Inbox overload? Call Max the invisible genie…

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

Stephen Covey

Sophie works for an international engineering company and is Executive Assistant to the Managing Director Richard Hogan. She has a BSc in History and speaks fluent French. She is based in their London HQ although the company have three other offices in the UK and several around Europe, the Far East and America

Sophie arrives at her desk just after 8.30am on Monday morning to see over 25 new emails. Meeting madness on Friday means there are about 50 emails from last week too which still need attention. Of these new and old emails she probably only really needs about 50%. The rest will be a mix of emails which either need to be read at some point or can be instantly deleted.

Sophie scanned the emails over the weekend and on the journey into her office but decided they could probably all wait until arriving at the office, although it did leave her feeling anxious about how she will survive. She has three meetings during the day and a long to do list with several tasks which have now become urgent. Top priority is booking flights for Richard and a room with conference call facilities for Friday. Add to that she is taking leave the following week.

Sophie feels the stress mounting even though she spent the weekend trying to relax with a round of golf and having a long cycle with friends and family.

Sounds familiar? Well Sophie (and you the reader) are in luck. Max the email management genie has just flown in from the “Clean Inbox” Kingdom. Max is visible only to Sophie like those help bubbles which pop up when you are searching a website and ask if you need help. Max used to be the CEO of a major international hi-tech organisation and is passionate about making effective use of email. Max is now a specialist in email best practice and ensuring that you control your working day rather than having email (and hence the inbox) controlling you.

Max will spend the day with Sophie coaching her how to do just this to save time and improve her wellbeing and performance. She is already a top EA although over the previous weeks and, unbeknown to her, Max has noticed scope for improvement.

The only thing Max asks in return is that Sophie provides food and especially chocolate, coffee and water at regular intervals.

Where do I begin?

Sophie opens her inbox and starts to deal with the sea of unopened emails. “Stop” shouts Max. “Before you even open your inbox, create a to do list and prioritise the tasks and decide what must be done today,” Max says.

Top of the list is booking flights and the conference call system. Max guides Sophie to quickly look at the inbox to make sure nothing has changed and then close it. Now do those two tasks and then tick them off your list.

Max comments that judging from other client’s experiences, if anyone wants you that urgently they will find you. If they rely on email we will change that later in the day. By 9.15am Sophie has completed the most urgent tasks for the day (thus far). It’s time for a pain au chocolate and some coffee before they sort through the inbox.

Triage your inbox

With over 75 unread emails from Friday and today, Max says Sophie must triage her inbox just as she would a hospital emergency ward. Look for the “must” emails. The objective is to action the important emails before they become urgent and potential problems. Here is Max’s five-point plan.

Monday morning clean up


Priority management is the answer to maximizing the time we have. James C Maxwell

There are all sorts of schemes to categorise emails, just as there are for the task list. Max says the key is keeping it simple, as simple as 1 2 3 (or ABC). It must work for you. For email management, one that many of Max’s clients find most useful and easy to use is:

  • High – must respond now
  • Medium – a response during the day
  • Low – can wait until later in the week/not needed at all

Alternatives are to sort by person/project/client etc. Again within these groups you do need to prioritise from high to low.

Now spend the next hour (meetings permitting) clearing the high and possibly the medium priority emails using the 4Ds principle for handling each email once. This way your inbox becomes your work in hand rather than a dumping ground for every email you receive, and you find yourself trawling through it countless times to find what you need.

4Ds Process for handling each email once

Whatever happens Max stresses to Sophie, “do not allow yourself to be distracted by incoming emails as this will mean that what is high priority and important becomes urgent and important, and that is a recipe for more stress.”

Handle each email once – 4Ds

Max tells Sophie “a significant time saver is to make sure that as you open each email you do something with it. Don’t just open an email thinking you will go back to it: do something with it. Otherwise you will end up re-reading scores of emails as you forget what they were about and what you need to do. The princple of 4Ds is designed to enable you to handle each email once and once only. You must do one of the following:

  • DEAL – high priority
  • DEFER – high/medium priority
  • DELEGATE – high/medium priority
  • DELETE – low priority

Deal – do one of the following as appropriate: respond (and then either delete the original or file the response in the relevant folder; read it and take no further action other than folder it).

Defer – the email needs a response but you cannot give one just yet. Put a reminder in it (see below for options) and if you are not going to respond within 24 hours let the sender know when to expect a resonse.

Delegate – a response is required soon but you are not the right person to respond or someone can help you prepare the response. Forward it to them for help. You might want to keep tabs on the response using one of the options listed below.

Delete – everything which you really do not need.

Options for keeping tabs on emails which still need action include:

  • Flags
  • Colour/Categories
  • Create a task/calendar entry
  • Mark as unread

“Is anyone one of these better than the other” asks Sophie. “No, it’s what works best for you,” replies Max. “The only consideration is not to use too many reminders otherwise you become overwhelmed with red alerts which again is stressful.”

What if I don’t have an hour to spare?

“Often it’s a matter of checking my emails between meetings and other activities. Sometimes I only have 15 minutes, then what do I do?” asks Sophie.

