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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Secret to Keeping Your Inbox Under Control

As all of you probably know by now, I'm a huge email geek. Whether you want to know how to organize your inboxclear it out over the weekend, or do a full-on spring cleaning, I'm your gal. But there's one thing we haven't talked about yet: How to deal with individual emails as they come in.

Here’s the scoop. The best way to take control of your inbox is to make a decision on what to do with each email the first time you see it, instead of just glancing at it and promising to deal with it later. This has two benefits: It makes sure your inbox doesn’t turn into a cluttered mess in the first place, and it saves you time by not having to look at the same email more than once.

It sounds tough, but it’s not—it just takes some planning and a few simple questions. Let’s get started.

Pick a Time

First, unless your job requires you to be immediately responsive to emails, I recommend going through all of your new mail at a few set times each day. This time can be different every day, it just has to be intentional: For example, today I'll set aside from 9-10 AM to go through my inbox, then I'll look at it again from 4-5. In between, I'll scan for important emails but ignore the rest.

I know this is hard to do (and yes, I've been known to click on a GIF going around!), but if you stick to this schedule, you’ll find that going through your inbox is much less overwhelming. Not to mention, you’ll have large chunks of time to actually get to real work.

Ask Yourself This

The next step is going through your inbox, reading each email one by one, and asking yourself this quick list of questions for each message:

1. Did I Need to Get This Email?

I know I sound like a broken record, but you should ask yourself this each time. It's a good reminder to unsubscribe, filter out, and remove yourself from lists and newsletters you don't need. Cutting down on email is always a win in my book.

2. Do I Need to Answer This at All?

Surprisingly, the answer isn't always yes. If it's an informational email or a group email that doesn’t require your response, read it, take note of any helpful info, then archive or file it away.

3. Am I the Right Person to Deal With This, or Should I Hand it Off?

Along similar lines, remember that you do not need to carry the burden of doing everything that's requested of you. You know what I mean: Those numbers you used to pull until they hired a junior analyst, but that your boss keeps asking you for instead, the travel scheduling that should really go through a different department, the number crunching you're asked to do even though it's not in your job description. Hand those peripheral tasks off to the right person, and you'll not only clear your inbox, you'll leave more time for doing your core job.

4. Do I Need Information From Someone Else in Order to Answer?

If the answer here is yes, ask that person for the information now so you can move the email off your plate. You may want to respond letting the sender know you’re working on it and make a note to check in with the person you’re waiting on in a few days. In the meantime, file the email away or use Boomerang to get it back in your inbox at the right time.

5. Can I Answer the Email Right Now—in Less Than 5 Minutes?

This is where most people trip up. A good number of emails don't require additional information from you or anyone else and can be replied to pretty quickly. If that's the case, answer the email right away; it'll save you the time of re-reading, processing, and thinking about it a second time. Bonus: The sooner you reply to an email, the more acceptable a super short reply is.

6. Is it Urgent?

Urgency is unfortunately out of your hands, so if the email is urgent, decide if you want to deal with it right now or take care of it when you're done clearing your inbox. I advocate for the latter, since you'll break your stride a little if you switch from spending a few minutes on each email to digging into a single issue.

Deal With the Rest—on Your Terms

So what about the rest? If the email needs more than a five-minute response and isn't urgent, decide when the best time for you to deal with it is.

I usually tackle the emails that require a long written response at the end my inbox sweep. Or, if I'm having a busy day, I Boomerang them to a day when I think I'll have more time. For the messages that require more work (putting together a mock-up, doing some Excel number crunching), I put those tasks on my to-do list and plan them for a non-emailing block of time on my schedule.

Pro Tip: To make this process go by even faster, set up your email so that once you've dealt with one email and filed it away or deleted it, you're taken straight to the next one in your inbox instead of back to the list of emails. (For Gmail, you can do this via the Auto-Advance option in Google Labs.) This will ensure you get through all of your emails instead of spending time deciding which message to pay attention to next!

Tell us! What are your tips for getting through your inbox quickly?

Photo of woman on phone courtesy of Shutterstock.