Yes, You Can Stay on Top of E-mail

A while back, one of my friends asked, “How do you get through all of your email. It’s killing me. I just can’t seem to get on top of it.” I know the feeling.

Photo courtesy of ©, Image #3691219

Photo courtesy of ©

Actually, I get asked this question a lot. Despite all the current technology and software tools available, many people are falling further behind with each passing day. They just can’t seem to keep up with the avalanche of digital messages hitting their inbox.

But it is really possible to get caught up on your email and stay caught up? Yes. I’ve done so for years, even as the demands of my job have increased. I’m not bragging; it’s just a fact. But I should warn you: there is no easy fix. Taking control of your inbox means changing your behavior. You must be willing to make the investment.

When you are not on top of your email, you feel out of control. Becoming an email ninja is therefore an essential survival skill. But in my opinion, making the investment is well-worth the effort.

When you are not on top of your email, you feel out of control. It is like a dripping faucet that gnaws quietly away at your psyche and your self-confidence. It can also torpedo your career, since people tend to associate responsiveness with competence. Therefore, becoming an email ninja is an essential survival skill.

If I had to boil it all down to four behaviors, I would recommend the following:

  1. Empty your inbox everyday. This must be your goal. You want to be able to go to sleep with every message processed. That doesn’t mean you answer every message. However, it does mean that you have processed every message. There’s a big difference, as I will explain in a minute.
  2. Don’t get bogged down, keep moving. The key is that once you start processing your inbox, you must move quickly. Read each message once and answer this question: “Is this message actionable?” In other words, “Am I being asked to do something?” If so, there are only three possible actions:
    • Do—take action on the task now. I follow David Allen’s two-minute rule. If I can do what is being requested in less than two minutes, I do it immediately. This gets stuff off your to-do list before it ever gets on it. This has the added advantage of making you look responsive.
    • Delegate—pass the task along to someone else. I’m not talking about “passing the buck.” But oftentimes someone else is better equipped to fulfill the sender’s request. Dawson Trotman once said, “I purposed never to do anything others could or would do when there was so much of importance to be done that others could or would not do.” In other words, try to focus on where you add value and offload everything else.
    • Defer—consciously decide you will do the task later. This only applies to asks you cannot complete in two minutes or less or can’t delegate to someone else. You can either add the task to your to-do list or schedule an appointment with yourself to complete it. Fortunately, in Entourage, I convert an email message to a task or an event (i.e., appointment) with a single keystroke.

    If the action is not actionable (i.e., the sender is not requesting that you do something), or not actionable any longer because you have taken action on it, then you have two options:

    • Delete—determine if you might need the information later. If not, delete it. My own assumption is that if it’s really important, someone, somewhere else in the world, has a copy of it.
    • File—if you think you might need the information, file it. But do not create an elaborate set of file folders. This is the single most important piece of advice I can give you. Just file everything in one folder called “Processed Mail.”

      If it is more complicated than this, it will lead to procrastination. Trust me on this. You will have to decide, Should I file this under Tami because it is from her or under Max because it is about him? And then what happens if the email covers more than one subject? Do you make copies of the email and put one copy under each folder? Things can get complicated fast.

      Forget all of that. File your email in one folder and let your email or system software (e.g., “Spotlight”) find it when you need it. The search capabilities of almost every modern email program will enable you to put your hands on any message whenever it is necessary. It may take you a few minutes longer to find the message using this method, but this is offset by the hours you waste trying to figure out how to file your messages.

  3. When you first begin processing email as I have described, it will feel slow and cumbersome. You will have to think about each step. But, this won’t last long. You will eventually be able to move through these steps without consciously thinking about what you are doing. Responding in this manner will become second nature. For example, I can usually process about 100 message an hour, which is my typical, daily volume.

  4. Use keyboard shortcuts and avoid the mouse. The mouse is a horribly inefficient input device. Nearly every mouse action has a keyboard equivalent. In Mac OS X, you can even create keyboard shortcuts for any menu item in any software package. (Check under  | System Preferences | Keyboard & Mouse | Keyboard Shortcuts.)

    My personal goal is to never use the mouse. Every time I do, I must take my hands off the keyboard. It doesn’t sound like that would cost you much time, but it adds up. KeyCue is a Mac program that will help you learn the shortcuts for any program. It is worth the investment. Alternatively, you can check the program’s help file and look up “keyboard shortcuts.”

