Managing your email has become an important part of modern knowledge work. As common it is for everyone to have email, most people still do not know how to properly manage their inboxes. People often complain that email is one of their largest sources of distraction, and that using email ends up wasting a lot of valuable time.
One of the best things you can do for getting your email under control is to apply a folder structure and have a specific workflow that you can use. We are going to introduce to you a workflow which has been proven to be very effective for managing email. Shoutout to Merlin Mann for coming up with the foundation for these ideas, upon which we have built.
For the sake of this article, I will use Gmail as an example on how to use folders for managing your email. This idea can be applied to any other email providers too (Yahoo!, Hotmail, and so on) or email clients (Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Microsoft Outlook, etc). So if you use something else than Gmail, don’t panic. You can use the same ideas for your email provider or application.
Note: If you are looking for a Gmail client on the Mac, we can highly recommend Mailplane.
We’ve provided a video to demonstrate how the workflow well… flows, but to understand how it works we first need to dive a little into the basic theory of email management.
The first idea I want you to understand is the idea of what some people call inbox zero. Most people see their email inbox as the place where all emails are stored, but I want you to start looking at your inbox differently.
View your email inbox as a temporary holding place where you need to start processing emails.
Put in other words, only unread emails are in your inbox. Processed and read emails are not in your inbox (they go somewhere else, as I will show you in a bit).
Each time you process your email, the goal should be to have your inbox count at zero. Psychologically it is much better to know that you have managed your email and that you only have to process whatever is in your inbox. When your inbox is full of email, it makes it very hard to look for certain messages that you need to reply to, especially if you have to scan through hundreds of emails. And looking for emails you are awaiting for a response to is a pain when your inbox count is at 235,346. There is a simple solution for this as we will see later.
Again, I cannot stress this enough. Start looking at your inbox as a temporary holding place of emails you still need to read and decide on what to do with. Each time you process your inbox you want to get it to be zero.
This workflow requires you to create 3 folders: Reply, Waiting and Archive.
Reply: all emails go in here that take longer than 2 minutes to respond to.
Waiting: All emails go in here where you are waiting for a response or want to process later.
Archive: all other emails go in here that you want to be able to access later.
With email clients, you need to setup these folders. In this article I will use Gmail as an example. Within Gmail, they use folders too but they call them “labels”. Here is how you set them up:
1. Top right corner, click on the Settings Gear image and then click on Mail settings.
2. Click on the Labels tab.
3. Create the new labels Reply and Waiting. Gmail already comes with an Archive folder called All Mail so you don’t have to create one (but you do in your email clients and other email providers).
Some typical emails that belong in the Reply folder:
- Someone is requesting you to do something (with or without deadline).
- Examples include submitting reports, verifying something, and taking on any task.
- Someone is asking you to respond to something but it requires more deep thoughts from you to respond.
- Examples include people asking for your opinion or asking about your availability for an event.
After you’ve replied to emails in the this folder, you then move them to the Archive folder. Within Gmail it’s easy, you remove the Reply label by clicking on the X next to the label name.
Typical emails that come in the Waiting folder:
- Tracking codes for UPS or Fedex packages coming your way.
- Examples include shipping tracking numbers from online shopping.
- You delegated a task and are waiting for a response / result.
- Examples include emails from virtual assistants, employees, and anyone you are waiting to hear from.
- Confirmation from someone.
- Examples include asking another person if he/she received something from you (like a package).
The Two-minute Rule
Another golden rule of managing your email is what I call the 2-minute rule. It’s really simple: if it takes longer than 2 minutes to process or reply to an email, reply to it later and put the email in the Reply folder. Otherwise, reply right away (somewhat similar to Getting Things Done’s rule).
When it comes to managing your email, you want to apply the productivity principle of touch it once. Do not reread the same email – that’s just a waste of time. Especially when you have to deal with dozens or hundreds of emails every day.
The value in this rule is that you go through your inbox really fast, and initially process only what is necessary. If someone needs a quick response, you’ve taken care of that. If an email needs more attention, you can work on that later and prioritize which email gets the most attention (after your inbox is processed and at zero).
What most people tend to do is process emails one-by-one and sequentially handle each email as they receive it throughout the day. This is a very inefficient way of managing your email, because you aren’t prioritizing. Let’s say you have 10 unread emails in your inbox. How do you know if email #2 is more important and higher priority than email #9? You don’t know if you spend a lot of time on each email. That’s why this time limit rule is so effective because you will soon find what emails will provide you the highest level activities.
Now 2 minutes is the limit I’ve set for myself. Adjust this for yourself based on how much time a day you want to spend on email and the volume of emails you get. Personally, I want to spend less than one hour a day on managing my email. At my current volume, I receive fewer than 50 emails a day, and with the 2-minute limit I get to manage my email daily in less than an hour.
