Take Control of Your Inbox!

May 07, 2012 1 Comment by

Change Agent Tip #30

In the famous words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus…

“…and now for something completely different!”

Today’s post will address a topic I haven’t touched on yet in the nearly two years of writing this blog. I’m talking about email overload. Email is one of the main communication tools used by Change Agents, and today’s post will get into a subject that should apply to anyone who employs this medium to communicate.

Help! I’m Drowning! A client recently asked me how she might get a handle on her out-of-control email inbox. She had become buried under hundreds of messages per week.  She often reads email from her smartphone without much time to concentrate on the complex problems or long threaded discussions that came flying her way through email.

As a leader, she was especially concerned that her challenge with email overload might be holding up her team.

Her principle question was: “How can I keep from drowning in all the email traffic – especially when I spend so much time in meetings and so little time at my desk?”

I replied with a few rules of thumb that have worked for me.

I’ll summarize my list in four steps:

  1. Take Control
  2. Take Action
  3. Minimize Touches
  4. Tackle Email Overload as a Team


Step-1: Stop the Insanity! Let’s start with a few tips that have worked to help me get control of my inbox. By “get control” I don’t necessarily mean that I keep my inbox empty. In fact, sometimes my inbox contains thousands of messages.

By “control“, I’m referring to maintaining a steady awareness of which emails need my attention and where to find critical information that people have sent me or I have sent them.

Some email platforms like Outlook are very rich in features like flags, priority settings and sortable folders.  Other platforms – like GMail – keep everything in one big bucket and give users a simple search tool to find what they need. I have both types of email in-boxes and I use today’s control tips in both of these settings.

E-Mail Control Tip #1:

Focus On It or Ignore It! Consider totally ignoring your email for portions of the day and giving it your full attention for other specific periods of the day. I do this by actually closing the email program entirely to keep it from interrupting my other work and turning it on to address messages in focused batches throughout the day.

Put a bit of thought into this choice… Some folks feel the need to be in constant contact – pecking out emails on their cell phones during meetings, lunches and conversations. Other people (like me) can get more done by focusing on email for an hour at a time, two or three times per day and only answering a few urgent emails immediately.

E-Mail Control Tip #2:

Knock It Out! When going through my inbox, I follow a 2-minute rule. As I read each email for the first time, I decide if it can be answered quickly or it may take more time. I immediately answer any messages that can be thoroughly addressed in 1-2 minutes or less.

I also make note of the more complex emails that need more than a few minute’s attention. I add them to my regular daily “to do” list so I don’t forget to circle back when I have more time to give the topic an appropriate level of  attention.

E-Mail Control Tip #3:

File It or Flag It! There are two other handy ways to keep track of your most complex emails that need detailed consideration: Folders and Flags.

If your software allows it, create an “Action Items” folder and drop emails that need follow-up into this electronic bucket. Just don’t forget to look in that folder every time you log into email so nothing gets accidentally ignored.

I don't think there is such a thing as "light email spam" - so we'll need to set up some ways to keep it this nasty stuff out of our communication diet...

If your email software allows flagging, take a second to flag each email that you intend to follow up on later. It will still be a constant challenge to get back to these emails, but at least you can now distinguish them from the spam and the informational stuff that does not need your attention once it’s read.

Sounds Easy Enough: Change Agents – like just about anyone in an organizational setting – will rely on email as a primary method of communication.  Get a handle on email overload by first taking control of your inbox using the three methods I’ve introduced today. In my next article, I’ll share some tips that have helped me prioritize my email so I can spend my time addressing the the most important emails first and avoid slowing others down just because I’m overloaded.


Question for Chatter:

  • How do you avoid the temptation to spend more time reading fun emails instead of opening the more complex or boring emails?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics, Uncategorized & Other Fun Stuff

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

One Response to “Take Control of Your Inbox!”

  1. Overcome EMail Overload | theBigRocks of Change says:

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