Skip to Content

How to manage your Inbox

During the evening of the community day, a comment was made by one delegate that he rarely had time to look into or do interesting stuff, because he receieved 200 or so emails a day.   And we’ve all been off at conferences or on vacation and returned to the hostile, accusing glare of several gazillion unread emails.

During my stint as an Development Manager I picked up a few tips that I’d like to share.

One of the biggest wins, and very easy to implement, is a rule for your inbox, that any emails that don’t have your name in the “TO” field – i.e. those to which you are only CCd – go into another folder.  I usually create a sub-folder called ccbox underneath my inbox.


Now, when you do this, you know that most stuff you have to deal with will be in your inbox.  The ccbox will contain emails that might be of interest, but seldom require you to do anything.  You know you can safely devote most of your time to the inbox, not the ccbox.

If you want something a little more sophisticated, you can also provide a seperate box for emails where you are on the “TO” list, but not the only one on the “TO” list.  You can take the view (perhaps tongue in cheek), that if there’s you and a colleague in the “TO”list, that your colleague – who doesn’t use your techniques – will do the work.  However, the chances remain that an email that’s addressed to you alone (with others as cc, of course), is likely to be more important than when you are one of many.

Another tactic, which requires some discipline and is not suited to all, is to create four action folders.

  • Important Urgent
  • Urgent
  • Important
  • Other

An information folder might also be useful.  Every now and then, scan your inbox.  Read the previews, but – and this is really important – don’t take any action.  Simply decide which of the four categories above the email belongs, and move it into that folder.  For stuff that’s simply not relevant – delete it immediately.  Once you’ve done this, go through the emails in each folder, in the order above, and start taking action, starting with the oldest first (which may be there from a previous scan of your inbox).   Your inbox will usually be pretty empty. and that will make you look really competent and organised.

You should also scan your ccbox, but not as carefully and not so often.  I tend to leave most messages in my ccbox.

When I got to the office, I would work through my action folders first (or perhaps do some other work – some jobs are more email driven than others), and then about 10am, I’d start scanning my inbox.  It was sufficient to do it 4 or 5 times a day.  Most people start reading and sending email as soon as they get in, by waiting an hour or so, the inbox activity is reduced, and I found that made it easy to process it.  Similarly, wait a while after lunch before having another scan.

Depending on how conscientious you are, you might have a scan just before leaving the office, but to me, this seems a surefire way of always leaving late!

Some emails requiring action will become more urgent and/or important, so you may want to move them to a higher category.  Once you’ve actioned an email, move it to a done folder.  The done folders could have their own categorisations.  If I’m in an email conversation, I tend to place all but the latest missive into a done folder.

So, what about vacations, I hear you cry.

Well, let’s consider first your out-of-office message.  Typically, the default message contains a sentence along the lines of “I will read your message when I get back”.  What would be nice would be to say “I won’t read your message, if it’s important then please resend on my return”.  But culturally, this usually isn’t acceptable!  But don’t make the promise.  “I am out of the office.  In case of urgent queries contact …  I return on …” is quite sufficient.

When you return, you’ll have a full inbox.  Before even looking at the emails, move all emails that arrived before today, into an empty vacation folder.   Now you can differentiate between new mail, which is likely to be more relevant, and the old stuff that came while you were away.  Of course, you should, when you have time, scan your vacation folder.

You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.
  • Hi Matthew,

    good blog! I have developed similar strategies recently and found them really useful. I’ll try some of your suggestions in coping with my TechEd-caused backlog of emails on Monday. 🙂

    I’ve got another idea but I haven’t tried it in practice yet. Apart from managing from your *inbox*, you can also manage your *outbox*. In particular, you can manage when your emails are sent out.

    Do you know the kind of colleague who will send you task by email, and as soon as you respond, send you another, follow-up task? Well, it’s nice to have the first email dealt with, but sometimes you don’t want to provoke an immediate response. For example, if I finish a task that is due Friday, sometimes it’s a good idea not to send out the email too early, but schedule it for a later time. It would be great to accomplish the task – maybe on Tuesday -, write the response email, but schedule it to be sent out on Friday morning.

    Do you have any ideas on how to accomplish that?



    • I do know that type of colleague…  hmm.  This is what you could do: in outlook at least, if you create an email without sending, it goes into a draft folder.  You could set up some sub-draft folders and, as it were, manually schedule the sending.  It would be nice to have automatic scheduling though. 
      • Hi Matthew,
        congratulations for the blog! I found some techniques that I already use, and some other ones that are very useful, and I intend to adopt them.
        About scheduling outgoing messages in Outlook: well, there’s an option to do so: when you’re composing your email to be sent, click on “Options”, then in “Don’t deliver until…” you may populate a date/hour you want the message to be sent. (I have a Spanish version of Outlook, so the options may not look as I wrote, you know…). This will place your outgoing message into the “Outbox” folder, rather than in “Draft”. When the date/time-line arrives, then it will be moved automatically to “Sent items” folder.


  • Hi Matt,
    I really enjoyed the few brief moments of conversation with you as I’ve enjoyed your posts and exchanges on the website.
    Dennis of course, is quite right.  ESME (which is way beyond an enterprise twitter) would be your ideal solution for email overload.  In fact it was via (check it out if you are not familiar with it) that I “met” Elsua (Luis Suarez) who declared email bankruptcy and at least in theory influenced my thinking about my own inbox.
    Please do continue to post here.  You are an original thinker with an entertaining way of expressing yourself.  Both attributes much appreciated.