Email Management: 10 Rules For Taking Back Control of Your Inbox

Email is supposed to be a blessing, not a curse.  If you would have told people fifteen years ago that email would be just as vital or more vital than the phone was at that time they would have laughed at you.  Unfortunately email today is probably the biggest consumer of a normal business day with meetings being the only exception for certain people. Taking back this valuable time and putting the production back into our day is critical.  Nothing is more intimidating than coming back from vacation and knowing that you will have hundreds of emails waiting on you.  I’ve seen data (although I can’t find any of it off-hand when I want to use it) that shows that it takes twenty-five minutes to get into a creative and focused mindset.  If you are constantly being interrupted by things like email then chances are you will NEVER get into this zone.

It’s been a while since I wrote some tips on how to optimize your RSS habits, but I think it’s time for another “take control of your life” post.  So here are ten rules I operate by to manage my inbox and still be productive.

#1 Keep it short

I’ll keep this one simple.  If it will take you more than a paragraph to respond to an email then pick up the phone. It can be extremely difficult to understand context of a conversation through email.  The more you ramble the higher the chance you will upset or confuse someone.

#2 ONLY Check Your Inbox a Few Times a Day

I make it a rule to check my work inbox four times a day…first thing in the morning, immediately before or after lunch, at the end of the work day, and before I go to bed.  This is plenty for me, and if you are honest with yourself it is probably enough for you too.

#3 Never Respond Immediately

I know this is going to be controversial, but you NEVER want to get to the point where people feel like they can get a hold of you and get an immediate response.  Where this leads is lots of wasted productive time as you go back and forth with people over email.  Also, being in the web/tech field people have a tendency to take advantage of us because we just know how to do some of these technical things.  It’s not because we know magic; it’s just because we have spent the time to figure it out.  Yes, you want to be helpful, but it is an endless sink when people know that they can email you anytime all day long and you will tell them how to do things.  We have Google at our fingertips to answer questions for a reason.  Encourage others to choose a easier way to find solutions without having to bother you.

#4 When Upset, Don’t Rush a Response

This goes right along with #3 above.  When you get an email that gets you upset or angry the WORST thing that you can do is respond immediately.  Ignore it, mark it as unread, take a walk or work on something else.  Let some time pass so that you can calm down and regain your composure before even trying  to type a response.

#5 Blast Emails are to Educate, No Response Necessary

If you are included in a blast this is to inform you of something.  There is no need to respond.

#6 Carbon Copied (CC) means FYI, Definitely No Response Necessary

Don’t jump in the middle of a conversation unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then, only reply  to the specific party you need to communicate with.  I’m not even going to begin to get into the horror stories I’ve witnessed of email chains getting out of control.

#7 Be Responsive… Just Not Too Responsive

Try to make it a priority to answer email within 24 hours.  Pretty simple.  Don’t rush it but make sure that you respond accordingly.  Remember email isn’t your only job and you do have other deadlines to stay on top of.

#8 If You Didn’t Respond in 24 Hours, It Probably Wasn’t That Important

Email moves at the speed of light.  Things happen and are over before you know it.  Once again there are way to many other important things to focus on instead of trying to remember what you were doing two weeks ago with a certain email.  Just save yourself the trouble and hit delete.

#9 Take Advantage of Delivery Options

I’m probably giving away a big secret here, but using the strategy of not delivering email until after 5PM works wonders!  Not only does it make it “appear” that you are working late (which honestly we are probably doing anyway), but it protects us from the illusion of being always available.  This can easily be tied to #3, never respond immediately.  The delay delivery options can be your best friend.  If you get an email while you are cleaning out other things it’s ok to respond, but maybe you should delay the delivery for a few hours.  Remember, at this time you are trying to work through your emails, not instigate more.

#10 Once Resolved, Delete

There is simply no reason to keep gigabytes of old email.  Sure, you could archive it and save it for later or even try to organize it, but honestly how often do you return to old emails?  Take email links and add them as web bookmarks or to your Delicious account (you do have one, don’t you?).  Take instructional emails and add them to a wiki where they are easily archived and searched by others.  Take events and copy the information to your calendar.  Finally, like I stated in #8 if it’s a few days or weeks old then it must not have been that important.

Bonus: If You Are Using Outlook, Install Xobni

For me and the nature of the work that I do now I talk to individuals all over the country that I have never met before.  Xobni is a nice plugin that provides information about individuals with which you have exchanged emails.  It attempts to link to an individuals LinkedIn profile, Facebook profile, their company’s Hoovers account, and even Skype.  And Xobni even has a powerful search interface.  The ability to see an individual’s face can be a huge insight into what the person on the other end of the conversation is like.

