Managing Email - Tips for a Productive Inbox

Ah, email....everyone uses it, and there is no getting around it with business. Email, if not managed correctly, can actually result in being unproductive. During my tenure at my last corporate job, I provided training classes on how to manage email. An average person would get anywhere from 200-400 emails per day, so creating a strategy and a user friendly system that everyone could benefit from was important for productivity. Which has lead me to this blog post - I will walk through a different way to view your email, and how to manage it so it is no longer overwhelming.

1 | Time Block

If you receive a lot of email, scheduling time to take care of your email is important and can be a time saver over all.  I schedule blocks of time to check and respond to email, not allowing more than one hour at a time. A good way to manage your time is to set up not only reminders on when to start, but also one for when your time is up. This will keep you on track with other important items that you have to do that day, and not get lost in your inbox as new messages come in. Only set up about three blocks of time per day; or, if half hour increments work better, schedule no more than five in one day.


2 | Folders

All email programs come with some sort of folder system to organize. I have used a few (free and paid) forms of email programs, and by far my favorite is Postbox. It has a fantastic layout, as well as auto signatures, an easy way to back up your messages, and so many other items that make handling email very easy. If you are running your own business and still using a free web app, it may be time to consider trying something else to help you manage your email.

The emails that require action from me remain in my inbox (client emails, inquiries, new orders, etc). All other items get sorted into other folders upon receipt. Here are a few examples of folders I use: Pending, Business, Blogging, Client folders (one for each client) , and Receipts. If someone is not expecting a response from me, I file this into a folder; they do not remain in my inbox. Below are how folders can work for you!

Action Folder (optional)
I have been to conferences where the speaker said you shouldn't treat your inbox as your to do list. For me, this actually works the best, as it keeps what I need to do clearly in front of me. If you think creating another folder (an "action folder") would work for you, then you should give that a try! Just don't forget that you need to be going into this folder a few times per day. Once you receive an email, and you have an actionable item you can choose to keep it in your inbox, or file it into an "Action Folder". This becomes your new to do list and an easy way to manage messages.

The Pending Folder
This folder is used as a filter for many items, to remove them from my inbox.  Pending items are blog posts I want to read, online vendor orders I have placed but have not received, coupons I plan on using, etc. I go into my pending folder at least once every other day, to keep it cleaned out.  While this folder is necessary for me to manage my inbox, be careful that you are not just auto-dumping everything in there. I keep no more than 15-20 emails at a time in this folder, so it is easy for me to scan them every other day and clean it out. If you feel your "pending" items are beyond 20 or so emails, subfolders are a great way to keep yourself organized.

Client & Project Folders
Depending on the type of business you run, create project or client based folders to keep all of the correspondence. If you are waiting on a response from someone else, you would not keep these in your inbox - use your client folder to organize or your pending folder if it is more urgent.

If you don't need it, DELETE, DELETE, DELETE.  Keeping emails that do not benefit you will just continue to waste your time as they clutter up your inbox. If you receive a lot of newsletter or subscription emails that you don't read, unsubscribe from them as this alone can help with a clogged inbox.


3 | Ten Second Rule

In my previous trainings sessions that I held, we discussed what to do after you have purged your inbox. One of the things I taught was the ten second rule - you have ten seconds to decide on what you will do with this email immediately after it has been read. There are only four things that can be done:

  • Delete it
  • File it
  • Actionable item
  • Pending folder

By allowing ten seconds to make the decision on what to do with it, you will be able to filter more out, become more organized and have less stress towards your inbox. The most common issue I heard about inbox clogging is when people would open the email, read 1-2 sentences, and then jump to the next one. This can cause chaos and confusion; the best thing to do is to make a decision right then what you will do with it.


4 | Auto Responses

Another great time saver is to have auto responses set up for your most common questions. Postbox has a feature that you can set up so you can choose the most common responses to questions, as well as common website links, etc. I also have a list in Evernote (another great tool) of common responses to emails that I can just copy/paste to make it faster and easier for me to manage. This can decrease email responding by quite a bit, and worth it!


5 | Pace Yourself

It is sometimes misinterpreted that email is an urgent form of communication, which it is not. Email should not be treated as a text message - you should give time and careful consideration before responding to each one. Acceptable return email time period is 24-48 hours from receipt, so try to give yourself a bit more time before responding. Time blocking really assists with this, as it is a way for you to not respond so quickly to others. On the other hand, you should never go beyond 48 hours (2 business days) for responding to an email. If you are busy and cannot manage your email, don't be afraid to use the out of office auto responder! Clients will appreciate the communication up front that it may be a few days before you can get back with them.

When you reply to someone immediately, and then they reply right back, it becomes difficult to move away from the conversation, and you have just created more email for yourself. I also try to not respond to emails after 4:00 p.m. (most of the time). This has also really helped with separating out communication, as well as not everyone you communicate with is in your time zone - they may not realize that it is five o'clock.


6 | Responding Off Hours

This was a lesson that I had to learn the hard way! If you have set office hours, don't respond to emails outside of this timeframe. I once had a client who emailed me on a Saturday morning, and I responded to her and then continued with my weekend. When I got in my studio on Monday, I found "urgent" emails from her asking why I had not responded after that. I explained that it was the weekend, during off hours, but this was my fault for responding on the weekend and making it seem like I would be there to answer all of her questions. She of course ended up being very understanding about it, and just simply forgot that it was the weekend. This obviously caused a miscommunication that could have been avoided. I since do not respond on the weekends or evenings, and stick to my business hours to make it fair to my clients. Also, I do not respond on vacation either - I turn all of my email off on my phone and iPad so that I am not tempted!


7 | Notifications

If you are a person who jumps on email the second they see that little red notification come up (I am so guilty of this) then there is something you can do about it. Turning off all of your notifications (sounds, pop ups, little icons, etc.) will help immensely. I had to do this, because I would be right in the middle of another task, look over at my screen, see the notification and immediately jump onto my email. Then, an hour has gone by and I still haven't finished what I was doing to start with. It is very easy to get caught up, so turning off notifications can really help with protecting your email time block.

One part of this tip that I have found the most beneficial is removing my email from my phone and iPad permanently. This really helps set boundaries for not checking email during off hours, and eliminates a lot of stress. I have a tendency to be a workaholic, so this one item has really helped me become more efficient, now that I only check email on my Mac (during working hours, of course!).


8 | Daily Inbox Goal

If you can implement this, you will see immediate results in how you see your inbox. Before I log out every day, I ensure that I have no more than FIVE emails in my inbox (zero is preferred). Keeping this to a low number is crucial; for those who currently have a few hundred (or more) emails in your inbox, you may want to start with a higher goal (maybe 30) and work your way down as you improve upon some of these habits. It is important to set and log your goals so you can eventually get down to the zero to five email mark at the end of each day. I also time block the last half hour of my work schedule to tackle emails that were sent to me prior to 4 p.m., so it makes this very easy to achieve.


Do you have any other helpful suggestions that work for you?