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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  • Tim Schurrer

    Is there a major reason why you use Entourage instead of Apple Mail? Do you use Outlook now (since this post is 4 years old)?

  • Jonathan Moore

    I don’t think this blog post can be repeated enough for me :).  My struggle is keeping email balanced and trimmed with two email handlers on my laptop and Android because I use Outlook for work and Thunderbird for personal emails.

    • Jim Martin

      Jonathan, I was also glad to see Michael repeat this post.  I do a pretty good job of dealing with e-mail until my work gets very busy.  Then I read a post like this and realize what I have let go.

  • Juan Cruz Jr

    I especially liked the tip on not creating elaborate folders. I don’t do that either. I have a “misc” folder for all “processed emails”. I only have folders for each one of my employees to help me with reviews at the end of the year.

  • Steven

    I completely agree with Michael on e-mail. I spent an entire Saturday working through my Inbox 20 years ago, and I have used all of the above ever since.

  • DaveMerrill

    Great post, thank you.  I also get about 100 e-mails per day and I like to file my e-mails in a “processed” folder by month (e.g. Feb2012).  I keep everything immediately available in Outlook for the past six months and auto archive folders older than that.  I have returned to my archived folders maybe once or twice in the last several years.  This allows access to search recent information and stores the content in managable chunks for archiving.  Keep up the great posts, Michael, and enjoy your vacation.  Happy Independence Day to all!

  • http://www.SevenPillarsOfSuccess.Net Louise Thaxton

    Some great tips here, Michael.  I have to say I do much of this but I still have a pretty big list of file folders for their “safe keeping”!  I use my e-mail much like a storage system – which I know is not good!  I am trying to become proficient with Evernote – and hopefully can move more to that system than my e-mail system.  Hope you are having a beautiful vaca.

  • K A

    This was awesome advice.  I hammered through my personal email today.  It was amazing that I still had email from 2008 in my Inbox.

    Now to tackle the 1000+ work emails…

    • Jim Martin

      K A – Good for you in tackling this today.  One of my daughters once looked on my computer and saw that I had several hundred e-mails in my inbox.  “Dad why do you have these?”  That question alone motivated me to clean it out!

  • Solomon Harris

    I’m a 12+ year email ninja but found my systems challenged recently with a change in duties and new routine.  If I have more than 20 messages in my inbox waiting for action, I lose my way!  Would you say that checking your email by blackberry before getting to work is counterproductive?

  • Denisedarcel

    I believe in the KISS policy; your tips keep e-mail simple, namely read, respond, file, or delete.

  • Leslie Royce

    Studying your advice, I realized that I needed to add to it for myself.  I created a word processing folder of things I wanted to read that were cluttering up my email waiting for me to find the time.  I copied and pasted the guts of the things I wanted to read and then deleted them from my email.   I know I will only keep some notes from them when I got around to reading them but I also know some of those notes might be very valuable to me – that is why I kept them in the first place.  Now the articles are all sitting in a file called READ WHEN YOU GET A CHANCE.  I think of it as my sewing basket, what my mother would turn to when she got a chance to do some mending.  This has really cleaned out my email and I can turn to my ‘reading basket’ whenever I get a chance.

  • Thomas

    Great information.  I devote an hour a day in the AM and 30 minutes in the afternoon to answering emails with Outlook rules designed to sort messages from my commanders and direct reports to folders I look at first.  Those emails are prioritized and the others, if they can’t be answered in that 90 minutes, wait to be answered (but are still processed) until the next day when they might be a higher priority.

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  • Dallon Christensen

    I absolutely love the idea of the second, “private” e-mail. Once I get to the point where I can’t process all of my e-mail, I’ll use an e-mail I have never used before but have on a private domain.

  • ChrisTAL

    I’ve been utilizing the “processed mail” inbox. It’s changed my life! Okay, well…perhaps that’s an exaggeration. But, it’s wonderful. I’m highly more productive with email now. I use to prioritize my todo’s for the office. 

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  • Linda Adams

    I’m going to have the same problem myself today.  I don’t dare use rules — Outlook doesn’t always filter the right things.  I had it set to delete some general distribution emails, and it also delete a coworker’s — ones that were important.  Instead, I move all the emails except for the current day into another folder.  Then I deal with the current emails.  After that, as time permits, I whack out the general distribution ones and anything I don’t need and follow up on the rest.

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  • Darrell

    Great advice Mike! I’ve started using these and found them to really work! Also, I found Sanebox a great tool to help with emails. It learns which emails should go into your inbox. Check it out sometime.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Sanebox looks pretty compelling.

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  • Brian Jennings

    Thanks. I wrote on this just the other day. I do use folders/labels, but my world is pretty easy to categorize. Many of these folders are temporary (like for an upcoming trip) and I will delete it soon. 

    Also helpful to me…

    Take the 20 seconds, when needed, to unsubscribe from anything that I can live with out.

    Ask my co-workers to not send e-mails that are irrelevant to me.I always make a point to do this when I’m going to be out of the office for a few days. 

    Have an itchey trigger finger (hit delete before I even open an obviously comedic, political or religiously cheesy forward from a frequent abuser).

  • Michael Hyatt

    Honestly, I never clean mine out.

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  • Jared Balis

    Michael, or anyone else who has some advice. I’m a little bit nervous about ditching my elaborate folder system. How did this work for you Michael, or anyone else, when you made the switch from folders to folder? Thanks!

  • Thomas (TJ) Trent

    I am going to implement this at home and work.

  • Thomas (TJ) Trent


  • M5Joanis

    Reading a book on this: Bit Literacy

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  • Lindsay Chung

    I have been reading your book “Platform: Get Notice in a Noisy World” and I had to put down the book and come right here when I read the “About Me” section. I saw the title of this article and had to come over right this very minute and read it.

    Such simple solutions, but I just had to really sit down and put some time into it. My email box was becoming out of control. Thanks for the push!

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  • Clarkhardaway

    Just before I read this I had started to try to get my email under control. I don’t worry about “sender” sorting into files. But I do have folders for clients that I handle. It makes seeing conversations easier to follow for me.

    I also have an “encouragement” folder. In the IT world, every little victory counts and any time I get really positive feedback I put it in a folder so I can go back on days where I don’t feel like I’m making a difference and see times when I have.

  • Marques Holmes

    One of the greatest tools to assist in this endeavor is Xobni, for me it is the single greatest email tool to mankind (yes, it’s that good). 
    It not only can find that email, document or link within in email, it also includes social media integration for contacts tagged in the email, analytics and also allows you to do the same from your tablet or smartphone.  
    I’ve been using it for over 3 years now.  
    It works well with Outlook/Apple/Gmail/Evernote and all mobile operating systems.

  • Wietze

    Awesome advice!

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  • Kay

    I use gmail’s labels and custom star system – which gives me checkmarks, etc to use – then I can easily pull up messages related to a certain project and tell at a glance what I’ve done or not. It knocks the “to-do” list out of the process.

    • Michael Hyatt

      What do you do for to-dos that aren’t based on an e-mail?

  • Bryan

    I defer messages that will take more than 2 minutes to respond to by flagging them for follow-up today, tomorrow, this week, or this month, and moving them to a “Follow Up” folder. Now, instead of an Inbox full of backlogged messages, I have a Follow Up folder full of backlogged messages. When do you go back and work on the deferred messages?

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  • Linden

    Hi Micheal,

    here’s a time-saving tip. This report-writing site was designed for teachers but is actually great for creating standard flexible emails and letters and is free for anyone to use..

    All the best,