As a guideline: the more emails you get per day, the shorter your time limit should be.
I cannot stress this enough, but when it comes to managing your email you really want to apply the touch it once rule. You will waste a lot of accumulative time of rereading emails over the span of weeks.
As you process your inbox, you want to apply the inbox zero and 2-minute rule. These are essential to this workflow and now let’s tie all the pieces together. Below is a simplified diagram of the workflow.
Once you have your inbox at zero, that’s when you can effectively start managing your email. By default, you know that all emails in the Reply folder require your focus and attention (they require more than 2 minutes of your time). When you apply this workflow this is what happens: as you process your email, you will have responded to all the messages that didn’t require much attention from you. Anything that was important is in the Reply folder, and you can work on it later and prioritize accordingly.
Once your inbox is zero that’s when you can decide how you are going to prioritize your emails in your Reply folder. You should be able to process your inbox fairly quickly by scanning the email content, decide what the next action is and process accordingly. After your inbox is at zero, usually you want to process your Reply folder next and treat each email with focus (because you know they require more attention hence why there are in the Reply folder).
For more intermediate and advanced readers: You can make every email in your Reply folder an action item on your to do list. This is actually what I prefer but it requires that you use a to do list or task manager (which I highly recommend!). By the mere fact that emails that go to the Reply folder, I want to make it an item in my task manager. A common mistake people make is that they see their email inbox as a to do list manager. Rather, you want to keep a to do list manager separate. You rather want to view your email inbox as another source of where tasks might come from. Just like your boss might give you a task, or a phone call, so is email another source. By keeping all your tasks in one place (your to do list manager) you will find it much easier to get work done. Again, your email inbox is not your to do list.
It also is not uncommon that a request in the email requires you to do something that might be a (big) project. Your boss might say, “Hey I want you to research what the 3 hottest stocks are in precious metals and recommend to me which one has the best prospects. Please send it to me within 5 days from today.” Now this is an extreme example, but I hope you see what I mean. With such emails you have to create an action item (or even a project), work on it, finish it, and then reply to that email.
A simpler example might be that a friend is asking if you can join her for a concert in two weeks. What you can do is respond right away saying you’ll look into it, create an action item and figure it out later. Three days later, after you figured out your schedule, you reply saying “Yes I’ve checked my schedule and I’m available. Let’s do it!” and put a check mark on your to do list action item.
A big source of distraction comes from email. It’s common to read an email, click on a link, read something interesting, click on something else and before you know it you’ve wasted an hour. By creating action items you force yourself to stay within the email client (or on the same website) and you prevent yourself going off doing something else.
The key to make this system work is that you have to review your folders regularly. A good habit to this workflow is to check your email twice a day at fixed times. That means going through your inbox twice in one day and where you apply the inbox zero concept and 2-minute rule. As an example, I will show you how I manage my email.
- Mon-Fri: process email at 11am.
- Mon-Fri: process email at 4pm.
- Fri: review hold folder at 4:30pm (usually after processing email).
I process my email only twice a day and at fixed times. Once in the morning after I’ve done my most important tasks (never check email first thing in the morning, it will kill your productivity). By the time I’m processing my emails, I have already done my highest level activities and anything after that is nice to complete.
Between the time I process my email inbox the first time and second time, there is a gap of time I can use to get work done. This work may include tasks that I got assigned through email earlier that morning. As I’m processing my email inbox the second time, I can update my task list again and prepare my to do list for tomorrow (if I got any emails with assignments and tasks handed to me). By checking my email again at the end of the day, I can setup what my most important tasks are the next day and following days.
Before the weekend hits, that’s when I review my Waiting folder. I do this once a week. I treat it like a separate inbox and go through it as fast as possible. If I didn’t get a response from someone within 48 hours, I’ll send a quick reminder. In case that package arrived, I can remove that email from the folder and put it in my archive.
What I really like about this workflow is the sequencing of doing your most important tasks first, then checking email, and then planning. Since I’ve already completed work between 9 and 11 (I usually start working at 9) without the distraction of email, by the time I’m checking my email I’ve already done the most important thing I could do that day and whatever tasks I might get my way through email can be done later that day or some other time.
- 9-11am: do highest leverage work (can be stuff from email of yesterday)
- 11-11.30am: process emails
- 12.30pm – 3.30pm: do other work (that include new tasks just processed from emails earlier in the morning)
- 4pm – 4.30pm: process email
- 4.30pm – 4.45pm: manage to do list based on tasks worked on today and the last set of emails
This is especially a great workflow for people who work in an environment where email is the main communication medium.
Now this was a lot of theory and examples. It can be overwhelming to learn, but experiment with and implement this workflow of managing your email. We have a quick video of how this workflow works where we tie all the pieces together. Just let us know where we have to send it to: