Email Productivity Tips: How to Manage Your Inbox

small biz chat with melinda emersonEach week as Smallbizlady, I conduct interviews with small business experts on my weekly Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. This is excerpted from my #SmallBizChat interview with Marsha Egan (CPCU, PCC)  @marshaegan.  Marsha is CEO of The Egan Group, Inc., a Reading, Pennsylvania based workplace productivity coaching firm. She is author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence. She can be reached at or 

Small Biz Lady:  Why should we be concerned with e-mail and inbox productivity?

A. In today’s world, we must do more with less. A huge productivity advantage is staring us in the face, because unknowingly most workers lose precious minutes and seconds every day because they are inefficient with their e-mail, and the way they handle it saps productivity. It is estimated by Basex that $900 million annually is lost because of e-mail handling inefficiencies. Instead of having to hire new employees, if we can be more efficient in our e-mail handling, the average business can reclaim an hour or more per person per day. For a 20 person office, that is 100 hours of productivity each week!

Small Biz Lady: How can we reclaim an hour of productivity per person per day?

A. There isn’t just one solution, because each person handles their e-mail and inbox is differently. One of the biggest culprits however is what we call the cost of interruption recovery. It is estimated that the average person takes an average of four minutes to recover from any interruption, and this doesn’t include handling the interruption itself. It just means the amount of time to get refocused, back in the zone, and back on track. If we allow 15 e-mail interruptions to disturb our train of thought each day, we essentially spend 60 minutes, or an hour recovering from those interruptions. So one of the quick hits in becoming more efficient in your e-mail handling is to minimize your interruptions.

Small Biz Lady: How can we minimize our interruptions?

A. The easiest way is to turn off all the flashes and dings that announce a newly received e-mail message. Most people can’t resist looking up when that occurs. We need to take control, turn off the flashes and sounds, and minimize or turn off e-mail to enable uninterrupted periods of time to get essential work done. This is easy to do, hit people are very hesitant to do it.

 Small Biz Lady: Explain the two minute rule.

A. This is one of the secrets to our 12 steps that gets all of this humming.  It is a takeoff on David Allan’s Getting Things Done.  This rule states that if you believe that the item can be handled in two minutes or less, handle it, regardless of priority.  While this may appear to fly in the face of all time management theory, the need to reduce the e-mail clutter trumps that.  So if it will take you three minutes, drag and drop it somewhere. If it will take you to minutes or less, handle it, and get it out of the in box.

Small Biz Lady: Why are people hesitant to shut their inboxes down?

A. Many people have a fear that they will miss something important, or that they are not being customer focused. We are not advocating not reading e-mail, we are advocating managing it in chunks of time, and allowing other chunks of time to accomplish work that goes to the bottom line of the company. It is rare that e-mailers expect an immediate response, yet some people feel that they need to provide immediate responses. The reality is that most people sending e-mail messages don’t even wonder whether it has been received for 24 to 48 hours. In the majority of businesses, a response within two hours to an e-mail message is very acceptable. We have all been in meetings that have gone that long, and the sky did not fall in while we were inaccessible by e-mail. The cost of having the ability to respond immediately is that you cannot turn your dings and flashes off, which means that you have to tolerate interruptions all day long — and this is where you lose a huge amount of productivity.

 Small Biz Lady: What other e-mailing practices sap productivity?

A. Many people use their inboxes as a makeshift “to do” list. They waste a huge amount of time scrolling up and down, looking for messages, trying to find work to do, wasting time trying to eliminate some of the smaller items, and getting stressed out because of all the work they see the minute they open their inboxes yet they aren’t going to get done that day. Scrolling up and down wastes valuable time.

 Opening, reading closing, rereading, is also wasteful. Leaving 250 items in your inbox is just like having 250 pieces of paper on your desk, in no files, strewn over your desk with no organization, reminding you of work but without priority.

Small Biz Lady: Do you recommend that we empty our inboxes regularly?

A. Yes. Actually, we recommend that the inbox is emptied every time it is viewed. Now, don’t get the shakes here! We are not saying that each item must be worked and handled. We are saying that it should be sorted to a place that is out of the inbox, and triaged so that when it is time to work on that item, it is easily findable, and a reminder comes up that enables you to set the right priorities. This is one of the important steps in our 12 step program to curing your e-mail E–diction, featured in our book Inbox Detox, available on Amazon.

The key is to think of moving items out of your inbox as a sorting function, not a working function. There is a huge distinction. Just like you sort the mail out of your P.O. Box into piles to be handled later, triaging our work that is delivered by e-mail messages is the same. We also recommend that you spread out your viewing of your inbox to the longest intervals possible, based on your work. We recommend for the average business checking five times a day — first thing in the morning, midmorning, after lunch, midafternoon, and just before the end of the day.

