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3 steps for taking control of your unruly inbox – from unopened emails to ‘flagged’ tasks

By Shandel McAuliffe | |6 minute read
3 steps for taking control of your unruly inbox – from unopened emails to ‘flagged’ tasks

As an author and speaker on productivity, email is one of those topics that I’m often asked for ‘hacks’ or ‘tricks’ to manage, and the first question I always ask is, “How do you currently spend the first two hours of your day?” Go on and think about it now.

I bet the first thing you do (like most of us) is open your email and see what pops up. Then, before you know it, it’s 1pm and you’re still responding to emails or reacting to requests.

Newsflash – you are letting emails dictate your day. Right now, you’re wasting your energy and your most productive time on emails, instead of on the real work you have to do.


Whether you are conscious of it or not, those emails you have read, replied to or filed create distractions for the rest of the day and make you unproductive. You have given up control of your effectiveness. Getting control of your email is the first step towards having more productive and, dare I say it, enjoyable days.

Beyond the obvious productivity reasons for wanting to tame your inbox, research out of the UK shows that it’s bad for your health. It’s time to go on an email diet!

Here are three things you can do to get control of your inbox in less than 24 hours.

1. Archive everything more than 1 month old.

If you haven’t already responded it to by now, chances are you have been followed up, or the problem has gone away. If the thought of ‘archiving’ makes you feel nervous, create a folder called today’s date and move them there. That way you are not deleting and have the security blanket of knowing they are there if you need them.

2. Create a ‘done’ folder for everything else.

We often have complicated filing systems for storing messages only to find months later that we can’t remember which folder we put those emails in! In the early days of email, the search function was poor, forcing us to create filing systems. These days, the search engine in most email applications is as good as Google. Provided you can remember who it was from, roughly the date and subject, you don’t need a filing system.

Quick tip! Have one folder titled ‘Done’. All messages you need to keep can go in there and can be found later when needed. Once a year, archive the previous 12 months of messages.

Any existing folder systems can also be moved into this Done folder or archived. Save yourself the decision fatigue of having to choose folders by having only one.

3. Aim for zero inbox.

You will notice I said ‘aim’. This can take a few months to achieve and by following steps 1 and 2 above you should be well on your way.

Often, we keep emails in our inbox as a way of reminding us of what needs to be done, or because we are needing to do some work before sending a response. Most email applications will allow you to convert emails to tasks with date stamps for follow ups or appointments so you can block time to complete it. Then you can move the original message into your Done folder. The idea is that you get them out of your inbox.

Finally, it’s time to retrain your recipients. People learn how you respond and if you are someone who responds immediately to all emails, then people come to expect that. Then, if you don’t reply to something within 30 minutes, you’ll get another email or phone call wanting to know why you haven’t responded to that email.

You are the boss of you and your email and by creating some simple systems and habits you can shift email from foe to friend. Your future self will thank you for taking these few simple steps.

Donna McGeorge is a best-selling author of the series: It’s about time

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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