When stepping up into your role as CEO of your career and working towards making some big career moves, getting lost in surviving the day-to-day minutia and just getting the basics of your to-do list taken care of can hold you back from actually stepping forward. One of the biggest time suckers of a corporate career is managing your inbox- emails can take up to 23% of your entire day and, if not managed properly, your inbox can also decrease productivity and increase your stress levels.
One common misconception about emails is that each and every email that dings into your inbox needs dealt with immediately. This is simply not true, not only do most emails not constitute an emergency on your end some don’t even require your reply. The best practice to managing your inbox starts with dedicating time during the day to reviewing your emails and replying, and this time is not to be every single time an email pops up. Some really great architects and designers came up with the concept of a ‘high priority’ label for important emails, so utilize their genius by only stopping, dropping, and rolling immediately into your inbox when those pop up, everything else can wait until your scheduled time block arises that day to review what your colleagues have sent you and CC’d you on.
Aside from getting to high priority emails ASAP, the only other type of email I recommend treating with quick significance is meeting based emails. If a meeting invite update comes through (whether it is a date, time, location, or even the initial invite) treating those as a priority is a must, especially if the meeting in question is the day you get the email.
When your inbox time block arrives, sorting your inbox by subject (instead of time) if your inbox is looking convoluted, can better help you sort through extensive email chains and delete the first few iterations of the same conversation, this way, you aren’t re-reading the same email chain as you move throughout your inbox. As you also move through your inbox after resorting it by subject, don’t take immediate action on items, unless that action can be taken care of swiftly, instead, categorize the email by workstream, project, case, or however your work is branded, and take the time to go back and work through the emails within the same category at once, so you avoid topic jumping, which can lead to a higher rate of missed information, misunderstandings, and lost productivity as you work to shift your brain from project A to project B. Categorizing your emails can easily be done using color coded labels (in Outlook, referred to as Color Categories).
As you are navigating through your freshly sorted inbox to do the needed follow up work, practice common courtesy by replying to the sender(s) regarding your estimated time of completion if the follow up work needed will take longer than a day. In most organizations, 24 hours is the standard expected turnaround time for emails, but in some organizations or work teams, the expectations might differ, so be sure to understand and ask about the working agreement and expectations of follow up and email etiquette.
Whenever (not if ever, because CEO, this will happen in your career) your inbox is beginning to clog with older emails that you’ve dealt with in some fashion, but aren’t certain if you’re able to wash your hands of, time blocking (yes, time blocking is one of my favorite productivity tips, can’t you tell?) your calendar at the end of the week, or very beginning, to re-review all of the emails in your inbox, especially those pesky old ones, and search for replies and follow up from them in your sent box. Additionally, if you cannot find any follow up that has been done since the aforementioned email landed in your inbox, taking ownership of the miss and advising those on the email chain that you are now working on your needed portion of the follow up is detrimental to showing leadership and responsibility in your job, and will be appreciated by many folks, especially those that understand that everyone makes mistakes and drops the ball sometimes.
Finding your ‘groove’ when managing your inbox can take some time, especially if you’ve been managing your inbox poorly for some time, and while all of these tips have worked for myself and many others in the past (and still do work) for some jobs and work environments, these tips won’t lead to as much inbox success as you’d like. The biggest takeaway and tip for managing your inbox like a CEO is to find a routine that not only gets your inbox cleared, but also ensures that you are working more efficiently, organized, and effective.