This post was updated September 10, 2021
Email management can be a daunting task. Lots of systems, tools, and games promise to help your team get a handle on email.
The best email management strategies involve viewing email as real work, understanding the difference between reviewing and processing email, and using a workflow management system to organize email and other work communications. Teams trained to systematically approach email increase productivity.
For the past two decades, I’ve helped leaders improve the productivity of their teams and companies by approaching email systematically with my Empowered Productivity System. Here are some of the best email management tips I know:
1. View Email as Real Work
Email isn’t something to squeeze in around your real work. Email is real work, and it takes real, dedicated time. When you handle email the right way, everyone on your team will have more time to focus on achieving their most important goals.
Many people schedule their days heavily and somehow think that they’ll stay on top of email in the brief gaps between meetings and “real work.”
Or they multitask by jumping between email and other work, frantically skimming every message as it lands in their inbox, living with the fear that constantly checking is the only way to stay on top of the endless deluge of email.
People who treat email this way are caught in “skim and skip” mode. Because they don’t allow time to really deal with their email in a more thoughtful way, they scan for messages that seem easy, exciting, or critical to deal with, leaving anything that seems more complicated until the elusive “later.” The problem is, “later” never comes.
2. Understand Reviewing vs Processing Email
Working randomly, without an organized system for email management can cause your team members to miss critical messages or reply too hastily. A good system will set aside separate time for reviewing vs processing email.
When you review your inbox, you quickly scan incoming mail for urgent messages. Periodically review email for any important, time-sensitive, or easy-to-dispatch items.
When you process your email, on the other hand, you spend dedicated daily time truly handling your email messages. This may mean responding to a message thoughtfully, or moving an item to your task list, or moving an email into another folder.
Processing means dealing with every single message, and either deleting it or otherwise moving it out of my inbox.
3. Review Your Inbox Only as Often as Necessary
Ask your team members to think about how many times per day they really need to check their inboxes for messages that need immediate action (or make your own recommendations).
The answer will depend on their jobs, but it’s probably less often than they currently review email.
Then ask each person to commit to only reviewing email only as often as necessary.
4. Don’t Multitask When Reviewing Email
Review email in between doing other things, not during other things.
Switching from important tasks to check the latest email is a profound waste of what I call “brainpower momentum”—the deeper focus we need to achieve to apply ourselves fully to our work.
If you have 10 minutes between meetings, go ahead and review your emails. But don’t review your emails during the meeting.
5. Review Email on a Handheld Device
One email management strategy that works well is to review email on a handheld device only.
Because the device is so small, it’s only really only conducive to reviewing, and it’s less tempting to get derailed because typing responses and maneuvering through mailboxes and folders is frustrating on a small handheld device.
On the other hand, when reviewing email on a full-size computer screen and keyboard, you could lose hours reading, responding, and filing, even if your intention was “just a quick review.”
6. Calculate Time to Respond to “Real” Messages
It’s likely that your employees may feel it would look silly to block out time on their calendars for email. But if email is real work that requires real time, then you have to ask yourself, when is that time going to happen?
Here’s a good email management strategy: Take a guess as to how many “real” messages you get daily.
I consider a “real” message one that is addressed specifically to you, and sent by a real person that is related to your work in some way, such as a colleague, a vendor, customer, or important mailing list.
Once you have an estimate of how many of these you receive in a day, multiply that number by two. This is because on average, it takes about two minutes to give most messages a thoughtful read, and make a decision about what to do with them (some combination of reply/delete/file).
Now you know about how much time email management needs to take in your days. For example, if you get 50 real messages, you need about one hundred minutes per day of email processing time.
It’s also true that there will be days where you don’t have any time for processing, like during all-day meetings or training events. That means you’ll need to leave two hundred minutes the next day, or three hundred minutes the day after that.
7. Use an Out-of-Office Message When You’re Away
Even on days when you have no time to manage your inbox, the emails still keep coming! So you have to plan for that.
You should put an out-of-office message on your email when you’re going to be away for more than a day, to set expectations about when people will hear from you.
8. Process Email in a Place Where You Can Focus
When it comes time to process email, encourage your team to perform this task in a place that allows them to be focused and mindful.
The goal is to get through the messages, and they won’t be able to do that if they are getting interrupted and distracted. If they have an office door, they should close it and if that’s not enough, add a sign. You can download free and funny “Do Not Disturb” signs here.