Ah says Max. “It’s still as simple as 1 2 3. You must apply the rules for prioritising and the 4Ds. But, in terms of the emails you deal with, pick those to which you can respond within a couple of minutes and leave those requiring a longer response until you have more time. Some call this the “Swiss Cheese” approach. You make inroads into all the high priority tasks in small bites (in this case emails). The list of Category 1 – high priority emails does not look so daunting when you do have proper quality time at your desk.”

Working with multiple devices

After Sophie returns from a couple of meetings Max notices that she is deleting and moving some emails which appear to be unread. “What’s going on Max asks?” Well Sophie replies “I have dealt with some of the more high priority ones during the meetings.”

“Hmm not a good idea,” retorts Max almost in disgust. First, you should be staying focused on the meeting. Second, this is one of the biggest downsides of using mobile devices. Depending on how they are synchronised, it can mean you still need to folder the emails when you return to your main device (eg laptop).

Indeed Max asserts that increasingly people are waiting until they return to their desk and main device rather than constantly checking emails on the go. “It saves processing emails twice and having to clear up multiple mailboxes.” Max suggests Sophie checks how her devices are synchronised and thinks about the most efficient one for handling her emails. For some it is a mobile device, for others the laptop/PC remains the best with a mobile device used judiciously.

More time – how does that happen?

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst. William Penn

Some days there is never a clear hour complains Sophie. Before responding Max looks carefully at Sophie’s calendar. “Where is your ‘me time’?” Max asks. Starting to feel a little annoyed, Sophie retorts by saying in a slightly cynical tone. “What do you mean ‘me time’? Often even lunch is taken on the run between buildings and meetings.”

Well that’s the point says Max. “If you don’t protect and manage your time everyone else will do it for you according to their needs rather than yours. Take a look at all the top executive’s diaries. You will always find gaps dedicated to themselves to catch up. It might not overtly say “me time” but you can be sure it will be there. It also means there is slack in the day if urgent matters crop up.”

Max tells Sophie to start now to block out small chunks of time (30-60 minutes each day when she is busy but busy doing her own things. She can call it what she likes, eg admin, email management, thinking time, travel, maybe even “meeting with myself”. These are some of the names Max has seen other people use. Max has seen those who block out such time at the start and end of the day. Sometimes it does get eaten up by other activities but at least it is there as a backstop.

Pomodoro technique for clearing a backlog of emails

Another technique people find very useful is the Pomodoro technique. You allocate a time which you then break up into smaller chunks, traditionally of 25 minutes. (Smaller blocks also work.) Take a five-minute break between each chunk and mark up your progress (eg 10 emails actioned and foldered out of the 30 which need attention).

Invented by Francesco Cirillo (a German designer) he called it Pomodoro because he used a tomato-shaped timer and pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato.

It is based on the assumption that our productivity and concentration decreases after about 25 minutes. The break acts as a refresher and stimulus to reboot our performance. It is a useful way to tackle a backlog of emails and especially those which have mounted up after time away from the office (eg in meetings, training, on leave etc.)

Max feels this is also a very sound way of limiting the risk of making a mistake because you are getting tired, rushing, losing concentration etc.

Resetting the priorities

Clearly as the day progresses priorities may change and you need to reflect this when you do spend quality time working through your emails. “So do I have to triage my inbox again during the day?” asks Sophie. Yes, Max replies. “And review the priorities for the emails left from the last session and keep applying the 4Ds principle for handling each email once and only once. This way you should have a relatively clean inbox with maybe no more than 20 ongoing emails in it. If you can reach an empty inbox even better, but that can be hard in the 24x7x365 world of global business. The main point is not to let the emails mount up in a random state of read and unread.”

Sophie has written extensive notes in her Pukka Pad Project Book because she fears she may not remember all Max’s words of wisdom. Also she is sure she will want to share some of Max’s advice with her colleagues and Richard the MD.

Summary – key points

  • Do the important stuff before you even open your inbox. Check if necessary that nothing has changed but never let new emails throw you off course.
  • Triage your emails (inbox) before you start to tackle them. Prioritise what needs your attention here and now, taking note of what else is going on in the office which might change where you need to focus your attention.
  • Don’t allow important emails to build up to the point that they become important + urgent = stress.
  • Use the 4Ds and always do something with each email as you read it, even if you only move it out to a folder for reference.
  • Adopt a foolproof way of keeping tabs on emails which still need attention.
  • Assign quality (me) time in your calendar to deal with your emails, and at least at the start and end of the day. This is protected time when you do not go to meetings.
  • When time is short, deal with the top priority emails in between other activities.

This article is an extract from Dr Monica Seeley’s new book The Executive Secretary Guide to Taking Control of Your Inbox available soon from Amazon.

Dr Monica Seeley is the CEO and founder of Mesmo Consultancy. She is a leading international expert on email best practice. Her acclaimed workshops enable participants to reclaim their lives from the inbox and save up to 45 minutes a day (every working ... (Read More)

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