Emails can take up to 23% of your entire day and, if not managed properly, can cause a decrease in productivity and increase in stress levels. Managing an inbox does not require revolutionary work, but it does require you to stop checking your email every five minutes and stopping what you’re doing whenever you see your inbox is no longer at zero unread messages.
Managing your inbox starts with dedicating time during the day to reviewing and handling emails instead of doing so every time you see an email fly in. For many, time blocking the first and last hour on their calendars for emails ensures that they are dealt with in a timely fashion before leaving for the day or heading into daily meetings. Finding your ideal time of day to check your inbox regularly reduces the pressure you feel throughout your day when you know your inbox might need checked.
When your inbox time block arrives, sorting your inbox by subject instead of time, can better help you sort through extensive email chains and delete the first few iterations of the same conversation. Doing so helps ensure that you aren’t re-reading the same email chain repeatedly. Prior through digging into your newly sorted emails, check for any high priority emails that exist and handle any needed tasks in those before going about emptying your inbox. Additionally, checking quickly for any meeting invites and accepting or declining them as appropriate prevents you from getting lost in your duties and missing a last-minute meeting that was set up for the afternoon.
When you’re ready to take care of your inbox, don’t take immediate action on items, unless that action can be taken care of swiftly or there are very few emails to deal with. Instead, you should categorize the email by workstream, project, work case, or however your work is branded, and take the time to go back and work through the emails within the same category all at once, so you avoid topic jumping. Mentally jumping from topic to topic can lead to a higher rate of missed information, misunderstandings, and lost productivity as you work to shift your brain back and forth. Categorizing your emails can easily be done using color coded labels (in Outlook, referred to as Color Categories).
Always be sure to 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 that 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 your inbox is starting to appear clogged with older emails that you aren’t certain if you’re able to wash your hands of quite yet, time blocking (time blocking is one of my favorite productivity tips!) your calendar at the end of the week, or very beginning, to re-review all of your emails helps ensure that you don’t miss out on tasks you were responsible for following up on from days or weeks prior.
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 and effectively.