Five Rules to Take Control of Your E-mail, Be More Productive

Last Updated Nov 11, 2009 9:34 AM EST

I have a few questions for you:
  • How much time do you spend in your inbox every day?
  • How much of that time is truly productive?
  • Does your boss pay you to read e-mail?
If your answers were, in order: A lot, a little, and no, then step right up, because it's time for an e-mail intervention. Here are some tips for being more productive with your e-mail every day so you can actually spend more time on the stuff that matters.

Schedule your e-mail sessions. Unless you need to monitor e-mail continuously through the day for mission-critical activities, try to schedule several e-mail sessions through the day -- such as 8am, noon, and 4pm -- and close the program in between. If you leave your inbox open, you'll be tempted to respond to e-mail all day long, distracting you from work you should be concentrating on.

Handle mail once. This is advice I learned on my first after-college job in 1987, long before I even had a computer in my office: Take something out of your inbox, read it, act on it, throw it away. If you're the sort of person who reads all your mail and then marks it for action later, you're wasting valuable time through e-procrastination.

Send delayed responses. When you reply to an e-mail, there's a good chance that the recipient isn't nearly as disciplined as you are and will write back right away. So, just as you were about to turn your attention to other things, in comes a response. There's a good chance you're about to kick off a string of e-mails that might as well be instant messages. The remedy? Delay all your e-mails -- schedule them to go out later in the day, no matter when you write them.

Use filters and rules. Let your e-mail program filter out spam automatically, so you don't have to. And use rules to automatically move incoming messages to project folders. If you subscribe to some professional mailing lists, for example, teach Outlook to file them for when you have downtime to read them later.

Minimize e-mail folders. I'm a big fan of rules to sort mail into folders, but keep it simple. If you make dozens of folders, it gets harder -- not easier -- to find an important email later. Especially if you try to take advantage of Outlook 2007's superb instant search feature, which is fast and efficient, but only searches one folder at a time.

By the way... if your corporate culture relies heavily on e-mail as the primary means of communication, this advice is going to get you fired. But if you can de-prioritize email to increase your productivity at your actual, you know, job, then do so.

Want some more email advice? Here are some of our most popular, Pulitzer Prize* winning e-mail posts:
Photo by T. Al Nakib
* We have never won a Pulitzer Prize.