The Truth about Email and What You Can Do About It

It's time to talk about email. 

Just the mention of it and eyes roll, heads shake in resignation, stomachs tense. If there is a resounding, visceral complaint from my clients, it’s about email. They can’t keep up with it. They are wasting too much time on it. They are overwhelmed by it.

Studies show that professionals spend (on average) 25% of the day on email and check it 36 times an hour.  Yes, an hour. To make matters worse, the constant fielding of email has shown to have negative cognitive effects, resulting in a decrease in IQ by about 10 points – equal to losing a night’s sleep. Apparently, the brain does not like the constant interruption of email.

Apparently, the brain does not like the constant interruption of email.


But the complaints don’t tell the whole story. Our relationship to email is more complicated. 

Take a look around.

On the street, people are walking while focused on their mobile devices, checking email (along with texts and social media). And even those who are not checking their phones are clutching them, like a digital security blanket. In restaurants, people sitting together are glued to screens.

Back at the office, an email notification pops and we jump. We hang out in our inbox and can’t seem to get to our “real work.” And at home, after the kids the go bed, we are back at it. For the most part, email runs us – in and out of the office.  

So, what’s up with that? 

I know, we have good reasons to check email constantly. We need to be responsive to our bosses, to our clients, or to our colleagues on the other side of the planet. Or we just fear getting more behind.

These reasons may be valid. Yet, they serve as a convenient cover to another reality: When it comes to email, we are compulsive. In fact, we may be addicted.

When it comes to email, we are compulsive.
In fact, we may be addicted.


Turns out, checking email can stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain - the natural, feel-good hormone. It is, apparently, in the anticipation of checking email that dopamine gives its happy hit.  This is why, in email, new is always better. The next email is way more enticing than the one we are reading.

Psychologists say there is another factor that drives our compulsive habits around email: the concept of “random reinforcement.” You never know when one of those emails has information that will make you happy. So in the perpetual quest for feel-good news, you check and check and check.

Now that the addiction element is on the table, let’s get real about how we "manage" our email.


So much information is flooding through the gates of our inbox that we naturally end up hanging out there. It’s where the action is. By default, we turn the inbox into a makeshift control center. In the name of efficiency and expediency, we make our inbox do double duty as a to-do list.

Pretty smart, right? 


Here’s why that doesn't work:


It Keeps you in the reactive mode.

Using the inbox as a to-do list will keep you in the reactive mode. You are relying on others to prompt your action (through email). It puts you on your heels, rather than on your toes.

Using the inbox as a to-do list will keep you in the reactive mode. You are relying on others to prompt your action (through email). It puts you on your heels, rather than on your toes. On defense, rather than offense. What about all those things that you are to initiate, lead, champion?  They often don’t happen – because you are focused on email – other people's email. This is the genesis of the reactive, fire-fighting, emergency-driven work culture.

Yes, some people try to address this by proactively emailing themselves tasks. But that is a short-sighted work-around that only adds the busywork of reading and processing email. If you have to email yourself to get your attention, it's safe to say that your system may be broken.


You have to keep defining your actions.

Thinking of your inbox as a to-do list is actually misleading. It is not a list of clearly defined actions; it's more like a pile in which the actions are buried, like needles in haystacks. The actions you need to take as a result of an email are not usually stated. They are implicit. You have to pull them out of the paragraphs of information and your tacit knowledge about the context.

Simply flagging all the emails that are relevant for your actions is like having a big stack of paper that you have to keep rifling through to re-define what it is you need to do. This approach wastes time and energy, keeps you buried in weeds, and is a recipe for things falling through the cracks.


It sets you up for constant Interruption. 

When you use your email as a to-do list, you will likely live in your inbox most of the day. And that opens you up to constant interruption from all the shiny, new email coming in. 

The capacity to maintain focus is an essential skill for productivity. Hang out in your inbox for awhile and you will destroy your focus - distracted by the stream of incoming email. Even if you are able to stay focused despite the incoming email, you are doing it at cost - the cost of the willpower you must exert to not follow the trail of every incoming email. 

If you do get distracted by incoming email, studies indicate that it will take you about 12 minutes to recover your original focus. And FYI, professionals spend approximately 2 hours every day recovering from interruptions - either from others or self-imposed (like hanging out in your inbox).


Want to take back control of your email? Here's how:



Most people have a mess in their inbox. Here's what is stashed in there:

  • Unread emails
  • Read emails
  • Emails that you've read and marked unread
  • Emails to act on
  • Emails to respond to
  • Emails to remind
  • Emails to figure out
  • General reading
  • Important emails
  • Irrelevant emails
  • Interesting emails
  • Why-did-they-send-this-to-me emails
  • Emails to act on right away
  • Emails that may be useful one day
  • Junk 

For most, the inbox is a big box of apples and oranges and bananas and pears and - you get the idea. There are all manner of items sitting together, unorganized. When you are in your inbox, your brain hums under the surface (re)sorting and (re)grouping and (re)figuring out what it is that you are looking out. With this mishmash of stuff in the inbox, the chances that something gets lost goes way up.