These are just my rules and not everyone’s email situation is the same.  Obviously, if you work in a help desk environment then it’s crucial that you respond to emails immediately.  But I would still argue, coming from someone who worked in a help desk environment for over three years, that rule #1 is extremely important, especially the part about picking up the phone.

So what are your rules of the inbox?  What tips or advice did I leave out that people should remember?

Some Additional Reading on Email Management

  • Email becomes a dangerous distraction
  • Manage all your email accounts with Gmail
  • Five Methodologies for Dealing with Email Overload

Photo Credit: Castle Geyser Eruption by dominiqs

16 Responses to “Email Management: 10 Rules For Taking Back Control of Your Inbox”

  1. Says:

    Good article. I fully support #3. Email is called “delayed communication” for a reason. It was not intended to be a instant message system. If you need to get in touch with me immediately, I have a phone or the university-issued Nextel phone.

    Personally, when managing my email, I follow a lot of these rules, but I have an addition. Not a new rule, but an extension of the rules are currently listed.

    Process your emails. Don’t just check them. If you check your email 4 times a day, good job. But don’t just open them and read them. Decide what you are going to do with those emails right then and there. It’s called “Inbox Zero” and it has made me infinitely more organized (

    • Says:

      Thanks for the comment. That is some solid additional advice.

  2. Says:

    So, I guess my current Inbox 427 is an epic fail. :-P

  3. Says:

    I agree with most of what you wrote (though I can’t say I am even moderately successful at actually abiding by the rules), but I have to disagree with “#10 Once Resolved, Delete.” With e-mail and file storage so marginally inexpensive, readily available, and even free to the user (Gmail, etc.) and powerful, useful search tools (again Gmail, but the newest Outlook search is pretty good as well), I counter that keeping e-mail is less of an inconvenience and more of a valuable practice.

    Frequently I search old e-mail to find information about events that I remember happening but can’t fully remember details, reference my past actions when working on related projects, or to simply cover my own words (or out someone else’s) when a discrepancy arises (read: cover my ass).

    Sometimes it is also a blast from the past to see old e-mail or notice my always evolving styles of writing.

    If e-mail is bogging down your computer or server, though, then I’d agree that it can and should be deleted or moved to another location (yes, I realize there are privacy and proprietary concerns).

  4. Says:

    I agree with all of your tips. One more that has helped me, use more then one email. I am work online, so I am online all day, and find many things that interest me. So of course you fill in you name and email and before you know it you are there new best friend with consistent emails coming in. Don’t use your main email for these type of correspondences. Try to keep your email box for conversation, questions etc for just that.

    Then with the free email services use it as an educational outlet, or more information email. This keeps it less confusing for those of us who are info junkies.

  5. Says:

    I’d also add it depends HOW you use your email ie for what purpose. And not all email messages are created equal.
    As a webdesigner email is my main form of communication. Sales inquiries get answered within the hour in most cases. If you wait 24 hours then someone else might have the job!
    Technical problem from customer get aknowledged and dealt with just as quickly. Even if it’s just to let them know it will take 24 hours to fix.
    General newsletters and communications get read once a day or deleted straight away..

  6. Says:

    Kyle, I agreed with your NO.2 opinion. Honestly, I think it’s better to limit our email checking routine in about three to four times per day. I used to check my mailbox up to ten times per day, it definitely drive me crazy…

    By the way, I’m a Outlook user, but I didn’t know there is a good software, Xobni available for the Outlook users! Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Says:

      No problem. Glad to suggest some software that is useful. It’s pretty awesome.

  7. Says:

    For me #1 was the best tip. If I didn’t keep my email responses short (or at least relatively so), then it would take me forever just to sift through the email I receive on a daily basis not to mention the email that I’ve missed on the weekdays or holidays. One paragraph is usually the limit for an email length for me, and that’s only for relatives or close friends. For others 2-3 sentences works great for me. Very true advice indeed Kyle!

  8. Says:

    #2 ONLY Check Your Inbox a Few Times a Day

    Nah, I just violated this rule many many times already. :)

  9. Says:

    A good post sincerely. I am suffering from many of the things you said, Checking emails often, responding immediately etc.., I am trying to follow those you said and lets see how far I can go.

  10. Says:

    I just maually deleted 1108 (thousands) of emails from my coputer. My question is how can I prevent this from happening again. As it is I’m afraid turn my computer off. Please help, it took me all day!

  11. Says:

    P.S. it was ALL spam. yuck!

  12. Says:

    Generally i agree all the points………..the fact is sometimes we need to go quite oppose to these rules…..

  13. Says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your first point. If an email is going to take more than a paragraph then usually it means there are a lot of points you need to write down and discuss with the recipient, either to get clarification or confirmation. If you don’t have a “paper” trail of who said what it often leaves the door open for finger pointing.

  14. Says:

    Ussually I forget number 6…hihi