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Control your email and don’t be a slave to your inbox

You’re probably reading this because you want move from being a slave to email, to being the master of this tool we all use on a daily basis.  So here you go. A small investment of time made now, can save you countless hours, and help you be more productive – forever.


In the busy world of online media, not all mail is created equal. 

Attention is the new currency and individuals and businesses will always seek yours.Watch, listen, read, buy. . .

Anyone can send you an email once they have your address, so . . .

. . . just because you’ve been sent a message, you are not automatically obliged to open it, or answer it. 

Keep this in mind as you read the following tips for taking control of your inbox.

“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker

Empty your inbox!

You’ll be amazed how much better you feel with an empty inbox, though it will require a system of reminders and reviews.

Can you deal with it in 2 mins or less? Then Do It. Otherwise you’ll spend more time organising and filing, and reading the email again before you can deal with it later.

Is this the right time for it? No. Then Snooze It. Many software programs and Gmail extensions, let you Snooze an email (archive it temporarily and have it return into your inbox at a set date and time). When might you do this?

  • It’s going to take more than 2-mins
  • You don’t have enough information to process it now
  • You’ve sent a message and are waiting for a reply
  • You need to be sure something has been actioned
  • You want to review it at some time in the future

Delegate it: If you have a team and can delegate it to.

Someday / Maybe: Label it or file it into someday/maybe, that you review on a schedule

The visible (and often audible) responses to seeing an empty inbox, say a lot about the relief one can feel when there are no more emails, subtly or not so subtly, calling for your attention.

Sort the wheat from the chaff

There are some emails that don’t deserve any of your attention, and these should be removed from your inbox rapidly, or automatically.

If the email is a newsletter you once signed up for (or you got on the list for inadvertently), be sure to take a moment and unsubscribe. 

Some communications that come unsolicited and don’t promise to bring you much value can of course be dismissed. However, if doing so runs the risk of creating a detractor who gets annoyed because you didn’t answer their email, then have some automatic responses ready.

I have these loaded in TextExpander, which lets me get a personalised email off in just a few seconds. It requires crafting some thoughtful language  – but only once.

A collection place, not a task list

Your email inbox is not an appropriate tool for a task list, but many of us use it that way, keeping mail in the inbox until a task is done. There are even tools which encourage this approach.

Why not?

  • The subject line does not clearly communicate the next action.
  • There’s no easy way to organise the list, by project or priority.
  • Other people can add items – just by sending you an email!

There are plenty of project and task management tools that do a far better job of ensuring you’re focussed on the right things at any given time, and if you’re part of a team (and who’s not these days), pick one that facilitates collaboration.


Filing / Tagging / Organising

Go deeper, not wider. I guarantee that limiting yourself to not more than 7 categories at the top level of your folder/labelling hierarchy will make a surprising difference. It makes it super easy to navigate, and know exactly where you need to go to find or file something.

There’s a logic to this, and it has to do with the rule of 7 (+ or – 2)

The constraint of having only 7 items in each of the first three levels of your filing or list hierarchy will force you to think about the categories which make sense. This is an effort, and one that will take time – but if you take the time the reward will be quickly felt, forever.

You may choose to not label or file your email, and in some email software that’s fine too, because some email services have a strong search function, that intuits what you’re looking for, and can search through all mail ‘instantly’.

If you know the other party’s name, some keywords from the communication or the rough time frame it was sent or received, you will (in general) find it easily.

Attention Management

Turn off notifications on your computer and on your phone. Go to email on a schedule, not when it grabs your attention.

Try quitting your email programme or closing that tab in your browser, except for some allotted times of the day. Take a moment to think about this.

How many times a day do you ‘check email’ or are you one of those people who gets a ‘ding’ when a new email lands in your inbox, and it’s that notification which takes you there?

The habit/pattern or addiction which has us looking at email more than is justified based on the Return On Investment (of time), will require some intention and effort to break.

Process consciously, and as a friend quoted: Emails aren’t presents.




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