13 Email Tips to Keep Your Inbox Under Control and Get Things Done

email-tipsFor many of us, email is a work killer. We have enough work apart from our inbox inventory to keep us busy for weeks. And that work is usually much more important than what pops up in our inbox.

I am one month into a new pastoral role, and one of the most notable differences is the increase in email I now receive. Having previously served as a junior high pastor, I didn’t receive many of the emails that circulated around the offices. In my new role as an associate pastor and an elder, I am now part of the church-wide conversations. The result is that my email load has tripled.

It is bad enough how long work processes take at the beginning of a new job, since I’m just learning the ropes. Combine that with a ton more email, and you have a recipe for not getting off to the best start.

To deal with the deluge, I have adjusted some of my email processing habits. I am starting to tread more and drown less.

Here is what is working for me. Maybe if you are drowning in your inbox it will help you, too.

1. It’s an inbox, not a staybox. Don’t store email in your inbox. It is a good place to receive information, but a bad place to keep it. Delete old emails that don’t matter, and file ones that do.

2. Zero is not the goal. Don’t try to keep your inbox at zero. That is a sign of unproductivity, not productivity. Check it several times a day, not continuously throughout the day.

3. Silence. Turn off notifications for your email, whether audible, visual, or both. This will prevent you from being tempted to dive back into your inbox.

4. Separate quick replies from long ones. Batch process your emails based on how long they take to reply to. First, go through your inbox and reply to everything that requires only a quick response. Then go back through and reply to emails that require more thought.

5. Don’t clean out your email first thing in the morning. Get started on high level projects first. If you have to check your email first thing, only reply to the emails that require a quick response (see tip #4). Save the longer responses for another time of the day so can get to your priorities right away.

6. Oldest to newest. Are procrastinated emails starting to pile up? Process your email from oldest to newest. This will force you to deal with emails you have been neglecting.

7. Delete without reading. If you can tell from the subject line that the email isn’t relevant to you, delete and don’t even read it.

8. Save attachments. Create folders on your computer for attachments. Or print them. Don’t keep emails in your inbox just for the attached file.

9. Get rid of junk mail. Unsubscribe like nobody else’s business.

10. Use your email’s search capability. A lot of people store emails in their inbox so they will know where it is for later reference. But even if you delete the email, you can always search for it. In fact, deleting or saving emails is a win-win. You’ll find the email faster through a search than looking through each email in your inbox, and  your inbox will be cleaner and more current.

11. Lean into your priorities, not email. Never check email as “one last thing” before starting a project that will take a lot of focus and time. You’ll get sucked into the email vortex, and you won’t get your most important work done.

12. Delete emails, even if the conversation is live. Delete emails you have replied to, even if the conversation is still going. You will be reminded to continue the conversation when your email partner replies back to you.

13. What to do with links. When someone sends you an email with a link to a website, click the link and bookmark it in your web browser or save it to Instapaper, and then delete the email. Now the content is stored in a place where you are in “online reading” mode (which is more reflective), rather than “email reading” mode (which is more reactive).

Those are my tips. What are yours? Share your productive email tips in the comments!


  1. Eric,

    I think this is incredibly important for people who don’t consider themselves productivity gurus. I hear a lot about it on sites like 99u.com, but I think most people aren’t in those circles and find themselves buried in email. They waste a ton of time unsuccessfully trying to get out of it.

    If people need a guide how to do #9 easily, I suggest http://mikeyanderson.com/how-to-save-30-5-hours-per-year-with-a-simple-search

  2. Sparrow Child says:

    Good article, Eric, and I do have an additional suggestion for you.

    Just because it’s called an INBOX doesn’t mean all your e-mails have to come into it from your server. Check out your programs file system and filter system, and you’ll use them in that order.

    Somewhere near where your INBOX / TRASH / SPAM and other folders display, there should be a button called “ADD FOLDER”. Use it to set up a filing system by adding folders such as: PERSONAL / CHURCH BUSINESS / SERMON IDEAS / CONFERENCES etc.

    Now, you can go through your e-mails and add filters so that personal e-mails go to the PERSONAL folder instead of the INBOX and so on. The way you would accomplish this is to highlight particular personal messages, one at a time, and use the function FILTER E-MAILS LIKE THIS. So you highlight a message from Mom and use that function to filter it to personal; do the same with a message from Uncle Clarence etc. From then on, every message from these senders will show up in your personal folder instead of your inbox.

    I’m a Christian novelist, not a pastor, but the deluge is much the same. When I logged on just now. I was able to see at a glance that no family had written overnight but a friend had, as had my condo management. I could see I have new Bible study messages and ideas for / research on locales. I could that because I have folders with each of those names, one for each sender that messages me a lot.

    Blessings to you in your new ministry, and Gods grace to you in your own faith journey.

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Thanks for sharing! I know that a lot of people use folders and filters with great success. For me, I just want to have to go through one folder (inbox) rather than a bunch of folders.

      I tried using folders like: Needs Reply, Need to Read, Need to File…but it just ended to be more steps to process the email. But that’s just me!


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