Email at Work

by Barbara Buffton

Staying in control

Email is an essential business tool, but either we learn to manage it or it will increasingly manage us.

Bob Hallewell

Key question: how many emails should be in your inbox?

The answer: however many you can handle efficiently and quickly.

We all have different ideas about what is acceptable. Some people only feel in control if their inbox has fewer than 20 emails; others feel OK with over 100. The important thing is to be sure you can easily find the emails you need.

You would never leave all the paper letters you have actioned in your paper in-tray. You would file them after dealing with them. So why should your email inbox be any different? Once an email is actioned, file it in a folder. This way, your inbox only has emails that need action. It is a mini-to-do list.

Top tips for inbox management

Problem Solution

Inbox clutter means that you can’t keep track of new emails or find old ones.


Have different folders (with a note to review them in one week/month/year), including a ‘Waiting for’ folder, to be checked daily. Keep the more important folders at the top by numbering them 1, 2, 3 then the folder name.

Use filters to direct certain mail immediately into folders; for example, create a rule to do this with the emails that you know can wait or just need to be filed.

Get rid of the clutter: cultivate good habits when checking your inbox and, where possible, archive, delete, divert or delegate anything that’s not actionable by you. With the rest, take immediate action or ‘park with care’ to deal with later.

Receiving too many emails


Note: Beware of equating a full inbox with being busy or important.

Overheard in an office:

‘It’s developed into a competition; if I don’t have more emails in my inbox, I’m considered to be less busy than him!’

Empower others to make decisions so that they don’t always have to send you emails.

Have totally email-free days or internal-email-free days (this means you may even get people engaging with each other more through face-to-face or telephone contact, building up more productive relationships).

Ensure your spam filter is on and working!

Unsubscribe where possible. Where it’s not possible – for example, if you have to subscribe to various industry groups – save reading these emails until you take a break from your work, maybe at the end of the day, when you’re winding down. You can easily get sidetracked reading all the different topics and replying to them, all of which is taking you away from your paid work.

Sending too many emails


As above. In addition, question your use of email versus telephone/face-to-face – would it be quicker and more efficient to pick up the phone or go and see someone?

Compulsively checking email too often: more than three times a day, for example.


Turn off audible alerts/visual notification.

Use auto-response email telling people when you will be dealing with emails and giving emergency contact numbers.

Access email at certain times only – never first thing in the morning or you risk getting sidetracked. It’s simply not necessary to check email constantly throughout the day, and doing so will regularly interrupt more important tasks. See below for the benefits of timed access.

Switch your email client to offline mode so you can handle current emails without new ones disturbing you. Any emails you write will just sit in your Outbox until you go back online.

Ask yourself this: is what I am doing right now taking me towards my goal? How much value am I adding to the organisation spending x hours per day on email? Is this the best use of my time right now?

Difficulty prioritising – you don’t know which ones to open first; you don’t know which ones to action first.


Don’t always go by the ‘high priority’ status of emails – it might just be someone’s email habit to label it so.

Sort by sender name or subject heading.

Although not every email is as urgent as the next, it can be difficult to keep track of those you need to answer quickly. Develop a labelling system that helps you get things done. Tag your most important emails with ‘Reply ASAP’ and give a deadline date. Less urgent tasks can be marked ‘To do’, again with a deadline date.

You know, email gives the illusion of progress even when nothing is happening.

Bob Geldof

Benefits of timed access

The benefits of timed access are huge:

  • A massive (and immediate) reduction in stress and overwhelm
  • A sense of control over your days; by getting something substantial done every morning (other than email!), you will feel you are again in charge of your workload
  • Far from getting less done, you will become more productive, because of a sense of vitality and energy coming from the effects listed above; you will also be much more focused on tasks rather than on emails
  • Things that have been ‘good ideas’ for months will actually start getting done, as you feel more relaxed and more productive.

For half a day, turn off your audible alert/visual notification and check your email just the once. Notice the difference.


... the culture

Start with yourself – change the way you operate and then, and only then, if it works better for you, start to encourage your colleagues to follow similar email guidelines.