How to manage emails

Email-inboxIt’s everywhere.  You can’t get away from it.  It never stops. It can contain the most trivial of information, or the most important thing you’ll read that week.  A recent study concluded we spend 28% of our time reading and answering email.  I receive about 185 emails a day on average, on a bad day over 300, but my inbox is nearly empty and I know where everything is and what I have to do.  How do I do it?

Step 1: Minimise the incoming

An obvious but often overlooked tactic when you’re faced with a continuous stream of emails is reduce what comes into your mailbox.  For example, I rarely (if ever) get unsolicited commercial email, because most companies respect the unsubscribe request, and (for those who don’t) our junk mail filtering is very effective.  I also move legitimate mailing lists email to a specific folder (using Exchange server side rules) and check it once every couple of days.

Steps 2: Develop a system

Everyone needs a system to handle the legitimate email they receive, but it won’t necessarily be the same for everyone.  I’ll describe mine which is based on a system called GTD (Getting Things Done).


Capture all the inputs, of which email is probably the largest, and in my case the occasional voice mail.  To capture everything else (people stopping me in the corridor on the way to a meeting, ideas I have at 4 o’clock in the morning) I use Microsoft OneNote.  If you know you’ve captured everything, you don’t have to remember what to do any more, your system remembers for you.  Now you can use your brain to think, rather than just remember.


As it arrives, or at least once a day, go through everything you’ve captured, and ask, “Is this something I have to do?”  If it is, then decide what the next action is.  It if takes less than 2 minutes, do it now.  If not, delegate it, or put the action on a list, which is the next bit.

It if takes less than 2 minutes, do it now


This bit is important, so pay attention.  To allow you to actually do anything, you need to know what to do, when.  I use two tools here; my calendar (for tasks which have to be done at a specific time) and a set of GTD categories, for example;

  1. Things I need to talk to person X about, the next time I see them, which are tagged as @Agenda tasks with their name (e.g. @Caroline)
  2. Work I’ve asked other people to do, or help me do, which are tagged as @Waiting, and with the name of the person I’m waiting for.
  3. Things I know need doing, but cannot (for whatever reason) happen now, which are tagged @Defer and reviewed at least monthly.
  4. Things I can do at a computer, wherever I am, tagged @Computer.

There are more categories, if you’re interested.  Unsurprisingly, the @Computer category has the largest number of tasks in it, because about 90% of what I do happens at a computer.  As a result, I was missing important tasks in the general morass, so I tweaked the system a bit.

The tweak

The underlying problem was not being able to give the appropriate proportion of my time to each part of my job.  To fix that, I set aside time in my calendar to do tasks in all my key responsibilities (e.g. Service Management, Information Governance, Strategy and Planning), and then all of my @Computer tasks are prefixed with [sm], [ig], [sp] etc.  That means from 08:30-10:30 on Tuesday I’m working on @Computer tasks prefixed with [sm].


You need to look at your lists to find out what to do next, and every week you should review your lists to make sure they’re up to date (e.g. @Waiting tasks which are now done) or need moving (e.g. move tasks from @Defer to @Computer)


Now do it!  Using the system above I’m confident that I know what to do, and when, and I know I’m not missing anything.

Step 3: Apply it consistently

This is probably the hardest part of all; running the system, putting the effort in each day, and when you hit a setback (as you inevitably will) not abandoning it.  When you come back from two weeks annual leave you will have a car crash of an inbox to come back to, but take the time to clear it, file/categorise/tag and delete as appropriate, and then you start again with a clear deck.

There are days when I don’t manage to clear my inbox.  Right now there are 18, no, 19 unread emails in my inbox, and they’ll be waiting for me when I go back to work.  But 19 emails is nothing, I’ll clear than inside 5 minutes, and then I can get on with actually doing something.

Step 4: Be brutal

Email has the power to take over  your life, to the point where email is all you do.  It cannot be allowed to get that way, so take control.

  1. If you’re being included in long running mail threads you have no responsibility to act on or interest in, tell the originator to drop you off the list, or (and here Outlook conversation view helps) delete the whole thread.
  2. If your staff keep emailing you questions constantly, schedule 5 minute catch ups twice a day to cover all those little issues which can build up.
  3. If a simple question or idea develops into a rambling, uncoordinated discourse, schedule a meeting with all the key people, and turn it into a change, or a project.
  4. Practice, and promote, good email etiquette (sparing use of reply to all, CC and BCC those who need to know but not act, only forward email if it’s really necessary)

I might not have a perfect system, and I’m sure I’ll continue to adapt and evolve it as I go, but I can say something not many people can:

My inbox is clear, I know what I need to do, I’m spending more time doing it, and less time on email.

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