How to master your inbox in five simple steps

The inbox has changed from an exciting place where anyone from anywhere in the world can reach you within seconds to a daily burden where tasks disappear under the onslaught of new emails coming in.

Email productivity experts agree that dealing with emails instantly as they appear in our inboxes, decreases productivity. New emails can be dangerously distracting and research suggests that we need to turn off new-email notifications.

But this alone is not enough to curb distraction. It is maybe even more important that we sort our incoming emails into various categories. So how do you handle your inbox productively?

5 Steps to handling emails effectively

The first step is effectively processing the email in your inbox by:

  1. Turning off new email notifications
  2. Only processing your inbox a couple of times a day
  3. Empting it by deciding how to sort each email one at a time
  4. Sorting your emails into action-related folders
  5. Filing emails that no longer require your attention into a single folder

These five recommendations alone will already help you process significantly more emails and keep track of the emails that need your attention.

Add a couple of keyboard shortcuts to perform these actions more quickly, and you will become a ‘speedmailer’ in no time.

Let’s take a closer look at the five recommendations;

1. Turn off new email notifications

Most email programs will tell you when a new email arrives, preferably in as many ways as possible to make sure it doesn’t escape your attention.

Even though it might seem smart to stay on top of the news as it comes in, it is counterproductive, as each notification distracts you from the task at hand.

The result: you are not paying the right type of attention to the task you are working on or the email. A lose-lose situation.

2. Only process your inbox a couple of times a day

Part of the problem with email is that it never stops, and it can be very distracting to see new emails coming in. Rather than dealing with these emails immediately, which distracts your focus from the tasks at hand, you should sort through your inbox just a couple of times a day.

Process your inbox until it is empty every time you visit it, organising your mail into folders that you can prioritise (action folders).

A lot of people will object that it is impossible in their job to check email only a couple of times a day. However, I think it is impossible to do your job well if you check your email continuously.

Reducing the amount of times you check your mail will increase your productivity. And remember, if it is really urgent, it should not be managed through email!

3. Empty your inbox by deciding how to sort each email one at a time

It is very tempting when we open our email and find new messages to scan our inboxes for important or interesting messages and read them first.


Most people use this way of ‘ranking’ their email. The problem is that after dealing with one email, we tend to re-scan the list and make repetitive decisions, ignoring certain emails in favour of others.

Using this method, less important emails are scanned over and over and can end up consuming more time than important ones.

The solution is to make sure you make a decision about each email only once and organise it according to its priority – that is, when you would like to give it attention.

The most effective way to make these decisions is to simply start at the top of your inbox and deal with each email one at a time; starting with the most recent email sometimes makes processing other emails unnecessary!

By going through them one by one you will get into a flow of decision making and reduce the time spent on each email.

4. Sort your emails in action-related folders

Not all emails have to be dealt with immediately. To implement a ‘clean desk policy’ for your mailbox you need to introduce a couple of folders that will help you effectively manage your email time – this process is so effective that, whenever you think of something you need to do, you can simply email it to yourself and process that task like the rest.

These folders are not content based; they are based on how soon they require your attention. For this reason, we call them action folders. They are:

Do This Week

This is your to-do list. File any email that is urgent and/or important enough to be done in the short term, but cannot be done in 2 minutes. This includes emails that have to be done today!

Holding for Later

This is a parking spot for less urgent emails. Anything that can be done next week or later, or that may not end up needing your attention at all should be parked here for later review. Once a week this folder should be reviewed to determine which emails need to become to-do items.

Waiting for Others

This folder contains items that are relevant to you but that you can’t yet act upon because you are waiting for an answer or resolution from someone else. So, again it is a folder you should check periodically, typically once a week.

Your last action folder is your email client’s calendar. Any emails that require action at a specific time in the future should be added to your calendar and then filed.

5. File emails that no longer require action in a single folder

One of the biggest burdens in processing email is filing them all. We receive more and more email each year, yet we often still use project-based filing habits we developed when email was first introduced.

Productivity experts agree that one of the biggest time savers you can implement is the use of a single filing folder. We have all run into situations where we want to sort emails into several folders but we postpone the filing because our folder structure is not up to date.

Using a single filing folder prevents these problems. Some email clients like Gmail have this built in, allowing you to simply use an archiving button to file emails.

If your email client doesn’t offer this option, it’s simple to make your own. Just by adding one more folder to your action folders.

Of course, this can only be done if you have good search capabilities, but this is often just a matter of understanding your email client’s search tools and developing the skills needed to find emails efficiently.

About the author

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Richard Wolfe, author of Speedmailing, published by Pearson, priced £9.99. For more information about Richard Wolfe and his book see:

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