Inbox 101

Have you ever sat down at your desk and dreaded opening your email inbox, knowing that an endless barrage of tasks waited there, ready to pounce on the things you already had intended to accomplish? If you said yes, you probably need to upgrade your inbox practices. However, you shouldn’t feel guilty. You fit into the mold of about ninety percent of today’s information overloaded workforce. Whether you work from home or in a large corporate environment there is a simple process to help your inbox become a tool for working effectively and productively. This process is sure to improve your output and help you feel much more accomplished in your tasks.

In this day and age, we are constantly bombarded with information we tend to save in a million different places, making it harder to evaluate and more difficult to find the things we need. That information is presented to us through computer via the web and through our email, over the phone by voice or text, and the various snail trailed paper paths, like our desks wooden inbox and the postal service. With all this information it is imperative that we keep it organized. Here is a 5 step process to help you take a more proactive approach to managing your inbox.

1. Open each email message

The first thing to do in order to overhaul your inbox etiquette is to make an appointment with yourself at the beginning of each day to open every email in the box. This is a crucial step, because it allows you to start each day fresh. During this time don’t allow any interruptions. Treat the time like you would treat any other appointment. It is crucial to becoming a more productive and efficient worker. The great part about this step is it only takes a few minutes once you begin practicing the process.

2. Expedite the message

As you open each email, ask yourself these four simple questions:

  • Do I need to reply to this?
  • Is there something I need to do in this email?
  • Do I need to save this email for any reason?
  • Is this email spam or junk mail?

If you need to reply to the message, do it promptly. Never reply later. One of the biggest things a person can do to boost productivity is “Never do later what can be done right now.” Always reply professionally. Read your response from the perspective of its recipient and ensure that any and all questions the sender asked have been answered. Remember,email is not a chat room. Don’t use it for instant messaging. Use it as a tool to boost your efficiency.

Watch for things to do as you read each message. When you come across a task, write it down. I use Outlook’s task box religiously, but you can also use a paper pad to keep your list. Whatever you do, don’t rely on your memory. It will fail you.

If the message must be saved for future reference, move it immediately out of your inbox. Make sure you save it in another folder, which can easily be set up in Outlook and most other email clients. Do your best to save only the messages that need to be saved. There is no need to clutter up your computer or your mind with unneeded information.

And finally, watch out for spam. We tend to place responsibility of keeping our inbox spam free on our email client. Sure, it will route some of those annoying pests directly to the bulk mail folder. However, if you pay attention to the spam messages sources you can remove them indefinitely.  Always scroll to the bottom of a spam message and find the unsubscribe information. It will either instruct you to click a link or reply to the message in a certain way. Following those simple instructions will save you a lot of time sifting through the junk.

3. Delete the message

Once you’ve read the email and either responded or added the task to your task list, you can delete the message for good. That is if you did not move it from your inbox to another folder. I know how hard this can be at times, but it is absolutely necessary. Trust me when I say there is no need to save each and every message that makes its way to your inbox. Now you can begin your day without the weight of an overflowing inbox.

4. Perform your tasks effectively

Now that you feel free, having completed the morning ritual of empting you inbox, you can attack your task list with vigor and with all of your attention. Do not try to multi-task, it only slows you down and reduces the quality of your work. Do one thing at a time. Try to get everything that can be done at the moment out of the way immediately. And if any of your tasks require more information or somebody else’s action, add a task to get that info or the person’s attention. This will allow you to see the progress made as you check off each completed item. The progress itself will motivate and reward you.

5. Evaluate your progress

At the end of your workday evaluate how well your system worked. The process itself is flexible and everybody’s environment is different. You may need to save every email for legal purposes. Or you may not be able to sit down at the beginning of the day to provide the attention required by your inbox. You can always save the messages, but keep them organized. You don’t want to waste time looking for something when you can know exactly where it is. Also, you can perform the needed inbox maintenance at the end of the day, if the time needed is more available. Remember, the evidence of any proven method is its results.

Remember — how you manage your email inbox can have a strong impact on how productive and efficient person that you are.


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inbox 101, how to manage your inbox effectively

Joshua Riddle from and is a freelance web developer and contributing author. His writing specializes in time management, productivity strategies, technology based tutorials, and work-flow. His development specialties are Web 2.0 style interactive PHP / MySQL database applications.


  1. Rebbeca on the 13th October

    Nice tips, for me, ever since I stopped checking email so many times a day I was able to accomplish more work. Checking email so often can become addictive and distracting.

  2. James Balderson on the 13th October

    A little point about SPAM;

    1. Never reply even if it asks you to, because if you do you will verified your email address and you’ll get a lot more.

    2. Never click on any links in the message, open a browser and navigate to the site, for the same reason as above.

    I think you meant HTML newsletters anyway. And if you’ve signed up to one you don’t want to read, more fool you.

  3. Dan on the 13th October

    My inbox is a jumbled mess. I’m sometimes lazy with replies. I rarely delete read emails. It’s loaded with spam. As you can see, it’s in terrible shape.

    This post has just inspired me to overhaul by battered inbox. I will reference your advice and continue to nurse it back to greatness. Thank you.

    • Joshua Riddle on the 13th October

      Good luck with your inbox. It is not as hard as some might think to keep your inbox organized. It is all about developing a process that works for you and doing that daily until it is second nature. Then inbox management is effortless.

    • Dan on the 14th October

      Thanks. You’re right, even the largest problems can easily be managed in small steps.

  4. Pablo Valerio on the 13th October

    good tips. A couple of additions:

    1. Schedule two or three times a day to read/answer email. Don’t be reactive but proactive. Don’t let your contacts get used to immediate responses to every request/question they have, you need to think about it.

    2. Disconnect from email sometimes, and don’t bring your Blackberry/Smartphone to every meeting…

    • Joshua Riddle on the 13th October

      I couldn’t agree with you more…our immediate responses to email train the recipients to expect immediate responses always. Try letting people know that there is a 4 hour response time on all email communication. It works with telephone too. If people know there is a 4 hour response time to voice mails, they wont keep calling back but will wait until your ready to respond with your full attention. Just make sure you stick to your reported response times.

  5. Adam on the 14th October

    On deleting e-mails, it depends on one’s job. I need to keep a record of inquiries and responses. If I didn’t have my archive, I’d be lost trying to remember why I did or didn’t do something a certain way. Who authorized me to do it? Or who told me to disregard a certain task? I work in an environment that is highly influenced by Sarbanes-Oxley, so record keeping is a must.

    My archive = CMA folder (Cover my … )

    Nice post, good tips otherwise.

    • Joshua Riddle on the 15th October

      Excellent point … Many people in your position (Have to keep information for record) have the tendency to save it all in their inbox. I commend you for seeing the necessity of storing the information in another folder.

  6. Andy Staple on the 17th October

    Good post Joshua. I agree that keeping track of your emails and filtering them by what action you need to take is a great route for most people.

    I use gmail, and have labels for “respond”, “action”, and then archive anything that does not need any additional response or action from me. With labels I simply add them when I read the email, and remove them when I respond.

  7. Fred Beringer on the 27th October

    How about PIFEM? I can’t recommend enough the model …


  8. Lizzie Smithson on the 14th November

    EXCELLENT tips. I do this all the time because of the one time it took me more than two straight 8-hour days of digging through my inbox to purge it. Can’t lie, too, seeing that Sketchbook Project ad/banner on your blog definitely made me that much more excited to have found your blog!

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