How to tame your inbox

Watch your productivity go wild

There’s a meme going around at the moment: ‘I guess we’re about to find out which meetings could’ve been emails after all’.

With the world’s largest working from home experiment currently underway, an inevitable spike in email communication ensues.

Even under normal circumstances, email can be both a blessing and a curse. We love this email in real life video, which hilariously depicts some of the peculiarities of email communication.

With all this in mind, we’ve gathered some tips on how to take control of your inbox and therefore, your productivity. 

The email that should not have been an email

Do your bit to keep inboxes clean – use group chat for quick questions and fast updates. And while we’re at it...

Phone a friend

So often, a quick phone call provides instant progress to move tasks forward. Does anyone really prefer a drawn-out email chain instead? Give short answers or arrive at solutions faster by picking up the phone.

You've got mail

It’s easy to fall into the trap of giving a new email your immediate attention. However, at day’s end you’ll likely find you’ve spent your time reacting to everybody else’s priorities rather than your own.

Research presented in this Harvard Business Review article found that on average, we’re checking our email 15 times a day, or roughly every half-hour. However, most emails won’t require a response within that time frame.

Break out text

If your role permits, reducing your checks to hourly would halve the number of times you get sucked into the inbox vortex and then need to emerge and re-focus on the task at hand. (If appropriate, it could help to turn off new message alert pop-ups).

Your new approach to email may take a little time for others to get used to, but if the question ‘did you see my email?’ crops up, a response along the lines of ‘I’ve been focused on XYZ for the past hour, so I haven’t been checking my inbox’, repeated enough times should start to do the trick.

U Can't Touch This more than once

When it comes time to go through your inbox, sing this song in your head.

The idea is to handle each email only once. Leaving emails languishing in your inbox to return to lets them build up and start to overwhelm, as well as waste your time re-reading them:

  • If no action is needed (e.g. it’s information only), read and file
  • If it’s longer-form industry updates and insights that you subscribe to for staying ahead of the game, file in a ‘To read’ folder. (Schedule 20 minutes into your calendar a day for this reading.)
  • If action is required but not by you, forward and file (you may need to delegate here)
  • If you can respond on the spot, do it! Reply and file
  • If the request is more involved, it shouldn’t stay as an email – it becomes a task. Schedule and file

Which brings us to filing...

The filing fallacy

Hands up if you’re one of those people who has an elaborate email filing system? Folders upon folders organised by the task/topic, or who sent the email.

Break out text

The bad news is, we spend way more time categorising and filing emails than is necessary. Firstly, if you reflect on how many emails you need to locate at a later date, you’ll conclude it’s a tiny percentage of your overall inbox. Secondly, we live in the Google age – we know that search is the way to find stuff.

The good news is that you can break your filing habit. If you follow the ‘touch once’ steps above, you’ll have a ‘To read’ file folder. Everything else will be an email you’ve dealt with and can go into a folder called ‘Filing’.

This is scary at first. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Familiarise yourself with your email client’s search function. In Outlook, you can expand the search bar into a search box which enables you to layer your search, e.g. an email from Bruce Wayne received last month with Joker in the subject that has attachments. Check out more Outlook searching tips here.

Once you concede that the likes of Microsoft are in the business of developing more advanced ways of filtering information than our own manual filing methods, and start trusting your inbox search, you’ll realise how much simpler it is to have everything in one folder. Especially when it comes time to look for those rare ‘unicorn’ emails that you actually do need to find later!

Now you’re well on the way to mastering email communication and taking back control of your day.

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