A System For Email Productivity

How to regularly get to “inbox zero”…


All of your emails can fit into one of the following 7 categories

  1. No need to reply, and not important to read. Generously apply the archive or delete function! And if it is a newsletter that you rarely read, do yourself a favor — unsubscribe. If the information is important, trust that it will come to you another way, e.g. through personal recommendations. It will show up again if it is truly worthwhile.
  2. File away. Examples include tax receipts, examples of great emails, and info needed when you next work on a project. It can be helpful to create folders for these, but don’t get crazy with categorization; if you find yourself creating many folders, you need to simplify your work or life. And when you actually need to find an email, practice using your email software’s search function.
  3. Optional response. No need to respond, but would be more courteous if you did.
  4. Optional reading. Interesting to read, but not required. Practice putting as many emails as possible into this category, as well as the previous one! This practice is essential to improving email productivity. You might want to use email filters (e.g. in gmail) to automatically move newsletters into this folder, or change the email address you use to subscribe to mailing lists. Gmail makes it easy with aliases such as yourname+newsletter@gmail.com.
  5. Required to respond today. Go ahead and respond either in the moment—if important and urgent—or at the end of your workday when you are clearing out your inbox.
  6. Required to respond (e.g. emails from a boss, biz partner, client)— but not today. Distance creates perspective. If an email doesn’t require a response today, put it in a folder named the day you would like to respond (Monday, Thursday, etc.) then on that day, go into that folder. For example you might want to follow a “morning checklist” that includes “Open today’s email folder.”
    Note: I don’t create folders for this category anymore… I use RightInbox for Gmail to set the email to show back up in my inbox on the right day. If you don’t use Gmail try FollowUpThen.com or FollowUp.cc.
  7. Undecided. Rather than suffer from paralysis by analysis, just put it into one of the above categories!

Create email folders for #2, #3, #4, and #6 (unless you automate it.)


Make Your Email Processing More Efficient:

  1. Have a specific time to process your email. I spend 30 minutes at the end of each workday clearing my email inbox to zero. This is more efficient than trying to clear your inbox to zero throughout the day. Why? Because of the “batching” principle. The less often you switch activities, the more flow and efficiency you tend to experience.
  2. What if you get urgent emails? This is why I do check my email throughout the day (about once an hour) to see if there’s something urgent & important. If it requires a response immediately, I do that. If not, I save it for my end of day processing. Remember this: distance creates perspective. The longer you can wait to respond to an email, the more perspective you’ll have about the issue. By the end of day, the issue may have resolved itself. When people figure things out for themselves, they become more empowered in the process.
  3. Anytime you’re not checking email, close your email software. Or at least make it so you don’t see the number of new emails climbing up. This way, you’re not draining your subconscious energy, continuing to wonder if you’re getting messages. And definitelyturn off any email notifications — audio and visual — for new messages. You don’t work in a nuclear power plant. (And even if you did, the urgent & important stuff wouldn’t come via email!)
  4. When you clear your inbox that one time a day (which I recommend at the end of workday, so your motivation to finish your day will naturally speed up your email processing) — set an intention to process your email quickly, like a game. (You can even try this “email game” tool.) Say to yourself “Next, Next, Next,” as you delete or archive most emails, rather than spend energy with each and every email.
  5. Write shorter emails. What is the one main thing you want to communicate? Say it concisely. The shorter your emails, the shorter their email response tends to be. It saves everyone time.
  6. However: be positive & friendly. Emails can quickly build, or erode, relationships. I always try to come across as encouraging and kind, and start or end my emails with something appreciative about the recipient or the situation. For example, “I appreciate your thoughtful message here.” or “Hoping the rest of your week goes well!” Think of the primary purpose of most emails to be relational (improving trust and like in that relationship)and secondarily transactional (asking/answering questions, proposing ideas, etc.)
  7. When doing your end-of-day inbox clearing, process your email from top down. If you skip around, it’s inefficient. To get to zero you need to clear all inbox emails anyway, so start at the top (the most recent) message. And when you have a clear inbox most days (or at least once a week), you will palpably feel lighter and happier. Try it!
  8. Only open a few emails, while archiving/deleting the rest. Most of us subscribe to too many newsletters and every couple of months you’ll find that you’ve again subscribed to more than you read. Simply resolve to open and respond to the personal and private emails. The rest? Categorize according to the aforementioned seven types. And learn how to quickly archive/delete emails in your email client of choice; for example, in Gmail, it’s clicking the checkbox at the top of a page to select all, then click “archive” to get it all out of the inbox. I do this after I’ve responded to the emails I need to respond to. Then, I quickly archive the remainder.
  9. Consider creating email templates. Whenever you find yourself replying with the same content time and again, it is time to copy and paste that content to a document called Email Templates. Whenever you are processing email, open that document.
  10. If you have any time remaining after you do the above—or in your spare time—you can go into your Optional Response & Spare Time email folders and chip away at them. Remember: they are optional, so just do whatever you have a bit of time for. Balance in your life is more important than clearing your optional folders!

Of course, these are just some suggested guidelines and your line of work may require you to deal with emails in specific ways. Try these rules as a starting point to organize your emails. Then customize it to create your own process to reach inbox ease everyday.


This blog post is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0 License.

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Freedom, by luchilu on Flickr