Have you ever been frustrated because you’ve emailed a colleague several
times and never gotten a response?
Have you ever looked at the bottom of your inbox screen and noticed that
you have 500, 2,000 or maybe even 10,000 emails sitting in there… many
of them still unread?
Have you ever forgotten to do something important because the email you
received about it scrolled down off the bottom of your screen as other
email flooded into your inbox?
Getting control of your email inbox will help you gain control over your
time, your work and possibly even your career, says Michael Linenberger,
author of Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook: The Eight
Best Practices of Task and Email Management.
”Business Week had an article in October and they estimated that
35 to 40 percent of executives say their inboxes are out of control,”
says Linenberger. ”If I would do a poll around my office, I bet it would
be 90 percent and I bet the other 10 percent are just kidding
It’s not uncommon to feel like you’re drowning in email. Some days it
feels like it’s a relentless flow of information, questions and tasks to
get done. The ‘ding’ announcing the arrival of a new email interrupts
your every task, luring you to change screens to check out the new email.
Is it spam? Is it urgent? Regardless of what it is, you react as quickly
as Pavlov’s dog and stop what you’re doing to check it out.
Email has become such a relied-upon business tool that your average
worker would probably wrestle anyone trying to take it from them.
According to industry analyst firm the Meta Group, email overtook the
telephone more than two years ago as the preferred communication tool in
the office. A Meta survey showed that 74 percent of businesspeople said
being without email would present more of a hardship than being without
For IT professionals, especially, email is a critical tool. Industry
analysts are telling IT workers to become part of the business team, to
learn to communicate with co-workers outside of the IT box. Email is a
primary tool for making that happen. That means good email skills could
kick-start your business ties, but it also means that a few bad emails
could tarnish your track record and impede your climb up the corporate
”The biggest danger is dropping tasks,” says Linenberger, who has been
a management consultant and technology professional for more than 20
years. ”Somebody sends you and important request and you lose track of
it. You see it come in and you promise yourself you’ll come back to it.
Then you do another thing and another thing, and suddenly that other task
is forgotten. If it’s important to your boss, it’s career limiting. If
it’s business, then that’s going to be bad for your company.”
And Linenberger adds that losing control of your email will lead to
losing control of your workday, forcing you to put in extra hours and
deal with a lot of extra stress.
”The problem is that a 9-to-5 job isn’t really a 9-to-5 job anymore,”
he says. ”That’s true because people say they’ve got so much email and
so much to do. They’ve got so many email interactions and a percentage of
them lead to follow up activities, and they get out of control. I say get
at the root of this.”
Taking Back Control
Linenberger says the key is to be proactive about your email. Don’t just
let it flood in and overwhelm you. Take the bull by the horns and
organize it. Ditch what you don’t need, create an action list and
organize, organize, organize.
as they come in. Letting them pile up in your inbox lets you lose control
of them. Once they scroll off the bottom of your screen, you’re much more
apt to lose sight of them… for good.
”The simple solution is as soon as you see an email that causes you to
stop and say, ‘Hmmm, I’m not sure what to do about this’ or ‘I’ve got to
call Tom and do something about this”, instead of stopping and doing
something, drag it over to a tasks folder and rename the email to a task,
give it a priority, give it a date, and let it go,” he recommends. ”If
you get an email, and it [calls for] a quick reply, just do that. But if
it’s going to take you more than three minutes, convert it to a task.
”You’ve got far more things to do than you can get done all day,” he
adds. ”The best way to handle this is to let the low-priority stuff fall
off the bottom. Convert your emails to tasks and then go through that
list and prioritize. Figure out your three most important things to get
done that day, mark them high-priority and then start at the top of your
list and do what you have to do. If you don’t do that, you’ll consume
half your day with things that aren’t a priority at the expense of things
that are a priority.”
”useless” out of the box. ”It doesn’t show you the right things or
hide the right things,” he says. ”It’ll take you about 20 minutes to
reconfigure it. Once you do that, it’s a usable tool.”
