Does your email inbox define your productivity?


By Dermot Crowley

Imagine if your yearly bonus was tied back to how many emails you sent each year. There would be lots of happy campers out there if that were the case. But of course it is not.

Email is a by-product of our work. It is what happens on the way to getting things done but it is not the main game. Yet so much of our attention and time is focused on this overflowing white box on our screen!

Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email, died recently. I am sure he never imagined that his creation would become so prevalent in the workplace, or cause so much stress and frustration. When Tomlinson created email, he developed an ‘asynchronous’ communication tool. I send it now and you deal with in your own time. But somewhere along the way it morphed into a ‘synchronous’ communication tool. I send it now and you deal with it immediately, otherwise I will come around to your desk and hover! I believe email has increased the amount of urgency that we need to deal with in our work, which unfortunately means that we spend our days reacting to busywork rather than working proactively on the really important stuff.

Then there is the volume issue. Over the last 15 years, I have seen average email volumes increase from about 20 per day to 150 per day. And that is for your basic office worker. Senior management are often receiving three hundred plus per day – crazy! The problem is, most of this is just noise. Noise that all tugs away at our overloaded brains and diverts our attention.

Studies show the average worker spends between three and four hours per day on email. This needs to come down if we want to devote a reasonable amount of time to actually doing what we get paid to do. Here are some strategies to help you get your head out of your inbox and into the more meaningful work.

Check email proactively

I should not have to say this but do yourself a favour and turn off your email alerts. You do not need to know every time an email comes in. It just distracts your focus.

Commit two periods during the day to processing emails – once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I usually spend about 30 minutes on email in each period. By all means check your email hourly outside of these times, but just do a quick 5-minute check and then go back to your priorities. And stop using your inbox as your default screen on your computer. You inbox is just an organising system for everyone else’s priorities.

Reduce the noise

If you are getting a high volume of email coming into your inbox, take control. Set up automatic rules to delete or file emails that you do not want to receive, or are informational and just need to be accessible if required. Use the clean-up tool in programs like Microsoft Outlook to clean up conversations. This will delete all of the duplicate emails in conversation threads. A client of mine used this last week and watched 600 emails get deleted from his inbox in seconds – 600 pieces of noise!

Clear to zero

The most productive habit you can form around your Inbox is to clear it to zero on a weekly basis. This requires a ruthless approach to email and for you to remove the friction from making email decisions. The key is to know where to put things and move stuff off quickly. Have a simple filing system which allows you to file easily. Schedule actions into your task list or calendar in Outlook or Gmail. Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list – it is the worst to-do list imaginable. There is no sense of priority or when you are actually going to do the work. And finally, delete like crazy!

Email is both a wonderful communication tool and a necessary evil. Your inbox can lead to hours of wasted time each week. Learn to control it rather than letting it control you.


Dermot Crowley is a productivity thought leader, author, speaker and trainer. He is the author of Smart Work, published by Wiley. For more information, visit


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