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Get Out of Your Inbox

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

Managing email is a source of frustration for most business leaders. According to a McKinsey report, the average professional spends 28% of their day reading and responding to email.

I once worked for someone who seemed to receive well above the average of 120 emails a day. And at least once a year, when the number of emails in his inbox was in the thousands, he would select all and click delete. He likely received a big dopamine rush. Since most of us probably can’t get away with the delete all strategy, this article includes nine email practices that could collectively save you hundreds of hours a year.

Don’t check your email immediately after you wake up. I keep my phone outside of the bedroom and don’t check messages until after I have taken care of myself (i.e., exercised, eaten breakfast, and spent time with my family). This allows me to start my day with my intention.

Don’t begin the workday with email. I am at my mental best in the morning so I dedicate my time to higher cognitive load activities. If something important is in the works, I have developed enough restraint to take a quick look at the senders and subjects in my inbox and only open a message if it appears urgent. Most emails are not urgent (especially ones marked urgent).

Only open your email applications during designated times. The average worker checks their email every 37 minutes. On my best days, I check my work email while I am in the office three times: once in the morning after I complete my most important tasks, once midday, and a third time before I go home. I’m not always successful at doing this, but on the days that I am, I leave the office feeling good about what I have accomplished.

Turn off notifications. I don’t want to give outside noise priority over my thoughts, so all my notifications are off on my computer. Research suggests that after checking our email we find it difficult to switch tasks. In addition, my personal phone is set to silent 90% of the time and almost all my notifications are off there too.

Move emails out of your inbox after you read them. Delete what you can. If you respond, do one of two things: Delete the initial message (because you have a copy of it in your sent folder) or file it if it’s really important. In the event you want to track something related to the message, you should insert an action item on your calendar (e.g., follow up with Amanda in October). Since the search function has improved in most email applications, all you really need is one folder for any emails you want to save. My folder is titled “Saved.”

Filter messages. Direct listserv and email subscriptions to a folder so you can read them when you choose, unsubscribe to newsletters you no longer find relevant, and block spam. Filtering messages out of your inbox helps you prioritize what you read.

Establish a priority framework for responding. Responding to the most recent email is a terrible strategy and the first in, first response approach isn’t much better. Depending on the type of work you do, you might put superiors first. Or you might respond first to customers. I try to prioritize responses to my students.

Use signatures for common responses. I have 15 templated messages written as email signatures. For example, I receive dozens of emails every August and November from students wanting to enroll in my courses. Rather than typing the same response each time, I select my “Course Enrollment” signature and click send.

Send fewer emails. If you send fewer emails you are likely to receive fewer emails. This might mean you need to walk down the hall to talk to a colleague or even pick up the phone. If an email takes more than five sentences, I try to opt for another channel.

It might seem like I do everything I can to stay out of my inbox, but I think people who have communicated with me over email would say I respond promptly. Commit to some of these practices and you'll save time, be able to focus on important tasks, and not react your way through your day.


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