email Magic

picture of inbox with 0 messages

At my work, we had a productivity expert do a training session with us, and she asked how many emails we each had in our inbox. The answers – in a team of 15 people – ranged from 4 to 800. Everyone on the team works in a similar job, with a similar volume of messages coming in each day… which inbox would you like to have? And yes, I was the person with 4.


Don’t spend time on a complicated system – like any kind of organizing, it’s not about the system, it’s about having less stuff. With email, you want to limit what’s coming in and move stuff out quickly.

No matter what, move the message out of your inbox. The only messages in your inbox are those you haven’t opened yet. Deal with them one at a time, and move each one out.

Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

If you’re one of the lucky ones living here in Canada, then all newsletters and commercial emails must have a one-click unsubscribe option at the bottom. CLICK IT. Be honest with yourself about which newsletters you actually do ever open and read – for the couple of ones that are of use, we’ll look at how to handle those below. For sales/promotions emails, unsubscribe from all of them. All. Of. Them. You and your wallet will thank me. You’re not getting deals, you’re buying things you don’t need – there’s a whole post I could write about that! For now, Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

picture of unsubscribe button
magical decluttering button

Move things out

Now, open the first message in your inbox. No – don’t scan through them choosing one to open, you’re cluttering up your brain with those words and ideas and worries. Open the first one. The possibilities are, it’s a request for information, for action, or information the sender wants you to have. Here are common scenarios, and how to deal with them:

  1. It’s a request for a meeting. If the sender has access to a shared calendar, ask them to use it. “My calendar’s up-to-date, please send me an appointment for anytime that’s open.” Then delete the message. If the sender can’t see your calendar, send them a couple of possible times, delete the message. Or if it’s a meeting with a bunch of people, ask them to set up a doodle ( to book it. Delete the message.
    1. You’re saying, “Wait! There’s information I might need in that message – about what the meeting’s about.” You don’t need that information. You’re not going to remember to look at the message before the meeting anyway. When you have the meeting, ask the person to remind you what the meeting’s about.
    2. But wait! “There’s a document they want me to review before the meeting! I can’t delete that.” Okay. This message isn’t a meeting request, it’s a request to review a document. Open the document, review it. Add your comments/edits and send it back, ideally saying – I think it’s good to go, no need to meet! Delete the message.
    3. “I don’t have time to review the whole document.” Yes, you do. You’re going to review it at some point, right? If you save it to review later, it’s going to take you longer than if you do it right now when you’ve just read the message about it and your brain is focused on it. So, filing it away for later and then refreshing your memory about it later – those are the things you don’t have time for. Review it now. If you read it and have to think about something in it, or get information from someone else, then see the relevant examples below.
  2. The email is a question for you: Same as the document review above. Answer the question, delete the message.
  3. It’s a request for you to approve or authorize something. Authorize it, or don’t. Send it on or reply to it as needed and delete it. If you need to keep a copy of things you approve, move your reply from the Sent mailbox to a Reference folder.
  4. It’s a message or request you need to think about, your brain needs time to process it. For these, you’re going to tag them in some way (in GroupWise, you can “Personalize” the subject line) to label it with exactly what you need to decide about. E.g., “Decide about committing to do a workshop next month.” or “Choose flyer design.”
  5. It’s a request for information or action, but you need more information to respond. Get the info. If this requires searching online or in paper files, then do those things now. Again, putting it off until later will just take more time. Find the info, reply, delete the message. If another person has the information, call them, or forward the message to them and ask for what you need. Then move the message to a Pending folder – there’s nothing more for you to do about it right now. I sometimes label these messages too with what I’m waiting for, e.g., “Waiting for Carol to send data” Depending on the situation, you might reply to the original message saying, “I’m working on this, gathering information – I’ll get back to you when I have it.”
  6. A newsletter. Click Unsubscribe. Or, if it is one you actually read, then make a rule (or filter, whatever your software calls it). When a message from that sender comes in, have it bypass your inbox and go straight to a Newsletters folder.
  7. An fyi – something you’re cc’d on or a link / info someone thought you’d find interesting. Read it. Will you need to refer to this again? Put it in a Reference folder. Do you need to share it with others? Forward it to the chair of a committee if you want to add it to an agenda (then delete it), or add it to a Committee Prep folder if you’re the chair. Is it a mailing list message trying to sell you something? Unsubscribe. Delete it.
  8. Information for an ongoing project. Move these to a Tasklist, or Current Projects folder.

Your messages are all some version of a request for information, action, or reference information. Answer the requests, take the actions, or file the information. Delete lots.

Do you have other kinds of emails you get? A specific email challenge? Tell me about it in the comments 🙂


You don’t need a fancy file system – computers are wonderfully searchable. I do have a couple of folders within my Reference one: Travel, where I keep my boarding passes and itineraries so they’re easily found at the airport or train station, and Receipts, so those are handy for doing taxes. When I had a work twitter account, I had a Social Media folder there as well – I generally opt out of all notifications, but I needed them for that account because I rarely checked it. (Eventually I came to my senses and deleted the whole account… and the email folder)

simple list of email folders
even this simple list seems cluttered to me sometimes

No matter what, move the message out of your inbox. The only messages in your inbox are those you haven’t opened yet. Deal with them one at a time, and move each one out.

email Habits

Set an amount of time you’re going to work through emails. When the time is up, close (or at least minimize) your inbox so it won’t distract you. If you have to end your email time while you’re in the process of working on one of them, save a draft reply, with a note at the top to yourself about what you would do next, e.g., “finish reviewing document” or “add info about next steps”.

Also set time each week to read your Newsletter folder and to check through your Pending folder. I go through my Reference folder once a month as well, deleting all the stuff I thought I needed to save forever but I was wrong. I delete from my Sent mailbox too, saving a few of those into Reference.

Take it to the next level

When there’s information in a message that I need for a meeting, such as a teleconference phone number and access code, I change the email from a message to make it an appointment in my calendar – it’s out of my inbox, and the info I need is right there when I need it.

Some software makes it easy to have rules that notify you about specific messages – so if you’re waiting to hear from a person, you can have the email program text you (or otherwise alert you) when you receive an email from them. I find this worthwhile when I find myself compulsively checking messages, waiting for that special one, only to get distracted by the other messages that come in… cluttering up my mind when I’m trying to focus on something else.

How about you? Any great email hacks? How many messages are in your inbox now?!


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