He recommends dividing tasks into two categories — long-term tasks and
daily tasks. Once you have the folder ready, make sure you place incoming
emails into the correct folder and you’ll be better able to prioritize
your workday, tackling the most important tasks first and not getting
waylaid with low-priority drivel.
”People get bogged down in their email,” he says. ”They start reading
it and they get bogged down and in an hour they’ve gotten through three
of them. They think if they don’t do it now, it’ll scroll off the bottom
of their screen and then they’ll never see it or think of it again.
That’s a crazy way to work. It might be the fifteenth most important
thing to do that day but you’re spending time on it because you don’t
want to forget it.”
Look at it, prioritize it and move on. If you don’t you’ll either waste
time on it or you’ll forget it all together. And neither is a good thing.
”Unfortunately, [losing email and dropping tasks] has kind of become
expected,” says Linenberger. ”’Oh, you lost my email. That’s ok. I’ll
send it again.’ But if that becomes acceptable… then the only way to
get things done is to hold a meeting… That’s just not efficient. You
don’t want to turn into a slow, sluggish organization with slow lines of
communication… If you reach out to somebody and ask for help, you
should expect to be helped… Not communicating well by email is not an
Read on to see more ways to better manage your inbox…
concept, but it’s overlooked all the time. How many times have you
emailed someone with an important question but never received a
response… of any kind?
”I have a rule that if you get an email, at least respond within so many
hours,” says Linenberger. ”In some places, it’s 12 hours, maybe 24
hours. At least whip off a note saying, ‘I’m busy but will get back to
you in this timeframe’.”
interrupted by incoming email. Linenberger says he turns off the ‘ding’
sound that alerts him of incoming mail. That way he can get through what
he’s doing without the constant interruption.
”Research has shown that if you allow yourself to be constantly
interrupted, your productivity goes way down,” he notes. ”I check email
periodically because I need to focus my attention on work so I can get
read stuff done.”
— You shouldn’t have much email
at all sitting in your inbox, says Linenberger. If you need it for
something, file it away. If you don’t need it, delete it.
folders for his email but it became too time-consuming and difficult to
search for emails. Now he uses one folder, making searches quicker and
easier, and simply categorizes the email in it.
”I say make your filing system out of category names and not folders,”
he adds. ”Drag everything into this one folder. It’s 100 times better
than different folders. Say you’re looking for an invoice that came in.
Now did I file that or did I leave that in my inbox? Which file folder
did I leave that in? Is it in the accounting folder or the employee
folder or that other folder? It’s hard to find stuff if you use that
system. It’s very slow.
”I rely a lot on the chronological order of my inbox,” he says. ”I got
an email from Ted about that White Sox game we’re going to, but when did
he send it? It was right around the time when I was working on that
quarterly report and that was three days ago. Then you can scroll down
and find it. If you break stuff up into individual folders, you can’t do
”And I often like to see all the email from an individual person,” he
also says. ”I want to see everything from Jimmy. If it’s all in one
folder, you can see it all. If you dragged all those messages into
individual folders, you can’t do that anymore. Categories are so much
easier and you can assign more than one category to one email. So one
email can have 10 different categories. Instead of trying to figure out
which folder to put it into, you can give it multiple categories.”
email away, unless he didn’t need it in the first place. He uses Outlook
Auto Archive, dates it all and tucks it away. He says storage is
relatively cheap so he would rather store it and be able to call it up if
he happens to need it years from now.
By better managing email, different aspects of the work day just become
that much easier, he says.
”I [used to] approach my inbox and see this long list of things and my
stomach would tighten up,” he says. ”I knew there were things in there
that had scrolled off the bottom that I needed to attend to. These could
have been really important things and there’s an uncertainty about what
you’ve let go. It’s destructive to your work and to your enjoyment of
your work. I barely have time to look at the new stuff, forget going back
to look at the old stuff. When you get control of it, there’s this
phenomenal sense of relief and control. You can actually control your