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  • Writer's pictureLorri

I HATE email: 11 tips for managing an unruly inbox

With mobility programs and distributed work environment becoming mainstream, many employees are finding an increased reliance on technology for communication – mainly email. Inboxes seem to have an uncanny ability to grow in a very short period of time. Without constant management, the number of unread messages you accumulate can become downright daunting. Struggling with an unwieldy inbox is a pretty standard experience for most of us.

But volume is not my biggest complaint about email. And, if we are changing the workplace to become more collaborative and innovative, increasing the use of email seems to be moving us in the opposite direction. Here's why:

1. Email is a passive form of communication and is completely lacking in collaboration – it’s a static unidirectional one way conversation vs being engaging and collaborative. The linear nature of email conversation makes it very difficult to have a productive, collaborative discussion with a group. Because email messages often come with a request of some kind, it builds up your to-do list, leaving you feeling hopelessly underwater and unable to catch up.

2. Lacking intonation – Words can be misunderstood or unclear, leaving the wrong impression and can be detrimental to relationship building. The receiver can be offended or upset with the email, an outcome not intended by the sender.

3. Meetings by email – These are meetings that go several screen longs, and force the reader to either make sense of piecing together multiple opinions or long. It’s hard to get complex topics across in email.

4. False sense of productivity – responding to emails does not necessarily mean you are productive – activity does not necessarily equal productivity. Email rarely instigates productive discussion; it is, instead, an endless cycle of responding after-the-fact to other people's requests.

5. Over cc-ing – Copying too many people on the email, especially when the email is not directed at them. Even worse when this is combined with #3!

6. It isn’t closed loop. It’s easy for issues or important items to evaporate into email Never-never Land unless you have a lock solid way of keeping track of everything (which is also more work). Some email systems have reminder functions and tasks management options which are very under utilized.

So, don’t do these things! What SHOULD we do instead?

Here are the top 10 most commonly suggested tips on managing your inbox:

1. Use the "Two-Minute Rule" (a concept from David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done). When you read your mail – if the email will take less than two minutes to read and reply to, then take care of it right now, even if it's not a high priority. The idea behind this is that if it takes less than two minutes to action, it takes longer to read and then store the task away "to do later" than it would to just take care of it now.

This suggestion aligns with my 'touch it once' philosophy: rather than leave something behind to take care of later (whether it be putting away laundry, paying a bill or responding to email), putting tasks to bed as quickly as possible clears your to-do list and your mind.

2. Sort by subject line. This allows you to see all the responses, and batch file them all when you are done.

3. Sort by sender. This is an effective way of zeroing in on all communications from a specific individual so you can deal with everything in one swoop. Good to use in companionship with ‘sort by subject line’

4. Set up a simple filing system. Create folders like 'Action Items' 'Waiting' 'Reference' 'Archives'. Sorting email into folders can be useful to separate projects and subject matter, but it can also create more work by adding an organizational task. Using a Rules feature to automatically sort email into specific folders as soon as it comes in can help to keep things organized. However, be mindful that not every email fits a category, and some fit across multiple categories. If you're not careful, you can still lose track of messages.

I actually file all emails into ONE folder that is dated – the search ability is so good, that 99% of the time I can quickly find what I’m looking for with a search vs. trying to remember which folder I decided.

5. Unsubscribe from anything you haven't read recently. Self-explanatory. Unsubscribe to email feeds you don't read. Everyone needs to purge house once in a while. Best to unsubscribe in the moment, as you receive that newsletter you never read or are delivered a coupon from that online store you shopped at once.

Alternatively, set up mail rules so that the same type of email is automatically filed for your future reference.

6. Have a quick conversation. If you find yourself typing out a long email response, and fussing over wording to get the right intent, then email probably isn’t the method for you. If you are within the reasonably same time zone – pick up the phone. No need for a meeting, but avoid 5 screen emails on complex topics. An email isn’t the best forum to have an exchange. Chances are will require clarifications or elaboration. A quick 5-10 minute call can save 20 emails and hours/days of wasted time.

7. Take combustible email conversation offline. When it seems like tempers or conflict are escalating, pick up the phone (or even better, talk face to face).

This is excellent advice for two reasons. First, email doesn't communicate tone, and the sender may not be as upset as you perceive them to be. You'll find out the sender's state of mind much more quickly if you speak to them directly. Second, phone or face-to-face discussion is a quick path to diffusing potential problems; it lets others know you take their concerns seriously. Talking in person allows the individual with a complaint to be heard fully, blow off steam and get their beef out of their system, so it doesn't spread and/or poison other workers. Also, people tend to be more constructive in person, vs. it is easier to hide behind emails using cruel words.

8. Do not use email inbox as a to-do list! Create your to-do list elsewhere, as your inbox is not a practical way of keeping tasks organized.

Using your inbox as a to-do list will almost certainly ensure that you'll forget a task as the action gets pushed to the bottom in chronology. There are lots of task management options that work with your email system, already built into your email – try them out!

9. Delete, delete,

delete! Or, File! Get rid of what you no longer need, and the critical messages will be more visible.

Like the other de-cluttering suggestions here, delete in the moment rather than after-the-fact. Don't wait to clean house, do it as you go.

10. Do you need to respond? Don't be that guy, the one who has to have the last word in every email thread. Even worse, don't be the person who writes one-word replies like "yes" or "thanks". Not every email needs a response, so be judicious when responding to messages. Especially when there are a lot of people cc’d on the email.

Remember, everyone has email mountains – even emails like these, while they are well intended still give the audience an extra email to weed through…even worse when you cc a bunch of people.

11. If you and your team are genuinely interested in minimalizing the amount of email sent and received at work, try adopting online collaborative tools like Trello, Monday, Slack or Yammer to communicate. These services allow you to create to-do lists, project boards, message boards, share documents and offer other features that will enable team members to see, contribute and share in a forum that's visible to everyone. Using services like these take your team members out of your inbox, reducing messages and leaving email communication for other important individuals such as clients, suppliers etc.

Well that’s it for now!

Do you have a top-notch tip for managing your inbox? If so, I'd like to hear it! Fill in the contact form to the right of this page and submit your ideas for email best practices.

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