Take Back Your Inbox: How to Manage Your Email

With an ever-increasing amount of email, employees are spending more time not only reading and replying to messages, but managing them as well.  As the now common standard for intra-business and inter-business communication, email now needs to be organized, referred to, and often times kept for various business purposes.  These new requirements require a new system to manage email.  While the examples given can 

Types of Email

Before we can manage email, we need to understand the different types of email there are.  Most people classify email automatically without even thinking about it.  The different types of email are: 

  1. Junk
  2. Action Required
  3. Feedback Required
  4. Informational


 Junk is just that - email that we don't need to act on, forward off, or keep for later.  This can be some random newsletter from some company no one ever heard of before, the daily updates from online communities and forums, and the usual dating/pharma/fast cash spam.  Action Required email can encompass items such as requests from one's supervisor to perform a certain task, some fire that needs to be put out, or action items that need to be handled.  Feedback Required items are messages that require a basic answer, such as lunch orders, status requests from a supervisor, and the "What do you think of..." emails.  Informational emails are generally ones worth reading and are typically worth keeping around for future reference.

Common Email Management Techniques

Over the last 10 years of managing email for different companies, I've worked with over 500 users. Some trends develop in users' email habits over time, regardless of the company or the user's computer skill level.  The next section will discuss some of the more common ways people handle their email, as well as note their strengths and weaknesses.

The Monolithic Inbox: This is where almost all of us have started, and many of us still are.  Emails come in, are handled, and then left in the inbox.  The major positive side to this method is that it's the most simplistic method of handling mail, and can trace its roots back to the original mail servers of the early 1990's and prior.  It's a starting point for any other email management type.  The challenge with this system is that items that need to be addressed are inter-mingled with ones that have been addressed, as well as the items that are being kept for later.  It's easy to lose track of a message with this method of email management.

Mark it as Read: At some point, a smaller group of users realizes that there's a need to differentiate messages that need to be addressed(whether it's read, replied to, or some other sort of task).  They then mark messages read that they need to address at a later time.  This has the distinct advantage of identifying what needs to get done as opposed to that which doesn't.  Its disadvantages are re-reading messages that had been read but later marked as unread, as well as possibly skipping over new messages(that come in as unread), thinking that they have already been read and marked as unread.

Caution! Flagger Ahead: This is perhaps the best-intentioned email management technique that rarely works as desired.  Some email systems give the user an option to 'flag' or set due dates on messages.  Users realize a need to note messages that need to be acted on and also tracked separately from new messages.  With this in mind, they flag items that need handling, and set due dates to have reminders pop up to review the item.  For the occasional message, it can be quite useful.  However, as the number of flags and due dates add up, the efficiency of the system decreases.  I can recall a few users that upon opening Outlook, were greeted by over 100 reminders.

Folders-'R-Us.. You Sort 'em, we Store 'em:  Almost every email system on the market today, software-based or web-based, has the ability to separate messages into folders.  This allows us to file messages according to our own filing/categorization methods.  Keeping a finite number of folders is perhaps the most effective way to handle messages in general.  The key with folders is to be careful to limit the number of folders.  Having too many folders can turn an email system into a "folder-fest", a heaping pile of folders that takes more time to find messages in than it does to actually do anything with them(as is often the case with customer-facing employees such as sales).

Making it Happen

Now that we've covered the types of email and some of the ups and downs of other email management techniques, let's set up a system that's easy to implement, simple to use, and requires minimal upkeep.  It uses only 6 folders, and is based on a variation of the Getting Things Done(GTD) system by David Allen.  Let's get it set up!

  1. Create the following email folders:
    1. Next
    2. Waiting On
    3. Someday
    4. Completed
  2. If your email program has a Favorites section or something similar, add those folders to it for easy access.
  3. Go into your Deleted Items/Trash.
    1. Are there any items in there that need to be kept for future reference?
      1. If so, move them to Completed.
    2. Empty your Deleted Items/Trash.

How it Works

The way this works is to Do it, Defer it, Delegate it, or Delete it.  Look at an item in your Inbox.  Is it actionable?  If it is, and will take less than 2 minutes or so, just do it.  When it's done, move it to Completed.  If it will take more than 2 minutes and needs to get done, move it to Next, as it's a next action.  If it will take more than 2 minutes and needs to get done at some point later in time(not right away), move it to Someday.  If it's actionable, but you aren't the appropriate person to do it, forward it to the proper person and move it to Waiting On.  If it's not actionable but needs to be kept for reference, move it to Completed, otherwise delete it.  Confusing? It isn't, though it may sound that way.  Here's a few examples:

From: Fast Freddie's Office Supplies - Subject: Cheap paper
This is Junk.  It's not actionable, and there's no reason to keep it for reference.  Delete it. 

From: Your supervisor - Subject: Charge Flux Capacitor
This is an action required email.  Is it actionable? Yes.  Will it take less than 2 minutes? Probably not, unless someone has 1.21 gigawatts of power ready to go.  Move it to Next.

From: HR - Subject: New Mental Health Plan
This is an informational email.  Is it actionable? No, but it might be a good idea to keep it for reference.  Move it to Completed.

From: Your supervisor - Subject: Is the sky green?
This is a Feedback Required email.  Is it actionable? Yes.  Send the reply, then move the message to Completed.  Recommend supervisor to read HR's email. 

From: Operations - Subject: New Assembly Line
Bob's in charge of that project.  Forward the message to Bob, then move it to Waiting On. 


At this point, your Inbox should now be empty (yes, EMPTY!).  The things that you need to do are all located in Next, things that you should do someday are in Someday, and everything you've delegated is in Waiting On.  Congratulations!  You've taken back your Inbox and are once again in control of your email destiny.

 Keeping it Running

As I mentioned earlier, this system requires minimal upkeep.  Using these 5 main steps, your system will continue running smoothly long-term, and you'll be able to go home with an empty Inbox:

  1. Daily/Ongoing
    1. Process the entire Inbox at least twice a day(I've found that first thing in the morning, before lunch, and the end of the day work best for me).
    2. Move items from Next to Completed as they are finished.
  2. Twice per week - Go through Waiting On for items that need to be followed up on. (Tuesdays and Thursdays tend to work well.)
  3. Weekly (I find Mondays to be good for this.)
    1. Move items from Someday to Next when they're ready to be worked on. 
    2. Empty Deleted Items/Trash

The exact schedule for the above items isn't set in stone or anything, but those items do need to get done at some point to keep things running smoothly.


Q: I have over 3000 items in my Inbox.  Do I have to process them all at once?

A: While going through your entire inbox at once for the first time is the most effective overall, processing more items than were received that day will eventually get you there.

Q: Won't everything eventually end up in the Completed folder?  How do I find things?

A: Your email should have some type of search function.  Use that to find the info you need.  If you properly word the items you send, you'll have better luck finding them later.

Q: How does this compare to the typical GTD system?

A: Certain features, such as Projects and Scheduled/Tickler have been removed in the interest of streamlining it for email-only use.  This system could be converted to fully use GTD with only a few slight modifications.


Disclaimer: This is a personal interpretation derived from over 10 years of email management for myself and for others, as well as application of some of the basic GTD techniques.  For more information about Getting Things done, please visit http://www.davidco.com