If they sit in an open space, they might put on headphones to signal to others they are occupied. Or maybe you could encourage them to head across the street to a coffee shop where they are less likely to be interrupted.
9. Work Offline While You Process Email
There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to clear an inbox while incoming messages keep piling up.
It’s like trying to shovel a hole while someone stands across from you throwing the dirt back in!
Instead, during the time your employees set aside to process email, they should stop incoming messages by working in offline mode.
10. Sort Your Email by Subject
The best way to get through email as efficiently as possible? Sort, sort, sort! A few quick clicks can eliminate a score of emails.
First, if you don’t already use “organize by conversation,” start with a sort by subject.
Entire conversations can be had under the same subject line, and you probably only need the most recent one to get all the information.
You might be able to delete all but the most recent one and read it from the bottom up, freeing up some inbox space and, more importantly, time.
11. Sort Email Again by Sender
Sort your email again, this time by “From.”
This way, you can delete or quickly file ads, coupons, newsletters, and anything else that isn’t “real mail.”
12. Sort Again from Oldest to Most Recent
I recommend putting the oldest emails at the top and working your way down.
Although you might be itching to see your most recent emails, you might have something urgently demanding your attention from earlier in the day (or the week), and they’ve been waiting the longest to hear from you. You’ve probably cut the number of emails in your inbox in half, so you won’t have to wait long to read the newest ones anyway.
13. Avoid the “Skim and Skip” Trap
If you see a daunting email, you may be tempted to avoid responding now.
But when you process email, you want to avoid the “skim and skip” method. What good is specifically setting aside time to process your email if you’re still going to leave the task for later?
Some messages may look a bit complicated at first glance, but make a commitment to read them through. Handling the email might turn out to be easier than you think. And if it’s as complex as it looks, you’ll be glad you got a jump on it.
14. Move To-Do Items to Your Task List
Some things I will have to save to do at a later date, maybe because I need more information, or because it will take many minutes or hours to complete, or because I need someone else’s help. In this case, whatever action is required gets moved to my to-do list, so that I can do it when I have the answers, time, and resources available to me.
15. Get to Inbox Zero a Few Times a Week
Without systematically and routinely clearing out your inbox, it’s not only possible but quite likely that you’ll miss important assignments, feedback, or invitations that will help you achieve your most significant results.
So move whatever email messages you think you might need to other “boxes” or folders, just not in your inbox. This way, you’ll know that if it’s in your inbox, you haven’t read it or dealt with it. Once you read and deal with it, resolve to move it out of your inbox using the strategies below.
And resolve to get to inbox zero a few times a week. It’s worth it! Read my post for a step-by-step guide for easily achieving this goal.
16. Limit After-Hours Email to Decrease Burnout
These days, many people send and receive work emails around the clock. But this is a big threat to productivity: When employees have no clear distinction between their work and personal lives, they’re much more prone to disengage from work and eventually burn out.
As a leader, you can help by explicitly setting rules for your team around when it’s okay to send work emails.
I recommend limiting emails on evenings and weekends and completely avoiding sending email to anyone on vacation. (If it’s truly urgent and someone is on vacation, give them a call.)
And did you know that after-hours work emails are not only bad for you, but they’re bad for families? Read Why Weekend Work Emails Are Bad for Your Family to find out why.
17. Use a Workflow Management System
Email management is part of a comprehensive workflow management system.
A workflow management system helps teams store, organize, prioritize, manage and execute all of their commitments, communication, and information.
I’ve trained thousands of employees around the world to use my Empowered Productivity System for workflow management, in order to increase individual and organizational productivity.
If you’re interested in talking to me about how I can help your team handle email most efficiently and create a workflow system, check out my training page and reach out. I welcome the opportunity to speak with you!
I’m on board with everything you’ve outlined except for the FIFO processing method. As someone who only check email end of day, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve descended upon an email conversation that played out over the course of the day and is now resolved.
Similar scenarios also play out myriad different ways.
Help me under why I’d want to start bottom up and process a series of emails only to find out the situation or question was resolved later in the day?
Josh, great question, thanks for asking! Without the first two steps, you’re exactly right about the problems you describe. If you sort by subject and by from first, it should eliminate the problem. If a problem in an older message has now been solved, you should know because of another message with the same subject (note that I recommend reading those newest to oldest first) or another message from the same person. If you sort by subject and read newest first (from the bottom up), and then by from and read newest first, and then with whatever is left over, you process via FIFO, and you still run into problems, I’d be interested to hear about it. Thanks again for reading and commenting!