4 Email Management Strategies that Actually Work

Updated: 24 Aug, 2021 | Bill Peatman

The average professional spends 28 percent of the workday reading and responding to email—about 2.6 hours per day--McKinsey found. Fixing that could increase productivity 30-50 percent, the study said. Research cited the Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that:

  • Over-checking email wastes 21 minutes per day
  • Professionals check their email 15 times per day or every 37 minutes
  • Just 11 percent of customers/clients and 8 percent of coworkers expect a response in less than an hour
  • 40 percent of people expect a response in about an hour

Keep in mind that every time to switch your attention from one task to another, you lose about 25 minutes of productivity. It’s called “switching time,”--the time it takes to back out of one project, checking on something else, and the returning to the original task. If you check your email 15 times per day, assuming that you are interrupting other work to do so, you’re losing up to five hours of productivity. 

Email Management Strategies

Email can easily overtake your work world. It’s even more frustrating when you look at those HBR numbers. We’re rushing to answer emails even though most people don’t expect an immediate response. We over-check email to solve a problem that doesn't exist. But we keep checking anyway. Thankfully, there are a few proven email management strategies that can help.

Inbox Zero Email Management

Productivity expert Merlin Mann coined the term "Inbox Zero" to improve email management. People often think the system means having "zero" messages in your email inbox. That's not it. "Zero" refers to the amount of time your brain is in your inbox. Too often, Mann said, our inboxes turn into to-do lists created by others that nag us throughout the day. Here's how Inbox Zero works:

  • Keep your email app closed

  • Check email as specific times in the day—on the hour, for example

  • Start by deleting as many messages as possible

  • Next, forward any requests that you can delegate to others

  • Respond to any messages you can answer in two minutes or less

  • Create a "requires response" folder where you place emails you can answer later

  • Set aside a specific time each day to go through the "requires response" folder

The goal is to keep your inbox out of your head so you can focus on other work. When you prioritize and schedule your email management in advance, you are less likely to keep checking it.

Timeboxing for Email Management

A close relative of Inbox Zero is Timeboxing, a productivity method you can apply to email management. Remember the law of gases from science class—it says that gases expand to fill the space they are given? Did you know about Parkinson's law, which says "work expands to fill the time available for its completion?" 

Timeboxing is a method of limiting the amount of time you allocate to tasks so that you can get them done faster. Cyril Parkinson believed was that if you give a project less time, it will get done faster. Like Zero Inbox, Timeboxing lets you schedule your email work for specific times of the day, so it doesn't consume you. Recommended schedules include:

  • 15 minutes first thing in the morning, at noon, and the end of the day

  • 5 minutes at the top of every hour

  • One hour at the end of the day

You can find the rhythm that works for you. You can also set expectations with colleagues and others about how you manage your email and when they will hear from you.

You can also use Timeboxing for other communication channels. Let's face it; your work email is only one of your inboxes. Most of us also have:

  • Personal emails

  • Text messaging

  • Instant messaging apps

  • Social media feeds

Each of these channels has the potential to be just as distracting and consuming as email. Setting aside specific times to manage these accounts can help you focus on other things that matter without feeling like you never stop multitasking.

The Iceberg Method of Email Management

Using your inbox as a storage room for messages you might need someday, and then find yourself searching for hours when the time comes? Motivational speaker Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to Be Rich came up with the Iceberg Productivity Method that emphasizes using email folders to improve productivity. It's a simple system. You set up folders to categorize and store the information you find valuable but don't plan to use right away. Examples Sethi provides include:

  • Folders named after cities that he fills with emails from people he might want to reach out to when traveling there--then, on his way, he could review the folder for that destination and make some calls.

  • Folders for emails about skills he might need in the future--such as a webinar on "How to use AdWords," because he might want to start an AdWords campaign for his business.

  • Folders about topics where he can store insights for a blog topic he plans to write about in the future, such as "what you need to know about blockchain."

  • Sethi also recommends that you review your folders every six weeks to see if you've forgotten something that could be useful right now.

The idea is to spend a few seconds to save something that otherwise may take you hours to find when you need it. If the item didn't come in the form of an email, you can paste a link in a blank email, send it to yourself, and store it accordingly. Your inbox becomes the "tip of the iceberg," where you see one-third of your information repository. The rest is hidden, but there when you need it.

Other examples of valuable folders that might be useful include:

  • Travel—save your flight, hotel, and car reservations in one folder. The most recent plans will always be at the top.
  • Receipts—keep your online receipts together to make expense reports a lot easier.
  • Donations—donation receipts are different than expense account receipts and keeping donation receipts in a separate folder can make it easier to find them come tax time.

The "Four D's" Email Management

The Four D's email management method is attributed to a few sources, from Microsoft to management consultant Joost Wouters. Wooters calls it "a simple yet powerful approach for everyone who prefers to be a proactive business builder instead of a reactive firefighter." It's another email management strategy that encourages people to schedule a specific time window during the day to check email. The D's provide a methodology for prioritization, rather than allowing yourself to be constantly interrupted. You can break down your emails with these Ds:

  • Delete it if it's not relevant to your work
  • Deal with it (or Do it) if you can respond quickly (similar to Inbox Zero)
  • Defer it if it will take longer than a few minutes, also like Inbox Zero with the similar suggestion to put it in a particular folder
  • Delegate it if someone else can address the issue

Some versions of the Four D's add a fifth step:

  • And when you're Done, move onto the following email

Email Management Tips

Other email management tips include:

  • Turn all notifications off when you need to focus on other tasks
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters and ecommerce sites you no longer use
  • Quickly acknowledge receipt of important emails that you can't get to right away
  • Remove your email app from your phone so your inbox doesn’t follow you everywhere

Email Management Tools

There are also a host of tools and apps that can help you control your inbox. Some of the most popular are:

  • Boomerang — lets you schedule emails to send at specific times, set your inbox to snooze so you don’t get notified of new messages right away, get read receipts and follow up reminders if someone doesn't respond to your email.
  • Unroll.me — allows you to view all your email subscriptions and bulk-unenroll from newsletters.
  • Five.sentenc.es — guides you to keep your emails short. You guessed it—five sentences or less.
  • SaneBox — automates the creation of folders and then automatically sends incoming messages to the appropriate folder.
  • SpamTitan — identifies and prevents email spam, viruses via email, malware, malicious links, phishing attacks, spoofing and other email borne malicious threats.

How did email become such a time sink? In an always-connected work world, we're constantly "on call" and expected to respond to every question. Technology initially designed to make us more productive has instead overwhelmed us.

If you think managing all your email management tools might be more time consuming than managing your email, you might be right. As the Inbox Zero method suggests, part of the challenge is psychological. Anxiety about productivity is one of the drivers to pursue it, and the tools to increase productivity can add to those anxieties instead of soothing them.

There’s also the issue of our Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). We’re often over-checking email out of anxiety about a project’s status, a supervisor’s or coworker’s perception of our busyness and productivity, or someone’s willingness to work with us. So we try too hard to please.

One solution is delegation. More executives are turning to virtual assistants—the human ones, not the AI versions—to manage day-to-day tasks like email management so that they can get those 2.6 hours per day back. A virtual assistant can perform some of the recommend steps in the Inbox Zero, Iceberg and Four D’s email management methods, including:

  • Delete irrelevant emails
  • Forward emails that can be delegated to others
  • Move non-urgent emails into appropriate folders

This leaves your inbox with only the messages that you need to personally respond to right away.

Prialto offers a managed virtual assistant service. To learn more about how to work with a Prialto virtual assistant, check out our guide.

Discover how a virtual assistant can boost your productivity,

About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.

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