5 Rules for Staying In Charge of Your Inbox

Work smart to manage your messages, and not the other way around.
5 Rules for Staying In Charge of Your Inbox
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Founder and CEO of TerraCycle
5 min read
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I am inundated with . I get hundreds a day, and make sure there's resolution to each and every one. With the influx of messages, I could easily spend the near-entirety of every day replying, in conversation, typing. However, I have a business to run, and being in the business of eliminating the idea of waste, I need every ounce of the time and energy I have.

Related: The Do's and Don'ts of Email Etiquette

Staying in control of my schedule is one of the most important ways I stay productive. On the surface, busying yourself with email exchanges may seem innocuous, even industrious. But, the truth is, emails can be a time zapper and a productivity drainer.

Letting your email set your agenda distracts you from what you actually want and need to work on. Some studies find that, regardless of the email's importance, it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover from an email interruption and return to work at the same rate.

Email is often reactive, low-value work. It's the high-value stuff that deserves your time and attention. Based on strategies I use to stay focused and organized, here are five tips to help you manage your inbox, save time and maximize the efficiency of your emails.

1. Take action on each message. 

Read the incoming mail and make a prompt decision on each: reply, delete or file away. Start drafts for new messages if you can't respond in that moment. Do not read each email and then go back to respond to them all -- that will require twice the amount of time, if not more.

I use a color-coding system (incoming mail is blue and stays that way until I've addressed it), but I don't have folders, because if I need to look for a conversation, I'll just search for it. I also don't delete too many emails, but I will file away messages that don't require follow-up on my end to get them out of my main inbox.

Related: The Do's and Don'ts of the Email CC

2. Don't flag emails. 

That said, I often receive emails I can't fully respond to because I'm busy, I don't have the answer, or the reply requires an update or additional information. Don't "flag" the email to handle later, as in a few days, the flagged email is long forgotten. Award-winning trainer on corporate productivity and attention management Maura Thomas agrees that "flagged emails quickly fall below the scroll and get buried." Write a quick response letting the recipient know that you have received their message, are working on it and will reply again soon, looping in the relevant people who will add to the conversation. Make a note for yourself to follow up, if that is helpful.

3. Delegate when possible. 

The average incoming mailbox contains only 38 percent relevant emails. Whenever it is appropriate or possible, such as when I receive a message better addressed to a team lead or an associate, I forward to my colleagues to answer. If I have context on the situation or any directives or advice, I'll include that with the original forwarded message, or take a walk over for a quick chat if I'm in the office. Ask yourself, "Can this be better handled by someone else?" If so, forward it to your team and save yourself the time.

Related: The Best Days and Times to Send Your Email (Infographic)

4. Prioritize. 

Psychologists increasingly warn that emails can be a "toxic source of stress," so learning to manage them is key for professional and personal health. operates in 21 countries, and my colleagues and I are in constant contact with partners, vendors and new business. Reading our email all day wouldn't be sustainable, or efficient, especially with the work we do.

Know what the priorities are. I'm always aware of the messages I should be looking out for, and do a decent job of writing emails as they are needed. When I do get to sit down to read email between meetings, calls and frequent travel, this gets my full attention and energy.

5. Use human resources. 

Take advantage of the talented, competent people you work with to write effective emails that communicate with clarity. One of the reasons we flag emails or accidentally let things slip is because we are working on the "perfect" response in an important exchange. Cut down on time wasted (and potential deals dropped) and craft timely, impactful messages with the help of your colleagues. It's a common, encouraged practice in our offices to not only review our email drafts with team members but write them together.

Related: 4 Ways to Overhaul Your Email Habits and Take Back Your Time

In terms of my email management style, I may be in the minority in that I do multi-task quite a bit, check my email first thing in the morning (and throughout the day) and don't use folders or email "rules," but it's about what works for you. The key to managing your inbox is being able to prioritize and keep your wits about you. That means having a read on your own importance, and the importance of others, both of which will tell you how and when to respond to emails.

Email overwhelm is a symptom of being out of touch with how you actually work. We get copied on so many messages that don't require our input and have the tendency to drop items that could have be taken care of with a quick, thoughtful message. Don't overthink it, but don't take email too lightly. Just aim to get what you need out of your inbox and move on.

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