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Productivity Series: Managing Email

I have spent a lot of time on personal productivity issues. My first professional mentor was a master at being productive and got more done than anyone I have ever met. I watched and learned and tried to apply and want to share some of what I learned from him. Here’s a post on how I manage email. It’s the first in a series on personal productivity.

This post was also inspired by Michael Hyatt when he wrote this post a few weeks ago.

Productivity Series: Getting to Zero

(and staying there)

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The inbox is a frustration for a lot of people. I get about 200 emails per day. That’s a lot of messages to go through (6,000 per month!).

About 5 years ago, after reading David Allen’s terrific book, Getting Things Done, I realized I needed to get control of my inbox. Important things that I needed to respond to were getting overlooked, projects that I wanted to move forward were getting stalled, and I was missing out on opportunities that I wanted to take advantage of.

So I took control following the Getting Things Done (GTD) system and spent one weekend going through all of my email. I deleted thousands that weekend, responded to others, and filed a lot. I won’t go into the details of how I got up to date. It was a ton of work but was worth it.

Now my inbox is almost never above 100 at any time and at the end of every day is almost always under 30 and often almost 0.

Here are the top 5 email tactics that will help you get your inbox under control:

Use little bits of time

Use small amounts of time that would normally be wasted to get rid of unnecessary emails or things you can respond to in a minute or less. About 1/2 of my daily inbox influx is things that can be responded to quickly or filed right away.

Eliminate unnecessary emails quickly and religiously

I unsubscribe from anything that I am not interested in and use RSS and other services to reduce inbox clutter. This has reduced my inbox daily influx by 50 emails per day or so. I still get many newsletters and broadcast emails, but they are the ones that I want to see in my inbox.

Use a mobile device to help manage on the road

I use the iPhone which has enabled me to work on my inbox and keep it clean while in the dentist office, the drive through, or while waiting for an appointment somewhere. And the iPhone’s IMAP configuration for email syncs with my google apps gmail so that when I archive something on the iPhone it is also archived in gmail when I log on.

Archive and file things immediately

Utilizing gmails unbelievable search not sort ability I take 70%+ of my emails and archive them almost immediately after adding a task to my GTD project or task list. For example my plane reservations for the flight I am going on this week don’t need to stay in my inbox because searching for Southwest will produce my itinerary in seconds when I need it.

Stay on it and don’t get too far behind

I spend 30 minutes or so each night getting from 70 emails down to 30 or less. This isn’t hard and doesn’t take much brain power so it is easy to do while watching a TV show or hanging out with Elise.

Some would say that I obsess too much with the clean inbox. I understand that, and my methods aren’t for everyone.

I will tell you this. Every morning I awake and get in the office ready to hit the day and not feeling behind on things because I know that my necessary communication is up to date, filed, or on a project list to be dealt with.

Keep moving forward,


Written by

I am the CEO of Blue Ocean Ideas, a creative agency in Baltimore, Maryland. My job is to clarify the strategy and take care of my team. I am married to the beautiful Elise Rittler and we have four great kids. When I’m not at Blue Ocean Ideas or with my family I am riding a bike, running, playing ultimate frisbee, eating, or sleeping. There is a little more about me here.

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