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13 Email Tips to Keep Your Inbox Under Control and Get Things Done

Eric McKiddie
Eric McKiddie
2013 27 Aug

For many of us, email is a work killer. We have enough work apart from our inbox inventory to keep us busy for weeks. And that work is usually much more important than what pops up in our inbox.

I am currently four months into a new pastoral role, and one of the most notable differences is the increase in email I now receive. Having previously served as a junior high pastor, I didn’t receive many of the emails that circulated around the offices. In my new role as an associate pastor and an elder, I am now part of the church-wide conversations. The result is that my email load has tripled.

It is bad enough how long work processes take at the beginning of a new job, since I’m just learning the ropes. Combine that with a ton more email, and you have a recipe for not getting off to the best start.

To deal with the deluge, I have adjusted some of my email processing habits. I am starting to tread more and drown less.

Here is what is working for me. Maybe if you are drowning in your inbox it will help you, too.

1. It’s an inbox, not a staybox. Don’t store email in your inbox. It is a good place to receive information, but a bad place to keep it. Delete old emails that don’t matter, and file ones that do.

2. Zero is not the goal. Don’t try to keep your inbox at zero. That is a sign of unproductivity, not productivity, because it indicates that you are doing email all day, to the neglect of high priority projects. Check it several times a day, but not continuously throughout the day.

3. Silence. Turn off notifications for your email, whether audible, visual, or both. This will prevent you from being tempted to dive back into your inbox.

4. Separate quick replies from long ones. Batch process your emails based on how long they take to reply to. First, go through your inbox and reply to everything that requires only a quick response. Then go back through and reply to emails that require more thought.

5. Don’t clean out your email first thing in the morning. Get started on high level projects first. If you have to check your email first thing, only reply to the emails that require a quick response (see tip #4). Save the longer responses for another time of the day so can get to your priorities right away.

6. Oldest to newest. Are procrastinated emails starting to pile up? Process your email from oldest to newest. This will force you to deal with emails you have been neglecting.

7. Delete without reading. If you can tell from the subject line that the email isn’t relevant to you, delete it and don’t even read it.

8. Save attachments. Create folders on your computer for attachments. Or print them. Don’t keep emails in your inbox just for the attached file.

9. Get rid of junk mail. Unsubscribe like nobody else’s business.

10. Use your email’s search capability. A lot of people store emails in their inbox so they will know where it is for later reference. But even if you delete the email, you can always search for it. In fact, deleting or saving emails is a win-win. You’ll find the email faster through a search compared to looking through each email in your inbox, and your inbox will be cleaner and more current.

11. Lean into your priorities, not email. Never check email as “one last thing” before starting a project that will take a lot of focus and time. You’ll get sucked into the email vortex, and you won’t get your most important work done.

12. Delete emails, even if the conversation is live. Delete emails you have replied to, even if the conversation is still going. You will be reminded to continue the conversation when your email partner replies back to you.

13. What to do with links. When someone sends you an email with a link to a website, click the link and bookmark it in your web browser or save it to Instapaper, and then delete the email. Now the content is stored in a place where you are in “online reading” mode (which is more reflective), rather than “email reading” mode (which is more reactive).

Those are my tips. What are yours? Share your productive email tips in the comments!