Taming Your Inbox

Not so long ago I was feeling weighed down by the shear bulk of my inbox: it contained over 1500 items. Many emails that required action were doubtless buried somewhere in a morass of trivial FYI messages but I had given up keeping track of them. Frankly I was relying on the fact that if anything was truly urgent someone would nag me about it eventually. All in all this was not a productive or professional way of working. However, judging by this BBC news report, I am not the only one who has struggled to keep my inbox under control.

In March this year I met someone on a training course who told me that he was practicing a “5 Item Inbox” technique. I believe he had read about having a “1 Item Inbox” in Getting Things Done but had found this was not realistic for him so had opted to allow himself a maximum inbox size of 5. I was sceptical but decided to give it a go. 6 months later I can confirm that it has worked wonders for me so here are the basic principles that I have found so useful:

Give Yourself A Fresh Start

I did not have the time or inclination to properly sort through my 1500+ inbox. To give myself a fresh start I just archived everything in my inbox to a separate folder.

Schedule Time To Process Emails

It is very easy to find yourself responding to emails as they come in. As soon as an email notification pops up you stop whatever you are doing to read what someone has sent you. This reactive approach allows emails to constantly interrupt your work. It is far better to close your email program (or at least switch off notifications) and schedule set times for dealing with messages. I do this first thing in the morning, after lunch and finally before leaving at the end of the day. You need to allow a reasonable amount of time for this (you will soon learn how much time you normally need) and you need to bear in mind that if you have just got back from a 3 week holiday you will need to plan additional time for it (possibly even a whole day). The idea of scheduling time for reading and responding to emails is nothing new and I first read about it in Steve Maguire’s book Debugging the Development Process.

Delete Emails Liberally

Most emails can be deleted with no action from you. You have to be quite ruthless about this. My criteria for emails that can be deleted are as follows:

  • Anything that has only been copied to me
  • Anything that does not expressly ask me to do something
  • Anything that starts with FYI

Some emails may require no action from you but be worth keeping for future reference. You should file these straightaway rather than leaving them in your inbox to fester.

Action Emails Immediately

Any emails that you can’t delete should be actioned straightaway. There are 3 ways of actioning an email:

  • Action immediately: If it will only take a few minutes than this is usually the best option.
  • Schedule time to action: Plan time in your calendar for actioning the email. File the email somewhere in the mean time (I normally attach it to the related task in my Outlook calendar). It is normally a good idea to reply immediately to let the sender know when you plan to get back to them properly as this stops them from chasing you up in the mean time.
  • Don’t action: If you do not have time to deal with it and can’t foresee a time when you will then reply to say that you are not able to do anything. This is far better than just ignoring requests you can’t fulfil and letting them stew in your inbox. This applies equally to requests that you feel are unnecessary or would be better carried out by someone else.

Although I was sceptical to begin with I have found that by applying these principles my use of email at work has become far more productive. If you are feeling the burden of an oversized inbox then I would recommend you give these techniques a try – and be sure to pop back and let me know how well they worked for you!

My post Book Review: Getting Things Done describes what I learned from the book after I finally got around to reading it for myself.


3 comments so far

  1. daviddaly on

    Since writing this I have found a couple of websites that may be of interest to people interested in improving personal productivity.

    The first is WOWNDADI (you’ll have to visit the site to find out what it stands for!) which is a blog by Benjamin Ellis on communication, productivity and technology.

    The second I found while visiting Liz Handlin’s blog (which contains very useful tips on finding your dream job) and is Tim Ferriss’s blog on Experiments in Lifestyle Design.

  2. Pete Johnson on

    I’m a huge fan of Getting Things Done. It’s made a big difference in my day to day processes. My experiences with it are detailed here:


    Pete Johnson
    HP.com Chief Architect
    Personal blog: http:/nerdguru.net

  3. Benjamin on

    Hi David, nice post. Glad you’re enjoying WOWNDADI!

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