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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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • @japesTwt

    Getting through e-mails productively is becoming an ever-increasing problem; I like your take on it, Michael! I do think there is another dimension to it, though: our role as senders of e-mail. With basic e-mail etiquette, the e-mail monster would be a lot smaller. I'm talking about the evils of:

    1) Needlessly & endlessly CCing the whole world into an e-mail that does not concern 99% of recipients. There are better ways to show your colleugues & managers that you are busy than to CC them into every e-mail you send.

    2) One e-mail, one subject. This helps you to keep it short & simple & helps the reader with actioning it quickly & effectively.

    3) Clearly & directly ask the recipient(s) what you want them to do with the information. E-mail does not convey implied messages well, so if you want someone to do something, go ahead and ask it of them.

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  • Samantha Johnson

    I just blogged about it yesterday and it explains in detail how I’ve conquered mine.

    I identified the ‘types’ of e-mails I received on a daily basis and filed them in different e-mail accounts. Tedious but it’s so worth it!

  • Ron Dawson

    I use Gmail to manage email and I absolutely LOVE the new Priority Inbox feature. Brings to the top all the emails that I really want to read. The emails of lower priority (which it learns based on your email habits and behaviors) are filtered to the bottom. About 80% of the low priority ones I can delte w/o even reading. Makes it much easier to filter through the stuff that really needs attention.

    Thanks for the continued encouragement Michael.

  • Ralph Stoever

    Thanks for the post. In general, I follow a similar system.

    My only real issue is with ‘pending’ e-mails. For example, I receive a request for volunteer work on the WE, but before I can answer, I must get additional information from someone else (for example regarding the kids activities).

    In the mean time, the first mail just sits there. It gets worse if the message regarding the kids activities is not specific enough and I needs to be clarified… now I have two lame ducks sitting in plain site.

    Suggestions? I don’t want to loose sight of the messages since they require response within a short time, but I am not satisfied with leaving them clutter my box either.

  • Ralph Stoever

    Thanks for the post. In general, I follow a similar system.

    My only real issue is with ‘pending’ e-mails. For example, I receive a request for volunteer work on the WE, but before I can answer, I must get additional information from someone else (for example regarding the kids activities).

    In the mean time, the first mail just sits there. It gets worse if the message regarding the kids activities is not specific enough and I needs to be clarified… now I have two lame ducks sitting in plain site.

    Suggestions? I don’t want to loose sight of the messages since they require response within a short time, but I am not satisfied with leaving them clutter my box either.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Have you read Getting Things Done by David Allen? If not, I would strongly suggest it. Items like you describe go on a @WaitingFor or Pending list in your To-Do List management system.

      • Ralph Stoever

        Thanks a lot – Will do!
        I’ll need to add triggers (reminders) to the mails in the @WaitingFor folder to ensure that I raise the flags in time (and not just following a weekly review)
        I already set-up the bacn folder (even the word was new for me) too and will add new bacn messages to the filter as they come.

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  • Anonymous

    I absolutely agree with your conclusion that a behavior change is required if the e-mail inbox is ever to be conquered. I work in an international industry and the e-mails come in around the clock. I had to find a system that worked for me. I use Outlook’s rules to color-code incoming messages: Blue means I’m the only one on the “To” line. Large red font = e-mail from my boss. The only e-mails that remain in my inbox at the end of the day are messages that came in after ~6pm or messages that I want to process first thing in the morning. The exception is for a couple of messages that I don’t want to forget about. My goal is to have fewer than 20 e-mails in my inbox when I leave for the day, but usually I have less than 10.

    I’m working to find a system for messages that I delegate, so that I can make sure I follow-up and ensure those delegated actions are completed. I’ve yet to master Outlook’s tasking system.

    I don’t agree with your philosophy on filing & deleting, but I suppose “to each his own”. I find outlook’s ability to search through all of my archives eliminates the need for me to worry about where I should file something. Having general groupings helps me for most of my day-to-day management of information and people. Because I know I might get hit with a question about a product we shipped 2 years ago, I do like to have things archived and relatively accessible.

  • Bret Mavrich

    Using @OmniFocus and @Evernote, I can forward all of my Delete and Defer categories into the appropriate “buckets.” With OF, I can assign the entire message to a project and even add multiple steps, tag it with a context, and assign a due date—all from Mail for Mac! It’s so sweet. Evernote should be—by the end of 2010—self explanatory.

    Plus, using these two powerful tools to take control of my email inbox makes cycling email on the go from my iPhone so much easier. My OF contact is labeled “Omni” and my EN contact “NewNote.” The elaborately coded email addresses pop up automatically and I’m set to go.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Nozbe, which I now use, is very similar.

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  • Robert Ewoldt

    I’m ashamed to say this… but I don’t clean out my Inbox every day. I really should. It is tremendously freeing when I finally get it cleaned out. Like today… I actually cleaned out my Google Reader box (which was a large accomplishment, even though I didn’t read a whole lot, but just skimmed the headlines).

  • Warren Davis

    Great post. Any advice on setting up rules in Mail for those who don’t use Entourage?

    • Michael Hyatt

      I now use Mail. It’s actually pretty much the same. Are you stuck on something in particular?

  • Mike Freestone

    I am caught up as of today…but behind for the last year of emails. Going to give it a go. The good news for me is that I have all my emails, both sent and received, archived in my gmail for searching. Especially useful when on the road.

