboxes for All!

    PHB

  • Bastiaan Deblieck

    I have rule that separates the "to" from the "cc". I deal with the cc mails later, in batches.

  • Wagner Gimenes

    Gina, thanks for the post. Neat, simple, to the point. I just hope my customers listen to you. They sure as hell aren't listening to me!

  • Michael Adamsky

    Better even yet, just write rules. For example, first create a "CC:" folder. Then write a rule that automatically dumps every incoming message for which you are a cc: recipient into that folder. Then just check that folder, say, once each day. Instant 50% reduction in inbox volume.

  • Dewita Soeharjono

    How about separate your business from personal email? Would that be a better solution?

  • Mark Moreno

    Every january nearly every business person I know is trying to be more productive, 20 hours a week on email? Some really good ideas here to make it through email hell!

  • David Osedach

    I get roughly 800 to a thousand emails/week. Since I go on line six or seven times a day I empty my various email boxes a lot. Don't forget weekends!

  • Steve Fogel

    I actually have an empty email inbox. The best set of tools and skills I've learned came from David Allen and his Getting Things Done books and seminars. His website has some good resources including a little self-test at
    http://www.gtdiq.com/

    and an article on email getting email under control on the bottom right of that same page or try this link

    http://www.gtdiq.com/media/pdf...

    To me these are the black belt techniques for personal productivity.

  • CurtisMSP

    Spending time sorting and cleaning out your inbox is a relic of corporate email servers with tiny inbox quotas. My GMail account gives me 7.4GB of storage and growing -- I will never run out of space. Why should I spend precious time sorting mail into folders? I respond to the important emails as soon as I read them. Then they, together with the less important ones, just pile up in my inbox in a nice list sorted by the day they were received. The important stuff is taken care of, and I can quickly find anything I want using full text search that GMail provides. Why spend time sorting into folders when I could reply to a few more important emails in the amount of time it would take?

  • NoahRobischon

    This system seems really powerful, but my WAIT folder always ends up being the repository of messages that I just ignore for days (okay, weeks). Any advice on how to force myself to deal with that folder full of messages on a regular basis?

  • Phil Simon

    Good video, Gina. Pretty neat.

    I use gmail for everything so, as you know, there's no inbox per se. However, your main point is a good one: deal with things sooner rather than later. Gmail filters can essentially serve the same purpose as your folders.

    I try to respond to everything very quickly, even if it's to tell the person that I'll have an answer soon. Else, it's easy for things to pile up.

    ps

  • John Vasko

    This sounds like a great system. I use gmail and also set up auto forwards with certain labels for newsletter subscriptions, facebook, and other notifications. Then I just go to those labels when I want to see the latest in those categories. My inbox doesn't get so cluttered that way. But I like your three folder idea for the main e-mail.

  • Stephen Anderson

    Hi Gina! You mention both Tetris and feeling "on top of your game." I just wrote an article suggesting how we might turn email into a game (a la Foursquare, Gowalla), by layering in feedback loops to reinforce the kinds of good behaviors you describe here. You might find it interesting: http://johnnyholland.org/2010/...