How to avoid email pileups

Six tips to keep your inbox under control.

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What is the best way to review and action the emails you get every day? Short answer: Probably the opposite of what you are doing now.

If you are like me before I started being more intentional, you log on to your account and dive in starting from the top and working down. Then you might stop because you get a call or have to go to a meeting. When you log back in, you start again but by then more new emails came in so you start at the top again. This pattern probably repeats 10 or more times. At the end of your day, you often didn’t accomplish priorities or get the productivity you would have expected from the time spent.

Why does this happen? Reviewing emails is high brain function activity. Starting your day with this activity and repeating throughout the day literally drains your ability to effectively work on the more complex priorities. For more details on the neuroscience, check out Your Brain at Work by David Rock.

On the other extreme, I tried to ignore my emails and just let them get out of control for a while. Not surprisingly, this is not a good strategy either: I risk missing something big. Or I accumulate so many emails (try thousands) that trying to dig myself out can seem impossible.

What should you do instead? Here are my top six best practices.

1. I create my priorities for the day before I open email, preferably on a pad of paper away from my computer.

I find doing it the night before works best for me. I start with my one list, prioritize it, and then try to get realistic about what will fit in one day. The last one is painful for me as I am a practicing optimist. I always try to figure out how to get more done with the same time—but there are limits.

2. In the morning, I quickly scan my emails and see if any of my priorities should change.

I sort by “From” to see if there are mails from my managers or key stakeholders that are a priority. I also sort by “Subject” to see if anything is churning. I revise my priorities to take this new information into account. I also respond opportunistically as I see emails where a quick answer is better. I also flag emails I need to action or review but are not an immediate priority.

3. I keep that pad with me throughout the day as a reminder of my priorities.

I can add notes, new items, or rearrange as necessary. But it is my road-map for the next 24 hours. And at the end of the day, it also provides me a scorecard of how well I both planned and executed.

4. I block off periods of time throughout the day to check emails as I would for other priorities.

Lots of research supports the idea that scheduled checks are much more effective than constant ones. For me, it helps me focus and move my priorities forward. As someone I trust told me early in my tenure at Amazon, “If your in-box is your to do list, you will fail.” Each mail is somebody else’s priority if it happens to be a priority at all.

5. At the end of my day, I go through the remaining mails and respond to those I flagged, or if more time is needed, I add those to my to do list.

I generally have a goal for how many messages are in my inbox and will work to get my emails back to that number. This number depends on the role and team for me and has varied greatly. I know one senior leader at Amazon whose goal is something like 20—I am in awe of that. Let’s just say mine is quite a bit bigger but having that target is like a goal weight. It provides a measurement of whether I am controlling my email or the other way around.

6. I set aside time at the end of the week to go through the emails for the previous seven days.

My daily process doesn’t always allow me to hit my goal number, so my weekly process is my second line of defense. It also shows me seven days worth of volume which identifies where I may need to spend more time, delegate or otherwise address differently.

Working this process consistently is a lot like trying to be healthy. I generally do well on some pieces at different points. When I am not happy with my productivity, I often find I am no longer diligent in my practice of one or more steps. I need to get back to doing all religiously for maximum beneficial effect. Like for my health, the rewards, in terms of being my most productive self, are worth the investment.

Ellenore Angelidis is a happily married, working mother of three kids ranging in age from college to grade school. Being a member of the working mom club for the last eighteen years produced many stories. They range from the profound to the ridiculous. Entering middle life led to the desire to make a bigger difference and raise children to the same. She also blogs at balancing motherhood career and tweets at @ellenorea .