the devil in your inbox

You say you want to accomplish everything that is on your to-do list for today.
You say you want to make a change in your personal productivity.
You say you want to actually have lunch or at least step away from your desk to pee.

What is keeping you from meeting these goals, big and small? Your inbox. I hear over and over from clients ‘I want to invest time in making a change, but I just can’t find the time!’ When we examine what they do spend time on, they are amazed at the number of hours – yes hours – they spend in their email inbox. It’s where their devil lives – and this one isn’t wearing Prada.

It may seem over simplified, but just by managing your inbox you can save hours each week. Hours you could spend on more important things. If you could have an extra 3 to 6 hours each week, what would you spend it on? Go ahead and make a list of 10 things right now, I’ll wait.


Is there something on that list that made you smile? Or pulled at your gut? Or maybe there is something on that list that would be a relief to complete? Are you ready now? Stop shuffling virtual paper and perform an exorcism on the devil in your inbox.  If you take these three steps, you will find more time in your day.

3 strategies to manage your inbox

1. Set Limits and Expectations. Set limits in the number of times you check your email and the length of time you spend writing responses. Set expectations with your contacts that this is your structure. Limiting the number of times you check your email to 3 per day: once in the morning; once mid-day; once at the end of the day. Include a sentence or two at the end of your email to let people know of your process. Limit the time you spend writing your responses by limiting the length of the response to 5 sentences.

2. Establish Processes and Systems. Use rules, folders, filters, and tags to triage your inbox before you even open your email program. It’s like having a virtual assistant living in your inbox. Create filters for all routine emails: newsletters, bill notifications, status updates, and jokes from family members. Set the filters or rules to move the email immediately into a folder or tag and out of the inbox. As you establish these rules and filters, run them on your inbox to clear out all existing as well as future items. You’ll recognize these items as the ones you don’t read immediately, but save for when you ‘have time.’

3. Drastically reduce the source of email. Be ruthless! Just like you would clean out old cloths from your closet that you haven’t worn in years, clean out your email subscriptions. Do you really read that newsletter for the quote of the day? Do you really want updates from the chocolate of the month club when you are trying to lose weight. Use the unsubscribe button if you don’t ever read the emails. Another way to keep your inbox clean is to subscribe to newsletters and updates using a different email. But that just creates one more inbox to manage.

But Linda, you say, that’s great going forward, but how do I manage what I have now? I have thousands of email in my inbox right now?

2 Bonus strategies to perform an exorcism on the devil in your inbox

1. Declare email bankruptcy. Essentially this is a complete flush of your existing emails. Archive them all or move them to a folder marked ‘bankrupt.’ Do not look back. The theory here is that if it is important enough, the sender will send a follow-up email. This is not for the faint of heart but it is freeing if you can handle it.

2. Take an email in-service day. Remember when you were in school the teachers would have in-service days but you would have to day off? Well this is the teacher’s in-service day for email. Take a day to focus only on cleaning your inbox. First set up the processes and systems as mentioned above. Then go through the remaining emails one by one. For each email you must take one of these four actions: 1. File it in a folder. 2. Delete it. 3. Delegate it to someone else. 4. Take an action. Respond to as many emails as possible immediately. If it will take more than 5 or 10 minutes, consider setting up an appointment with yourself the following workday to take care of the task. For now, you are muscling your way through your inbox, no time for side roads.

Managing your inbox won’t solve all of your productivity problems, but it will give you extra time to spend where it counts more…and you decide where to spend it. Choose the devil in your inbox or something on that list of yours. The choice, and the responsibility, are yours. Take action now!