10 Steps to Inbox Survival

Do you ever reach the end of a day and feel like you’ve accomplished nothing? It’s a depressing feeling for sure. We hit the ground that morning ready to conquer the world and then, the end of the day arrives, we look back and our To-Do list appears to have actually grown. I hate when that happens. However, over seventy-percent of the time, I can point to one thing that sabotaged my day. That one thing is also what, most often, sabotages your day. What is it?


It’s your email inbox. It’s a literal black-hole when it comes to time and productivity. So, how can we get our inbox under control and reclaim the day as our own? Try these 10 (relatively) easy steps.

  1. Pick three times per day to deal with email. The number one mistake I see when it comes to email chaos is checking email on an ongoing basis throughout the day. If you constantly look – every 5-10 minutes – for new email, stop! Turn off all your email alerts and even close your email client. Open it up and check your email no more than three times per day. Each time you check, set aside 15-30 minutes to deal with what is in your inbox. Then, close it again and get back to work. If people expect an instant reply from you, it’s because that’s how you’ve trained them. It’s time to retrain them. Try it. I think you’ll be surprised how liberating it is.
  2. Deal with those unwanted emails right away. Do you receive more than a couple of emails each day you really don’t want or need. You know, you signed up once to receive more information about something and now, three years later, you’re still getting useless emails from the company several times a week. Deal with those today. Either (a) unsubscribe – there must, by law, be an unsubscribe link at the bottom of each email. Click on it and follow the directions to get your name off the list. If you can’t find the link or the directions simply aren’t working, don’t waste a lot of time trying to solve the problem. Instead, (b) set up a rule or filter that automatically moves emails from that sender to the trash or another folder of your choice. Both Outlook and Apple Mail have this capability.
  3. Don’t be afraid to delete. Not sure if you need an email? Delete it. Ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that will happen if I delete this email? Nine times out of ten the consequences aren’t bad at all. If you don’t need to reply,  if you probably won’t need the email in the future, and if there is no immediate action required delete it. It’s not hard. Scary at first? Yes. But once you begin to use that delete key, you’ll feel an incredible burden lifted. Give it a try.
  4. Reply or act if you can do it in less than 3 minutes. Does the email require a reply or an action from you? If so, and you can do it in three minutes or less, then do it now. If it will take more than three minutes, create an action item on your To-Do list or your calendar and  then file or delete the email right then.
  5. Create action items. If an email requires more than three minutes for a reply or an action (see #4 above) and it will take longer than three minutes, you have a couple of choices. You can either (a) create an action item on your To-Do list or (b) create and event or To-Do on your calendar.
  6. Create a Follow-Up file. Got an email that you need to follow-up on in two weeks (or some other period of time)? Create a follow-up file and flag it for follow-up on the appropriate day. The file can be paper or electronic. As long as you have a system to be reminded of the follow-up need at the correct time, it will work. I use SaneBox and create custom folders to bring the email back up at a specific time. If you have any questions regarding how I set it up or use SaneBox, just send me an email. I’ll be glad to help you get it going. It’s fantastic!
  7. Create a Waiting For file. Sometimes we receive an email and the only thing standing between us and successfully dealing with the mail is info that we’re waiting to receive from someone else. Maybe it’s a report, a phone call, or a meeting. If this is the case, create a Waiting For file. Put these in this folder (paper or electronic) and check it periodically. Checking it regularly is the key, otherwise it becomes a black hole. Once you get what you need, deal with the email and clear the Waiting For file of that email.
  8. Delegate. Often an email should be for someone else. It’s really not something we can or should do. When that’s the case, pass it on to someone else at that moment.
  9. Use a filing system that makes sense. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to find an email after it’s filed, you’re far less likely to actually file it. And, if you don’t file it, well, we know what happens. You leave in in your inbox so you know where it is and before long you have over a zillion emails sitting in your inbox. Not good. It is critical to develop a system for electronically (or otherwise) filing emails you want to keep, but don’t need to stay in your inbox. I’ve seen lots of suggestions for how to develop your email filing system. None of them really worked for me. I had to develop my own. I’d encourage you to come up with a system that works and you have confidence it. Keep trying until you get it right. This is important.
  10. Get out of unnecessary threads. Are you CC’d on far too many emails. If you’re on a thread that is unnecessary, get off as quickly as you can. You may have to write someone and ask them to remove you from the thread, but whatever is necessary, do it. Also, educate those from whom you receive email. Let them know to CC or BCC you only when the email is of relevance to you, when there is an action item for you, or when you’ve asked them to.

With these ten action steps you can make tremendous progress in getting your email, and your inbox, under control and reclaiming a major portion of your day. However, if you don’t do these things, I can assure you nothing will change. It takes a little while to break bad habits and develop new ones, but I promise it will be worth it. It’s a wonderful feeling to end your day with an empty (or almost empty) email inbox. Give it a shot.

QUESTION: Which of the ten things above creates your greatest email challenge?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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