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Master Your Email in 5 Simple Steps

E-mail is essential. And annoying. And it never stops. But don't despair: You don't have to be shackled to your inbox. Make these adjustments now and free your time for better things.

Email: It's on our smartphones, laptops, tablets, and of course our desktop rigs. We curse its ubiquity even as we unleash our own torrent upon the world throughout the day and often late into the night. As a result, your inbox can very quickly become like your basement, attic, and garage all rolled into one: a massive repository of items essential, moderately useful, and undeniably worthless. How will you ever manage to sort through it all and figure out which is which? These five tips will help. And with no stairs to climb.

1. Make prioritization a priority

Make a list of people whose emails you believe deserve your immediate attention and require the courtesy of a timely response. This list might include your boss, upper management, your fellow team members, finance, sales, key customers, and family members. Whenever you open your inbox, scan it for emails from those VIP names and respond to those first. Many email programs allow you to identify your VIPs (with a star or other designation) so they automatically appear at the top of your inbox. If yours has this function, use it!

2. Focus on work first, email second

Remember: Getting things done is ultimately what it's all about. Make a list of three to five projects you lead, or issues that require your direct involvement. Start your day by working on those, not by reading your email. It's good practice to make your list at the close of business each day. Commit to investing 30 minutes, an hour, or whatever you think you need to review, assess, and make progress on your action items at the start of each day. Once you're satisfied you've done this, only then open your email. Investing focused time on your most important work first not only helps you get your job done, it will help you see which emails are most relevant to that work.

3. Avoid "the urge"

Do your best to avoid adding your input to long, back-and-forth email conversations sent out to large audiences. When scanning your inbox for hot-topic emails or messages from VIPs, also identify those messages or conversation threads that indicate there is a lot of back-and-forth going on, That's often a sign that an impasse has been reached. When that's the case, cut through the clutter with an in-person meeting or a phone call or even an IM. Your goal should be to keep conversations moving toward resolution. Often the convenience of email works against this.

4. Set an example

If you're the boss, people watch what you do closely, and they will probably act as you do. As a rule, when writing emails, use thoughtful, relevant subject lines and begin by specifying the action or response expected of the recipient. Be concise. When addressing emails, include anyone you believe can truly help, but avoid drawing people in as third parties whenever possible. If you are concerned that people should be aware of the content of your email, but you don’t require their responses, consider forwarding them a copy later with FYI in the subject line, as a courtesy. 

5. Respond efficiently

When answering emails, respond only to the person who asked you for something directly. Consider the consequences of sending out a Reply All if you see the address list is long. Inconsiderate use of the Reply All and Forward options are one reason everyone's inboxes are overflowing. Even without specific requests to do so, most people feel compelled to respond when included on emails as third parties. If you receive an email and you are not the direct addressee, or you are not asked for specific input, think before you respond. This trick will save you time and can help reduce others’ inboxes as well. 

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Last updated: Jan 31, 2014


While Peter Economy has spent the better part of two decades of his life slugging it out mano a mano in the management trenches, he is also the best-selling author of Managing for Dummies, The Management Bible, Leading Through Uncertainty, and more than 75 other books, with total sales in excess of two million copies. He has also served as associate editor for Leader to Leader for more than 10 years, where he has worked on projects with the likes of Jim Collins, Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, and many other top management and leadership thinkers. Sign up here to always stay up to date with Peter's latest columns, and visit him anytime at

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