How to defeat your Inbox

When I first trained as a priest I overheard two more experienced priests bemoaning the way emailing had hoovered up their time.

“I spend hours each day stuck at my desk when I should be out and about.”

“It’s hideous! This is NOT why I went into ministry – to answer emails!”

“It’s like ‘Whack-a-mole’ but with all the violent satisfaction taken out.”


Since then things have got both worse and better. Worse because there are now even more ways that we can communicate and so feel duty-bound to ‘check’ everyday (I counted twelve ways I can be contacted without really trying, just now). Better because we are slowly but surely learning strategies to tame the inbox.

“Sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath,” Jesus said. And with a bit of re-jigging the same could be true of emails.

So here are five tips to taking charge of your inbox. Only five; so please add your ‘tips’ to the list.

Step One: Pick Your Moment

If you haven’t done already, turn of your email notifications on your smart phone. Turn off ALL your notifications on your smart phone. We look at our emails on our phones habitually when we are anxious that we might not get time to deal with them and so have to squeeze it in when we can.

This approach leads to fragmentation of our thoughts and time and effects our judgement. We answer emails that could be left unanswered or we answer them in ways that generate more emails instead of resolving them. We have to stop thinking about one thing and switch to another. This causes stress.

At the start of the week, take a few minutes to put times in your diary when you will sit down and check your emails. What took an accumulative 60 minutes in bits and pieces can take just two 20 minute slots if done right.

Step Two: Six Degrees of Separation

Emails do not arrive in your inbox in the order that you need to deal with them. Going through them one at a time can lead to mistakes and me you answer an email only to discover that someone else had already dealt with it and you need not have bothered.

Or the original emailer had sent a second message making the first obsolete (the one you’ve just actioned – Agh!)

Dealing with emails before you folder them is like trying to play six games of chess against six different players all at the same time. Some gifted people can do this but most of us, if we have any hope of winning a game of chess, prefer to play one at a time.

Decide what your main areas of work are (a maximum of six, if you have more than that you need to quit something). These are up to six areas that do not require you to “swap hats” in order to respond.

Folder them before you action them and rather than after. Do not action any email until your inbox is empty and all the emails are in folders.

It might be that you only have a few minutes. You can pick one folder and deal with all the contents of just that folder and come back to the others when your diary allows. Or you can deal with all your folders one after the other in one sitting. Either way they need to be separated before you action them.

Step Three: Learn to Call Time

Email is an awful way to make group decisions. Do not be drawn into this and help others to avoid this too. There are ways you can stop an email exchange from becoming a 3-day cyber-meeting.

  1. Pick up the phone and sort the issue out (Yes, you can and it will save you time)
  2. Suggest a meeting be convened or remind people that this decision could be made at the upcoming meeting rather than by email exchange.
  3. Ask the list to keep you in BCC in future so you are unaffected by ‘Reply All’.
  4. Change the culture at work so that emails are used appropriately.
  5. Change people’s expectations of how quickly you respond to email (3 working days on average is fine) compared to a phone call.

Step Four: Send Fewer Emails

We’ve all been there. You finally replied to all those important emails and your inbox and folders show a satisfying “(0)” at last. But by the time you’ve finished your cup of tea and digestive or gin and tonic the (0) has become a (7) then (11) and before you know it you’re back to where you started.

Not all emails need a reply. If you get a date put it in your diary. If you get some information store it. If you get a task don’t put it on a task list put it in your diary. It is rare that you need to reply to an email about any of these things.

If there is someone you email most days then you can store up what you want to tell them on a draft email and just send one email every few days instead of ten emails with one sentence in each. If it’s more urgent than that see Step Three Point One and “Pick up the phone”.

I cannot tell you how much of your time you will free up if you use the phone more and email less.

Step Five: Be kind to yourself and others

Even if you do all the above and have a tonne of other strategies besides you will probably let people down or be later than you hoped in responding to someone.

You do not need to keep apologising to them nor they to you. We all know it’s hard so give yourself a break; sometimes you just have to let that email go and be at peace with never having answered it.

Some emails don’t get answered because, at a subconscious level, you are avoiding it. That is your email turd right there and you do not want to look at it, smell it, or respond to it.

When that happens it becomes like the grit in an oyster and all the other emails coalesce, un-opened around it.

You will save time if you get into the habit – as you open each folder – of asking yourself out loud: “How do I feel about this folder/email?” The answer may help you decide what to do with it.

So there you go! 

On their own, these steps can save you a few hours each week. As part of a wider re-organisation of your time then can change how you work and what you do. You’re not a coffee bean: don’t let them grind you down! 🙂

PS If you found this useful then PLEASE do not email me to tell me. Ta.

Comments are closed.