5 Inbox Habits that Could Change Your Life


Do you want to be more productive this year even in the midst of competing demands on your time and attention?

Your inbox might be one of your biggest barriers to achieving that goal. Here’s why.

First, the typical email inbox is an unprioritized to-do list apart from any other planning tools you use. Emails often get lost in a full inbox, leading to missed or delayed responses. A full inbox creates a self-perception that you lack control over your communication, and a cluttered workspace—even a digital one—can have negative psychological effects.

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This is an area of deep conviction for me. I know that if I let my inbox get out of control, I’ll get pulled into that unproductive, unconscious mode of human doing rather than human being. So it’s rare that an email sits in my inbox for longer than 24 hours. In fact, an experienced and effective leader I work with recently noticed and commented on it. He couldn’t believe I maintained such control over my inbox.

“How do you possibly do it?” he asked.

While several tools have been developed to assist with keeping your inbox clean—like unroll.me and maelstrom, which reduce unwanted spam and apply filtering logic—nothing works quite as well as proactive inbox habits.

I apply these five habits to ensure a more sustainable, manageable and productive email inbox experience:

  1. Only touch it once. Reevaluating and reconsidering what to do with an email takes too much time. Sometimes it’s necessary, as with emails that trigger an emotional reaction. Too often, though, emails are scanned and left for the allure of scanning another message. Fight the temptation. Whenever possible, do something with the message before moving to the next one.
  2. Put yourself on a timer. Many sports have some kind of game or shot clock to keep the game moving. Great athletes internalize the clock to keep their pace—usually one play every 30 seconds or so. Productive inbox management works the same way. Maintain a “game clock” as you process email, saying to yourself, I will do, ditch or delegate this message within 30 seconds.

    On that note, it can be helpful to agree to email guidelines with colleagues, family and friends—and one of those might be to avoid sending emails that require more than 30 seconds of attention. Emails ending in “What are your thoughts on this?” are typical offenders that force the responder to slow down their inbox response timing.

  3. Add it to your task list. Sometimes, emails require more than 30 seconds of attention. When that’s the case, send a response like, “Thanks for your email. I will give it consideration and will send you my ideas by the end of the week.” Then add the activity to a prioritized task list. Alternatively, consider scheduling a meeting to discuss the email and response.
  4. Keep the monkey off your back. As a classic HBR article explains, correspondence can be an exercise in problem-shifting. People send emails in order to get monkeys off their backs. Help other people with inbox management by not putting your monkeys on their back, and help yourself by not taking their monkeys. Use an email response like, “Please advise on what you recommend be done,” or “I support whatever you decide to do, or “You’ve identified an important issue. Please schedule a meeting for us to discuss with the appropriate people.”
  5. Write short sentences that drive decisions. Brief, simple phrases convey urgency. They let people know that you don’t intend to live out of your inbox. Concise statements should also lead to conclusions that minimize back-and-forth. For instance, you might say, “This approach aligns with our strategy and values. Let’s do it. Please schedule a meeting to discuss next steps.” Or on a more personal level, you might write, “I really appreciate your feedback. Our friendship means a lot to me. I hope we can talk more this weekend.” Notice that both examples imply finality to the exchange. The more email loops you can terminate, the fewer new messages will hit your inbox.

Do you want a new year that is more productive, less stressful and more successful? Where you can spend more time as a human being than a human doing? Your inbox might be a good place to start.

How’s your inbox management?

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