Life Hack: Taking Control of your Email Box and your Life

I am probably one of the few people on the planet who maintains a 100% read email box with absolutely 0 files at the end of the day left in my Inbox. For those of you in the business world, you may be thinking to yourself things like “that is absurd!”, “why would you do that?”, “wtf!?”, or “how does that even happen!?” Over the course of my 10 year career I have learned how important it can truly be to manage communications with customers, colleagues, leaders, and friends and family. If you think about it, often times email is the only communication that you may have with someone, and therefore it is key to be responsive and self-aware of your digital presence. With that in mind, let me share a couple of relatively simple tips that help with sorting through the noise and focusing on the email communications that matter the most.

Why is it important to maintain your email box?

As I stated, often times, email is the only communication channel with which people may engage with you. By not maintaining minimum levels of attentiveness, people may feel as though you are intentionally ignoring them or are not valuing their contributions, workload, and insights. Important tasks, follow up items, and inquiries can get buried in your email if you are not up to date or attentive. At one of my previous employers (a sales job), employees were taught that all customer inquiries must be responded to within 8 hours (1 business day) – no excuses. If more people treated their colleagues, peers, and friends / family with this same level of professional respect, I truly believe that productivity levels would spike quite precipitously and the overall level of personal frustration would diminish significantly. Aside from common courtesy, it is also important to know where to spend your time and resources as well – a messing email box can make it very difficult to sort through the noise.

How to go about cleaning an email mess?

For me, the simplest way of managing my inbox is by following a few simple rules which help me to keep on top of my emails, prioritize tasks, and set expectations with people as to when I will be able to respond to their request or inquiry. My tips and tricks for reducing complexity are as follows:

    1. Index Recurring Communications – While those daily, weekly, and monthly newsletters may contain useful information, they are not critical to performing day to day responsibilities. Therefore, I set up rules within outlook to send them to a folder or folder(s) for discretionary / non-critical emails. If I get around to reading them……great…..if not……no harm no foul. It is important to sort the noise out of your inbox to avoid bogging down the important and critical messages and actions.
    2. Respond to Set Expectations – When I receive an email for a request, I add it to my queue and respond immediately or within a reasonable amount of time with the expected completion time frame based on my understanding of my resources available. If you let people know when you will get around to their request, it can help to significantly reduce email volumes down the road. When you don’t respond the number of contacts increases 10x with follow up emails. People should not have to worry about whether or not you received, read, and are processing their request. Everyone sleeps a little better when you respond. Once you respond though, it is critical to follow through on your committed time frames or else those follow up emails will continue to flow. If priorities change, it never hurts to send another email to reset expectations.
    3. Leverage Task Lists – For emails that require action, it is always important to document the request as a task in outlook. This helps to clear inbox and move your actions into a more manageable queue. Nobody wants to spend a lot of time interpreting and reinterpreting emails, so try to do the interpretation quickly and move it into an action list. With the task lists you can also change priorities, dates, and scope of the requests.   Also, for managers, it is a very helpful tool to set reminder notes and document outstanding actions from your team. The important take away here is to move things out of the mailbox into a more manageable and controllable list.
    4. Get the Quick Wins Out of the Way – Occasionally, requests that require minimal effort on your end but create maximum impact on the senders side of the equation can get lost in your email box. Small priorities / tasks with maximum impact should not be overshadowed by the larger priorities on your list of ‘to dos’; in fact, in most instances these smaller activities should take priority. Imagine that you have a team who needs a deck or example to get going their client deliverable, their progress is entirely hindered by your ability to respond with relevant content and examples. The 5 minutes it takes to pull examples is well worth delaying a higher priority item to get the team on track. Again, the importance of maintaining a manageable inbox really all comes down to how effectively you help others reduce their anxieties and uncertainty.
    5. Maximize Email Recipients – One of my biggest peeves is when someone sends a note to one person and then the nearly exact same note to 4 or 5 more people. By using the functionality in various email tools, you can send the same request to multiple people without each of them knowing. For scenarios where it is not critical that recipients don’t see each other’s contact information, crafting a well thought and organized email to all involved can help to reduce the amount of follow up email flow. This is critical and essential to ensuring that you don’t compound the overall correspondence within your email box. Fortunately, in this scenario, even if the responses are compounded, it is much easier to move read emails into various folders because they are all indexed with the same title. Being logical about the downstream impacts of correspondence is key to taking control of yur email.


I know I sound a little bit obsessive compulsive about communication management, particularly when it comes to email, but I find that this is an area where folks are completely inefficient. When my Inbox is empty and my task list is full, I find that I can sleep a little bit better at night. I also find that others are much more productive and efficient with their time as well. Taking control of your email box not only helps you simplify your work but it also helps you to take control of your life. Closing the loop can give you back wasted time and allow you to focus on what really matters to you!

If you find these tips helpful or if you have any that have worked well for you personally, please feel free to share. I am always open to life hacks.

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