The Secret to Effective Email Time Management

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Take a look in your email inbox- how many messages do you have in there? A few hundred? A few thousand? Believe it or not, there are actually people who have accumulated thousands of emails in their inbox. If this is you, it's probably a good time to take a look at how you are processing the incoming emails, and see if you can improve the time spent on reading and responding to email actions.

Here are four steps you can start taking TODAY, that will make a huge difference in the amount of time you spend on email related tasks. Effective email time management starts right now!

Schedule Email Time

How many times a day are you interrupted by the "ding" that notifies you when an email has arrived in your inbox? Also think about the number of total interruptions you get each day- from the telephone, people stopping at your desk or office, instant messaging, etc. Scheduling an hour per day to work through the information received in your inbox (moving files to your reference folders, or carrying out the actions required of action emails) can make a huge difference in the amount you accomplish. Depending on the nature of your work, you may need to check your email more frequently for more pressing emails requiring actions right away, but having at least one hour per day, specifically scheduled to deal with what's in the email inbox and to not allow phone calls or other interruptions, will make a huge difference.

If possible, don't leave your email program running throughout the day while you're working on something else. Every time you check to see what email is coming in, you lose focus on what you're working on and it takes time to get it back. If you must check it frequently for urgent messages, just open it when you are in between projects, or waiting for something to boot up, etc.


All email can be classified as either "reference" or "action" email. Statistics show us that learning how to do this can save you up to 50 minutes per day on filing and finding information. That's almost 7 hours a week, and well worth the time it will take you to learn this technique!

Reference Email: This is material that you receive in your email that you do not have to do a specific task with; but you want to keep it so you can refer to it at a later date. You need to store these in email folders, in the My Documents area of your computer, or in paper form within file cabinets.

Action Email: This is data that you use to actually complete an action. You need what is in the email to carry out the action. This information is typically saved on a to-do list, a calendar, or in a project management system.

One at a Time

It can be extremely difficult to resist the temptation to open emails in a random order- based on what looks most interesting to you as you open your inbox up! Systematically working through the emails one at a time, starting from the top, is a much better approach and will increase productivity and decrease time spent on email related tasks. Use your email program to arrange emails by date, so that the oldest or most recent emails are at the top of the list.

If you've got a backlog of emails in your inbox to work through, you will want to schedule blocks of time to get through them- organizing reference information and responding to actions. Eventually, you will be able to clear out your inbox of the older information and simply work on a daily list of emails, one at a time.

The "4 D's of Decision Making"

Are you constantly opening and reading the same email messages over and over- and marking them "as new" again to refer back to later because you just aren't sure what to do with it at this time? The reference/action classification will help you with that; as will the 4 D's of Decision Making model.

Handling email once is more efficient, and will increase your productivity. Making a decision the first time you open your email is paramount to effective time management. You have four choices to select from using this model of decision making, including:

Delete: Probably half of the email you get, if not more, can just be deleted immediately. Do that instead of saving it "for later" or "for when I have time" and you'll eliminate a ton of unnecessary work later on.

Doing: If the action required in an email will take you two minutes or less, don't even think about filing it or saving it to do for later. That's what your one hour time block is for- just get it done and feel good about the accomplishment. For reference emails, get it filed where it belongs and then you can delete the email from the inbox. Probably about a third of your email can actually be "done" in less than 2 minutes.

Delegating: For emails that can't be deleted, and you can't get it done in about two minutes, what about delegating it to someone else to do? If you can delegate it, compose a quick email in under two minutes to send it to someone else to do!

Deferring: For a select few emails that just can't be deleted, and can only be done BY YOU, and it will take you longer than two minutes to get it done, you will defer them until sometime after your dedicated hour of email processing time. This is important- if you launch into doing tasks that take longer than two minutes or so during your email time, you've neglected all of the other emails in your inbox. So you defer the longer action emails for a scheduled work time by scheduling it on your to do list or calendar, or scheduling a meeting, etc.

If you do the above on a daily basis, you can really improve your time management efficiency for dealing with your emails. On average, it's been found that people can typically process about 100 emails in an hour using the 4 D's decision making model and the above tips for handling emails. Statistically, 50% of your email can be deleted immediately, 30% of email can be delegated or completed by yourself in about two minutes, and 20% of email can be deferred until a later, scheduled work time.

If you currently have a backlog of emails, just set aside larger chunks of time to start getting through the old messages. Start each day with an hour of email time, working through your newest received emails, and then schedule additional time to go through the old emails. Before you know it, you will be working with daily messages only- and enjoying your newfound email productivity!

By A. J. Maddox

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