Share on Google+

A Better Way to Look at Your Inbox

... And it's not as a "to do" list!

E-mail isn’t going anywhere. And the number of e-mail messages we receive will only grow. It is a real challenge to avoid being distracted by the urge to view or work on new e-mails, rather than working on truly important matters. Further, leaving messages in your inbox to remind you to complete tasks is akin to having that many items strewn over your desk in no organized fashion — no wonder people stress out when they open their inboxes first thing in the morning!

The international Clean Out Your Inbox Week is the last week in January, and what better time to shift the way you think about your inbox.

Despite all of the inbox management tools on the market today, many people still have the propensity to leave items in their inboxes as a way to remind them of upcoming tasks or just to keep them handy. This can be self defeating behavior.

Maintaining a cluttered inbox is a productivity killer.

Why? First, that cluttered inbox is a source of stress the minute you open your inbox. It essentially shows you everything you are not going to get done that day. Second, it is a source of distraction, because when people scroll up and down seeking tasks to select, they inevitably open the short easy ones, instead of being focused on working on the priority items. Third, scrolling takes time, and that alone saps productivity. And forth, people have a tendency to open, read, and close messages, trying to remember the task or importance of it -- again a productivity drain.

Shift the way you view and use your inbox.

My favorite visual analogy in helping people take control of their inboxes and their lives is to liken their e-mail inboxes to a postal service mailbox. Yes, the one that delivers paper. The postal service delivers our mail to that mailbox, we go to the mailbox, we pull the mail out of the mailbox, sort through it, throw half of it away, and put the rest in piles most of which will be dealt with later. What we don't do is put it back into the mailbox, to be sorted through again tomorrow. Why not think of our e-mail inboxes the same way? By shifting our view of our inboxes from that of a (disorganized) to do list to being a delivery tool, we free ourselves up to sort messages into folders for handling later. And we empty that inbox every time we view it.

The difference between working and sorting e-mail.

When people groan upon the suggestion of cleaning out their inboxes, my guess is that they are thinking they must work or handle every item in it. When you go into your inbox with the mindset of sorting the messages -- not working them -- the task becomes much more tolerable and doable! It becomes a matter of dragging and dropping messages into folders to be handled later just as you do with your postal mail. In Outlook, create two folders, Action A and Action B. In Gmail, you can create two labels: Action A, and Action B. A is for the important items, B for the less important. Simple.

Setting reminders -- the key.

Every time you drag and drop a message into an action folder, decide at that moment when you will again view the item to work it. These reminders become a critical part of each day's daily planning, and relieve you from having to scroll up and down either your inbox or your action folder to decide what to work on next. This is easy. Create a corresponding Task for each item you label or drag and drop, and assign it the date you plan to work it.

So, why should you want a clean inbox?

Simple. An empty inbox is the result of managing e-mail well. It doesn’t mean that you’ve worked every message, but it does mean that you have sorted every message into a folder or given it a label that allows you to retrieve it when the time comes. By sorting e-mail to Action A or B and setting a task reminder for when you plan to return to it, you will go a long way towards managing your inbox, rather than having it manage you.

Note: These tips and more are included among the 12 Steps to Curing Your E-mail E-ddiction contained in my book, Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence, and are further explained on our blog at


Marsha Egan is CEO of the Inbox Detox and an internationally recognized workplace productivity expert and speaker. Named one of Pennsylvania’s Top 50 Women in Business, her acclaimed “12 Step Program for E-Mail E-ddiction” received international attention, being featured on ABC Nightly News, Fox News, and newspapers across the globe. In early 2009, the Program was adapted into a book, Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence (Acanthus 2009) Marsha works with forward-thinking organizations that want to create a profit-rich email culture. Her free email practices assessment is located at