Small Biz Lady: Where should we put the items that require our attention, if we can’t leave them in the inbox?

A. We recommend creating two folders — Action A., and action B. Place the important work in the Action a folder, and the not so important work in the Action B. folder. Simple as that. It essentially moves all that stuff that you are holding in your inbox into a triage folder where you go get it, rather than having it stare you in the face every morning when you open up your inbox. The important action that accompanies the moving of these items into your Action folders is to set a reminder for when you need to view that item to work at. As an example, if your boss asks for a report to be due three weeks from now, don’t leave it in your inbox to remind you, move it to your Action A folder, and set a reminder for five days before it is due. You will know it exactly where to go to find that message.

Small Biz Lady: If you put items into folders, isn’t there a chance that you might forget them?

A. No. Here’s why. When you get into the habit of setting reminders relating to the triaged messages, and when you incorporate viewing those reminders when you organize your daily work, you won’t be able to forget them. Have the reminders set to be delivered at the same time that you organize your day, so that all of the tasks that you triggered for that day will come up when you are doing your daily work plan.

It’s important for people to understand that doing e-mail is not a separate task, e-mail just delivers tasks. So when you are managing your day, you need to look at the meetings, the telephone calls, the reports you need to write, and the tasks whose reminders have come up by e-mail — all at the same time, and make decisions about the priorities with which you will work them.

Small Biz Lady: What other practices can we use to enhance our e-mail productivity?

A. One of the most important ones is to make a determination as to what is the best way to communicate, before defaulting to e-mail. Too many people try to use e-mail when it shouldn’t be used.

So the first question to ask is what is the best way to communicate? We challenge people to consider the overall time of the transaction, not just the time it takes you to get it off your desk. In other words if you are going to send an e-mail to 10 people and they will all respond to you, think not only about the time it takes you to send e-mail and read the responses but the time it will take all of them collectively.

Sometimes picking up the phone or even leaving voicemail messages is more effective. One of our sayings is, “when dialogue is needed, e-mail is not.” It is important to remember that e-mail is a one-way communication, and all voice inflection and body language is lost, thereby opening it up for misinterpretation and emotional responses which could actually add to the overall time of the transaction.

Small Biz Lady: What can we do to receive less e-mail?

A. Some people think that they have no control over how much e-mail they receive, but they do. We believe that e-mail begets e-mail. The more e-mail you send, the more e-mail you will get. The more people you copy on an e-mail message, the more e-mail messages you will get. So, if you want to receive less e-mail, pick up the phone more often. Copy only those who really need the message. Avoid sending one word responses, like “OK” or “Thank You.”

Small Biz Lady: What tips do you have about writing the effective e-mail messages?

A. Write very short e-mail messages. With 70% of e-mail readers skimming messages, the less you write, the more they will read. Put the Main point in the very first sentence of the message. And break up your messages into no more than three sentence paragraphs, preferably two. You need to make it very easy for people to read your messages. Have an auto signature that allows people to easily respond, and include your e-mail address. Use excellent grammar and punctuation, every time — remember, you are your message. Never send an emotional e-mail message — remember e-mail is for facts, not feelings.

For more tips on starting or growing your small business subscribe to Melinda Emerson’s blog at

Melinda F. Emerson, known to many as SmallBizLady is one of America’s leading small business experts. As a seasoned entrepreneur, professional speaker, and small business coach, she develops audio, video and written content to fulfill her mission to end small business failure. As CEO of MFE Consulting LLC, Melinda educates entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies on subjects including small business start-up, business development and social media marketing. She has been featured on NBC Nightly News, the Tavis Smiley Radio Show, in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur and Black Enterprise Magazine. She hosts #SmallBizChat weekly on Twitter for emerging entrepreneurs and publishes a resource blog Melinda is also the author of the national bestseller Become Your Own Boss in 12 months; A Month-by-Month Guide to a Business That Works. (Adams Media 2010)


  1. says

    Great post, Melinda!

    Many people manage the vast majority of their business interactions through email, and are overwhelmed by high email volume that causes critical items to slip through the cracks.

    As cofounder of TextToTasks, may I bring attention to an Outlook 2010 add-in that greatly enhances email productivity?

    TextToTasks Add-In for Outlook 2010 extracts tasks from email text and saves them in Outlook so you can work on what’s important and track what others owe you. More sophisticated than dragging email messages to Tasks or flagging messages for follow-up, all sentences of a message are analyzed resulting in zero, one, or several tasks. Users experience no performance or functionality gaps and the software automatically captures, organizes, and prioritizes tasks found in outgoing, incoming, and previously saved email. TextToTasks works for the individual Outlook 2010 user regardless of whether other senders and/or recipients are using Outlook.

    You may download a 15 day trial version from the homepage.


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