Pro Tips for Tackling the Inbox


It vexes us all: that never-ending, un-prioritized barrage of messages—from spam to strategy, trivial to tragedy.

Since nearly every coaching session I conduct makes its way to the problem of email, I decided to interview Nate Whittier, a good friend and the best industrial psychologist I know, to learn how we might manage email more effectively. Here’s what he shared.

MN: You use an “inbox activity” work simulation to see how executive candidates respond to a series of emails. What are you evaluating through this exercise?

NW: The executives’ responses reveal how they approach problem solving, affect team dynamics, address sensitive subjects, delegate work through others and prioritize their attention.

What’s most important in terms of how they prioritize?

They can handle emails in any order, but they are given a fixed allocation of total time. I’m less interested in people responding to every item and more that they responded to the right ones.

Organization gurus say it’s important to clean our living and work spaces because it helps us clear our minds and keep track of things. Does the same apply to the email inbox?

Not necessarily. If you need structure, yes, clean out your inbox frequently. But if you thrive in ambiguity and operate more intuitively, you’re probably fine keeping old emails in your inbox.

Most people, though, are better off limiting the number because it helps clear the mind and maintain prioritization. If keeping a clean inbox becomes yet another burdensome “to-do” list item, let go of the method and re-focus on the results you’re trying to achieve.

How do you know when refusal to keep a clean inbox is really just stubbornness or laziness?

Consider how bad the problem is. Is it limiting performance? Refusing to try a different approach is making excuses. To justify your preferred method, you have to proactively experiment with different ones to see what results they get. Try picking one or two to experiment with each month.

Change is hard! How can adults change their organizational and response patterns?

Conscious behavior changes the brain, so I say, “Fake it until you make it.” If you’re not wired to be efficient or effective but know it needs to happen, put parameters in place that force your behavior.

What other advice do you have for people trying to solve the problem of too much email?

1. Don’t over-focus on cleaning out your inbox. It can lead to hasty responses that might be misinterpreted. Give yourself sufficient time to think.

2. Get better at delegating and deciding. The better you are, the better you can organize.

3. To avoid perpetuating an issue, pick the right tool for responding. Challenging or disagreeing is almost always better handled in person because you have the benefit of tonal and body language cues.

4. Consider how the person on the other end will receive the email. How likely are they, for example, to misinterpret your message?

5. Lose your preoccupation with your inbox. Try limiting yourself to checking email two to four times a day. Turn off alerts, and set boundaries.

Are you up for the email challenge? Join me in applying these five tips over the next month, and let me know how it works out for you.

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