Is an empty inbox even possible?

Did you know that studies indicate most of us in business are spending up to 3 hours a day just trying to deal with incoming email? This time doesn’t include doing any of the work associated – just trying to get through the inbox. And if your email pushes through to your BlackBerry or iPhone it can be even worse!

3 hours a day equates to over 19-1/2 weeks a year – just trying to get through the inbox. No wonder it seems to be so overwhelming.

I don’t know about you, but I think this is just insane. I remember when I first heard those statistics. I realized that I was not spending any where near that amount of time dealing with my email, and I didn’t think I was the only one. I went on a hunt to identify what others were doing to manage this, and found we all had something in common.

It’s no big secret – we had all established a process and protocol that we use to manage our email. This process and protocol has just a few parts to it. And, if you implement even one of the steps, you will see an immediate result.

Here is my six step process:

  1. Establish protocols. When will you check your email? How quickly will you respond to incoming email? Make no mistake, if you don’t establish your own protocol, one will be established for you by default. The default is what we now have – 3 hours a day (or more) treating email as if it were some form of instant message, and allowing ourselves to be continually interrupted by incoming messages.
  2. Set up some rules to divert email you don’t need to see immediately. I have rules that move newsletters into reading folders, and other rules that move messages sent to a particular email account (yes, I have more than one) into its own folder. So what actually ends up in my inbox is already somewhat sorted.
  3. Turn off the feature that automatically checks for email every 5-10-15 minutes. (That is the push.) Instead, pull the email in to the inbox at the time you set to check your email.
  4. Turn off that shadow popup (or sound) that notifies you of new mail. Studies indicate we get interrupted, on average, every 6-8 minutes throughout the day. And, it takes us up to 10 minutes to re-focus on the task we were working on when the interruption occurred. That math doesn’t work! So, eliminate the interruption.
  5. Process your inbox systematically. I like to think of the inbox as a place where items land and the action is to sort. The inbox is not a place for things to live. The goal is an empty inbox at the end of each sort. Here are some sorting criteria that work well:
  • Read and delete (you don’t have to do anything else)
  • Read and respond (simple acknowledgment or one line response)
  • Read and schedule for future action (including delegating)
  • Read and file

I said six steps – so what is the last one? Stop treating email as if it were instant messaging. We have developed a culture that treats email as if it all required an instant response. Stop! You can put an automatic response on your email that alerts people to your rules and protocols. This will manage their expectations regarding when you will respond and can give them a way to contact you if something needs to be dealt with quicker. Trust me, they won’t get upset, and you won’t receive five more emails asking why you didn’t respond to the first one.

This is what you can expect: As I write this, I average around 250-300 incoming emails every day. I check the email generally twice a day – in the morning, and towards the end of the day. Each time, I spend no more than 30 minutes (and usually quite a bit less time) sorting, responding and scheduling action. Then, I turn it off till the next time.

A few years ago, I took a vacation to Ireland with my brother and sister. Every hotel we checked into had computer access. My brother and sister were checking their email every single day. I didn’t. I was on vacation. Instead, I had already scheduled my first day back as a catch up day. I came home to 894 new emails in the inbox (many others had been diverted). After two hours, every single one had been read, sorted, and scheduled appropriately. And I was caught up on what had been happening while I was away.

Give it a try. It works every single time.

(c) 2010, Terry Monaghan
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  1. Lisa Manyon says:

    I LOVE this. And I can relate to treating email as an IM system. Coming from the fast paced ad agency arena, instant response was expected. I love that I don’t have to respond to anything immediately anymore because I now work with clients on mutually agreed upon terms, who understand and respect planning, time and boundaries. Yea!!

    Write on!~


  2. Yes, processing my emails systematically!

    This made all the difference in the world!

  3. Ellen Martin says:


    This is excellent advice. I am also one of the few who don’t have thousands of email items in their inbox. I have set up protocols and rules as you suggest and it works like a charm.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Ellen Martin

  4. Terry ~

    This blog article is awesome. I treat my email as instant messaging a lot of the time and it is not a good use of my time. Thank you for the awesome reminder and for putting it in perspective!


  5. 894 e-mails in 2 hours. QUITE IMPRESSIVE! Idea for a product from you: “Speed Reading”!! LOL! But seriously, your words ring true. Thank you! XO, Katherine
    Life Blossoming Systems

  6. I learn a new technique each time I read your articles. I can’t wait to put into practice the Process your inbox systematically approach. I would love to be able to read and delete but something stops me from doing so. Fear of maybe missing something? It’s awful. I don’t think I’ve seen an empty inbox for years.

  7. Great article and reminder – I think the best tip is Turning off that shadow popup (or sound) that notifies you of new mail. As an auditory person I am so easily distracted by these popups – removing them removes the distraction – simple yet powerful!
    heidi alexandra

  8. Terry,
    THANK YOU for addressing email. It has become a time zapper for me. Although I know the info isn’t urgent, it’s like I’m afraid I’ll miss something important to learn or what’s going on! How silly! Letting it accumulate for a while does cause one to be more productive when going through it. Thanks for the tips.

    • ofyl says:

      You are welcome. I feel like I live in the land of ‘duh most of the time, as I keep writing about the things that are just plain obvious to me. I am so glad it makes a difference.

  9. Email – one of those love/hate relationships. Every time I get overwhelmed with it and hate it, I think where I would be if my inbox were always empty, then I love it!
    You have just pushed me to do more ‘rules’ with my inbox, for certain.
    Thanks Terry

  10. Mitch Tublin says:

    I was going to email this response to you. Seriously – this is the root of the issue with so many people in every business. Thanks for discussing it.

  11. Sue Painter says:

    I’m definitely an “e-mail” scanner and can zip through pretty quickly. Making time to handle email and leaving it alone the rest of the day is one practice that has freed up a LOT of my time and helped my focus, too.
    Sue Painter

  12. Phil Dyer says:

    Great article, Terry! I really like Point #3…that alone has helped me make huge strides in productivity. Where I really fall down is #5…I tend to be “I will come back to it” instead of taking immediate action.

    Great tips all around!


  13. Pinky Mckay says:

    I have been working on this all week – not treating my inbox as instant messaging – its so tempting to just click through as I work -I am not at my computer every day but have some deadlines this week.

    Its making a difference already even though its probably ‘obvious’ commonsense. We need to be reminded.


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