    Do you recommend web-based email services like gmail or outlook or the mac version?

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  • Kristievosper

    I’m curious, what do you think about email while on vacation? I generally put an away message up and try to stay away so that I truly “vacate” from work. However, I do find if I comb through it daily deleting everything I don’t need I feel less overwhelmed when I return. Thoughts?

    • Michael Hyatt

      I have done it both ways. I like going offline best.

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  • Richard

    How do you handle sent messages?  They pile up too.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I use Gmail, so they are automatically archives in the Sent folder.

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  • Baileywoods2011

    I became a 6 figure earner with this.
    I think all of us entrepreneurs should
    help one another no matter what biz we
    are in……………Don’t you?

    Here is your software and video showing
    how to use it. Let me know if you like it?
    I have other software to help you as well.

    God Bless You!

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  • Donbarger

    I use very similar methods to handle my email. A couple of suggestions –

    1) read the book Bit Literacy – currently free on iBooks.
    2) Use an auto bcc script in terminal to send copies of all outgoing emails to an archive email. Use something like Don’t give the address to anyone or use it for anything else. This serves as an online auto archive of emails.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this, Michael.

    I never knew about KeyCue. I will definitely investigate that tool, as I admit to not knowing any keyboard shortcuts for my Mac. You just may have saved me just in time, as e-mail was definitely starting to get the better of me!

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  • JennyRain

    is there a way I can email your blog to myself? I couldn’t find it on your “share” icons anywhere… I want to share it with our team leads, this is awesome advice!

    • Michael Hyatt

      You can email the link to yourself. Just go to the bottom of the post and click on the icons that say, “Share and Enjoy.” Unfortunately, this will only email the link, not the actual post. To do that, you will need to subscribe to the blog via email. You can do that here.

  • David Redekop

    This works great at 500 emails over 3 days.  Would love to see you re-post/edit when you get to 1,000+ per day.

  • Janine McDonald

    People dread email because they perceive that it is getting in the way of them doing real work, and/or they use it a procrastination tool.  I ask people to try this…instead of starting the day by opening the inbox and responding to other people’s emails, which usually serve their priorities, not yours  - spend the first 30 minutes of the day working on one of your top priorities so real work can get accomplished before the blocking and tackling that is email begins.

  • Buzz Bruggeman

    To deal with this problem we e.g., ActiveWords, built an Outlook anda a Gmail agent. Radically speeds up how you hand E-Mail. One of these days we will build a Mac version, but 93% of computers are still running Windows.

    And…fwiw.. And David Allen of #GTD fame just named us in his top 5 productivity tools which has been a great lift.

    Happy New Year!

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  • Rob Sorbo

    Great tips. I’m generally not bombarded with e-mail, but I can really see how I can put these to use. 

    I know you suggest not having elaborate folders, but I found that setting up elaborate folders and then setting up rules that kicks e-mail to those folders is helpful–that has the benefit of the rule and the benefit of a good filing system (although, I agree that the search functions are faster than going to the folder).

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  • tod

    Help i’m not a mac user- like the entrourage idea is their a microsoft equivallant ?

    • Joe Lalonde

      Tod, I believe Microsoft Outlook would be the closest thing. In fact, Entourage was a Microsoft product for the Mac!

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  • Charles Plant

    Excellent set of rules. I somehow manage to keep email down to a dull roar, emptying my inbox, perhaps not every day but at least making sure that nothing in it is more than 24 hours old. My most recent innovation was how to deal with sent items which become clogged and unruly unless they are managed as well. My trick for doing that is to set up a rule that forwards all of my sent mail into my inbox. From there I file it properly or delete it. One more step but an easy one that keeps Outlook even cleaner.

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  • Linda Adams

    One of the things I’ve done is set up Outlook shortcuts in Office 2010 (they appear on the Home Tab).   It uses Office rules, but puts them in a handy place.  I have several categories where emails are supposed to go.  I click one of the rules link, it assigns the category, and moves it the proper folder.  The rules on incoming email scare me — I went on leave and had it delete the general messenger stuff we get.  I had it dump it into the deleted folder so I could do a quick scan when I returned before I deleted it.  Despite the fact I had specified the specific email address to delete, Outlook also decided that a coworker — one I needed to take care of as soon as I got back — needed to be deleted, too.  Every one of his emails was in the deleted box.

  • Nikole Hahn

    That and making sure people stop sending me forwards. Lost an important email because it got buried. 

  • tomknesel

    As an Evernote junkie I simply forward emailsthat I want to save for search or reference later to my Evernote account. (Evernote gives you an email address to use for this.) If it is actionable I add “@Tasks” to the subject line and it goes straight to my Tasks notebook in Evernote. Another trick is to use mail filters to forward certain types of mail directly to Evernote folder bypassing the inbox. I use this for industry news and announcements that I can read offline from my iPad.

    I have a similar trick for things like hotel and air reservations. I use a web service called Worldmate that has companion apps for most mobile devices. Rather than manually adding flights and hotels to my calendar I use a filter to forward the reservations to Worldmate that automatically builds an itinerary and tracks flight delays, changes, etc. Another copy goes to, you guessed it, Evernote.

    • Jim Martin

      Tom, I also use Evernote for particular e-mails that I want to keep, especially those that are connected with a project that I am working on.