  5. Let email rules filter the low-priority stuff. If you haven’t discovered email rules, you’re missing a great time-saver. (In Outlook, they are under the Tools menu. In Apple Mail, they are part of the Preferences panel.) They sounds a little geeky, but they are not that difficult to use. Like everything, it will take a little investment, but it will save you hours of time.

    For example, I have a rule that moves email messages I am just copied on to a “CC Mail” folder. I assume that these are lower priority messages. I don’t want them cluttering up my main inbox. I get to them when I can, but it is not high priority.

    I also have Bacn folder for email newsletters, receipts, and other automatically-generated reading material. (“Spam” is unsolicited bulk email. “Bacn” is solicited bulk email.) Entourage has a Mailing List Manager that makes this a breeze. And, like CC mail, it keeps it out of my inbox.

Don’t give into despair. You can keep up with email. You don’t have to be a geek. But you will have to make some new commitments and learn some new behaviors. But in the end, a little extra effort will save you time and give you the satisfaction that you are in control of your workflow.

Question: How are you doing with your email? Are you making progress? What additional advice would you give? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Andy Pike

    I was skeptical about handling email this way, but it actually works! Michael was spot-on when he said that it would awkward and cumbersome at first. I have to hide my mouse because I’ve become so used to it. I’m much less stressed now that I’ve committed to cleaning out email by the end of the day each day…it really does work!

  • Jim Voigt

    I have implemented all of this, and the only thing I stepped back on was having things go into specific folders automatically (using rules). I’m too much of a spaz for that, and I found I was wasting a ton of time checking those folders. But the Processed Mail folder is an absolute necessity. I have found that the advanced search functions get my exactly what I need FASTER than having it in separated folders. And it avoids the dreaded e-mail that really should be filed into two different folders if you are going to use the folder system. I hit zero on my inbox almost every day, and even on the days when I fall short, I get close. Thanks for these tips! I know lots of other people who successfully use email rules so don’t let me OCD slow you down on that one!

  • Dave Grissen

    Thanks for the tips. Very helpful.

  • Ryan Hamilton

    Great article Michael (and clearly timeless!). One tool I use within Gmail is Boomerang. I can quickly tell Boomerang to return the email to me at a specified later date if it’s not actionable in 2 minutes. And Boomerang is often smart enough to scan them email for specific deadlines, so often it knows when to return the email!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I use in a similar way. Thanks.

  • Barbara Starlyt

    Hi Michael, you are one of my favorit blogs to keep up with. I love how you speak about real life experiences and not just a lot of jargon for businesses. I can relate and use what you talk about. If it weren’t for you I would never have tried Evernote. It is so full of jargon and for business clients only, that I had a hard time figuring out how to use it for basic life issues. I am still not doing it right, Evernote, I think is for people who are into so many things they need multiple tools to stay organized, I do not need that. I do a lot of research and so my need has to do with that area and everything research entails.
    This email article is exally what I needed for an out-of-control email issue. For me, bless you, for stateing and communicating about more everyday living issues, not just for the business man.

  • Dilin Anand

    Interesting post, and I was pointed here through your amazing podcasts at iTunes.

    Although the article is a couple of years old, the content you have is kind of timeless — especially since we have new people joining the workforce every year. They should make email management part of the curriculum ;)

    I’ve written a deep article which focuses on just email management for working folks. Please feel free to drop by at

  • Carlene_Byron

    The closer I get to email Zero, the more email I get. Does anyone else have this problem?

    • Barry Hill

      You’re not alone! It’s almost like people are receiving some sort of memo that your inbox is almost at Zero and need make sure that doesn’t happen. :)

  • Rob Hughes

    We have clients who set an auto responder to run 24/7, saying “Thanks for your message. I respond to emails between 3PM and 4:30PM, daily. If it’s urgent, call 555.555.5555 and ask for NAME.” In this way, they “train” others to either work with their support team member or grow patience. Now, I realize not all service industries have this luxury, but for them, it’s one piece of their Email Strategy.

    This R3 video discusses Email Strategy, and the development of one therein.

  • Evan Courtney

    Do you use the same process when on mobile? Or do you avoid processing email then?

    • Michael Hyatt

      I avoid processing email on my mobile. I will check it for quick messages, but prefer to work on my laptop. Thanks.