Effectively handling incoming emails


How do you handle incoming emails? Do you check and respond to them the instant they come in breaking focus on what you were working on? Or do you allocate specific times during the day when you respond and communicate via email? Are you a slave to your Blackberry or mobile device?

Email is our main mode of communication now, it seems that most people have a tendency to stop what they were focusing on as soon as an email comes in and respond to it accordingly, all the while the sender sits impatiently waiting for a response. Remember the time when we used to send letters in the post, or wait for responses on our voice mail? Are we getting way out of control with our email expectations?

Let’s take a look at a solution. One individual I know has adopted a technique whereby he checks email only three times per day. When I first heard this, I thought he was completely whacked! But after listening to his reasoning I began to understand his positioning. Being of a senior management position, checking and responding to emails only during his designated timeframe of morning, after lunch hour, and in the evening worked for him. It meant fewer interruptions, and made for a much more productive schedule on his end. Mind you, this individual may have grown up in a time when letters and rotary dialing were all the rage, and televisions occupied only a few houses on the block, but we can learn a lot here. Will it work for a web worker? I don’t think so. I think we have to adopt other effective techniques that maybe play off this model.

As web workers, we are highly expected to be connected 99% of the day. The other percent are the times that we accidentally leave our computers, handhelds or phones in a bag while we make a caffeine order. I tried out the morning, lunch, evening thing… once. Well almost, honestly I couldn’t even make it to the afternoon. The whole time I watched the notifications coming into Outlook, hoping that the emails weren’t too important. Do I enjoy letting myself get interrupted and loosing focus? Maybe I do subconsciously.


The effective handling of incoming emails that I have adopted is pretty simple. Keep an eye on them as they come in, flagging or staring the ones I will get to when I have “free” time during the day. The ones that I deem urgent, or ones where I can provide a short answer or confirmation, get responded to instantly. The other ones get looked at when I have “extra free time”. This technique seems to work just fine for me.

What are the techniques you use for effectively handling incoming emails?


Joshua Kaufman

My method involves a single folder under my inbox called “Archive.”

Whenever I receive new messages, I do one of two things:

1. If I can act on it, read it or delete it immediately (within one minute), I do so. Then I’ll move to the the archive folder if I haven’t deleted it.
2. If I can’t act on it, read it or delete immediately, I keep it in my inbox and act on it when I have time. This can be 30 minutes later, a day later or a week later.

I wrote more about this method on my blog.


I have long given up on this. The only time I am not disturbed by email is when I am camping out deep in some mountain range where the cell phone signals does not enter. Since I couldn’t eliminate the problem fully, I have minimized it with the use of filters so that I see only the important mails with one click and other mails need some extra action.


I think that three times a day’s about right. I once read a Dilbert cartoon to this effect – if something is really urgent enough to need an immediate reply, you’ll get a personal visit, call to your cellphone, or call to your land-line – in that descending order of urgency for the message.

The fact is that email doesn’t always get through instantly. More to the point, it’s only words, without intonation, inflection, and gestures. As such, the scope for misunderstanding is huge. And when you want urgent action, you don’t want the WRONG action!

I also use a similar method to John Athayde, but with seven folders in all, as I count the in-box and the trash. I think this came from something I read in a US edition of a Mac mag I bought last year, which I also wrote up as one of our TeamTips articles


Judi Sohn

I think there’s one factor we’re leaving out of this discussion…does the person who checks his email 3 times a day only talk to people in the hallway 3 times a day? Does he only answer the phone 3 times a day? Does he only answer the knock on his corner office door 3 times a day? My point is that for most professionals, email is one of many forms of communication they have to keep in touch with co-workers/customers/clients. For me at least, email and IM are 98% of how I communicate in my business day. Locking it down for any stretch of time completely disconnects me from the outside world. Sometimes that’s my intention, most of the time it’s not. I filter out non-essential email and IMs in my day in the same way that executive filters out the chatter happening outside his doorway.


After years of having anywhere up to 3000 emails in my inbox, I finally made the commitment to empty my inbox every day.

It took me a few days to clear the backlog, and set up less that 10 folders to hold email I want saved.

For the past few months now I have tackled everything on the day it is received – either relpy, deal with an issue, delete or save in a folder.

I don’t find it difficult to deal with email as it comes in. It takes a second to see if it is something I can deal with in a moment, or something I need to take care of later in the day. I typically end the day with 5-10 items that need more than a moment.

It’s a great feeling to end the day with an empty inbox!

Brandon Wood

Not only do we put huge email expectations on ourselves, but it is also placed on us by other people. For most of the people that I work with/for, if I don’t answer an important email within a few minutes they get angry.

To keep my inbox at a reasonable level, I use lots of filters so that only messages from the people I know I need to respond to quickly stay in my inbox.

John Athayde

I use a technique adopted from other places on the internet and combined together:

1. All list mail is sorted into subfolders of a “Groups” folder. This allows for easy threading and the ability to stay on topic. I also hit this about once a day.

2. All other email is run through an aggressive spam filter (Spam Sieve) and then dumped to my inbox. I have five folders:

* Action
* Archive
* Respond
* Defer
* Waiting

Any email I can respond to in under a minute I do so. An email that needs me to do something (and typically ends up getting added to my GTD list) goes into Action. Anything that has hit the end of it’s life (either it has been responded to or is a no reply email or shipment notification) goes into Archive. I rotate Archive folders annually. Respond gets the bulk of emails. Defer and Waiting don’t get much use but I figure they would be more useful if I wasn’t using my groups filter.



There are just too many high level interrupts in the work environment. Worse that emails and their annoying notifications are cell phones and the ever ubiquitous instant messenger. I have set up an exchange forward that sends all my email to a work Gmail account loaded with a host of clever filters. This account I check only a few times each day and it really helps. Somehow the now obsolete pager still seems the correct balance between technology and privacy.

Jakob S

The whole time I watched the notifications coming into Outlook, hoping that the emails weren’t too important

I imagine that’s why it didn’t work for you. You should shut your email client down and only actually have it open during your allotted email period. That way you will not get distracted by incoming emails.

That said, I have yet to manage to do that as well ;)

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