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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 Work Smart appears every week on

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