What should be in your inbox? Email that you have not read. 

What should be in your inbox? Email that you have not read.

Every time you look at your inbox you will know immediately what you are looking at: emails you have not read yet.

Making your inbox an inbox is not to achieve an award for the ever-elusive "Inbox-Zero" status. This is about running your email rigorously, efficiently, effectively. The reward is clarity, decisiveness, progress.  

What do you do with the email once you have read it? Read on... 


PRACTICE Front-End Decision Making. 

When you read an email, decide what you need to do. I know, radical. 

Most people interact with their email by reading a new email and moving on to the next one (remember, new is always better). This is a sloppy and costly habit.

Every time you move on to the next email without deciding and defining what to do next, you are pushing work into your future. People's inboxes are overflowing with indecision. This scanning habit doesn't move the work forward. It keeps you stuck rereading and recycling through email. It puts an extra burden on your brain of all the implicit actions that are buried in your email. 

If you aren't in a position to make a decision about your email, don't read them. It's a waste of time. The only thing you are doing is freaking yourself out.

For example, don't use the time walking from your office to a meeting to look at your email. What is the point ? You make yourself vulnerable to distraction, which means that you won't be ready to make a great contribution in the meeting. 

Better to read email fewer times a day with full focus and decision-making muscle, than to read absentmindedly throughout the day. 

When you read the email, decide on the specific action you need to take. This is called front-end decision-making. This habit alone will revolutionize how you work for the better. Front-end decision making will save you from the cumulative hell of indecision and ambivalence. 

What do you do once you decide the action you need to take? Read on ... 


Stage your email for Action.

Once you decide what you need to do as a result of the email, you will move the email out of the inbox and stage it for action.

To do this, set up staging folders. These folders are not permanent resting places. Instead, think of them as temporary lists that indicate what you need to do next. Here are the basic email staging folders:



This folder is for email you need to respond to or forward. If, in addition to responding, you need to do an additional action, note the action on your to-do list.



This folder is for emails that you do not need to respond to, but you do need it in order to complete an action. Note the action on your to-do list. 

For example, someone sends you comments on a paper you wrote. Note the action on your to-do list (Incorporate so-and-so's comments on xyz paper). Move the email with the comments to the 02 ACTION SUPPORT folder so that you can quickly access when you are ready to do the task. 

You also use this folder for emails you need related to an event on your calendar, such as an agenda or meeting materials. 

The emails in 02 ACTION SUPPORT do not prompt action. Rather, they support actions that are indicated on your to-do list or calendar. 



This folder is for emails that you want to read, but are not directly related to actions you need to take. For example, you may want to read about a new corporate policy or a newsletter on a topic you are interested in. 

Warning: This folder can get out-of-control very quickly. Apply some rigor. Don't put everything you would like to read if you had unlimited amounts of time. That will only make you feel bad.

Move emails in 03 READ that the real you can read given the scope of your work and commitments. Honesty is the best policy when it comes to managing your email and your work, and just about everything else. 



This folder is for emails that you want to keep, but that you do not have (or need) another reference folder (topic/project) for.

I am not a big believer in thousands of reference folders. Reference folders for some projects can make sense. But when you've gone into the 100s with your folders, you've gone too far. It will cost more to maintain all that filing, than you will get in benefit. And, for most things, the search function works quite well. 

Note: Gmail users do not need this folder, because Gmail has the archive button. If you want to keep something, you can move it to a reference folder or simply archive. It will leave your inbox, and you will be able to find it in All Mail. 


05 INBOX 2

This folder is for the set-up of this new method of managing email. When you set up the staging folders, you will begin by staging the emails in your inbox, starting with the most recent going back in time. Stage email back about a week. Then, select what is left in your inbox and move it to 05 Inbox 2. This will allow you to reset your inbox to only those emails you haven't read - without having to process the 14,000 emails currently in your inbox. It is not a good investment to process email from last year. It's handled. 

Changing your inbox to a real inbox can be a big habit change for some. If initially you feel uncomfortable not seeing those thousands of emails, you can jump into 05 Inbox 2 and see what your inbox looked like just before you changed your ways for the better!


A few staging notes:

  • When processing your inbox, don't forget you can use the delete key.
  • After you have handled an email in 01 RESPOND, 02 ACTION SUPPORT, or 03 READ, move it out - either to 04 KEEP, a reference folder - or delete. 


The staging folders establish boundaries of meaning. Your brain no longer has to do mental gymnastics to understand what you are looking at.

Looking at your inbox? Those are the emails you haven't read.

Looking at 01 RESPOND? Those are the emails you need to respond to. 

Looking at 02 ACTION SUPPORT? Those are the emails that relate to something on your to-do list or your calendar.


Here's the secret to success... 

If you set up this email staging system, here's what could happen at first: You panic. You look at your inbox and all the stuff you have to do is not there. You fear that you are going to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Here's the secret to success to make this system work: When your email is open, you should "default" 01 RESPOND, not your inbox. You don't camp out by your mailbox at home, waiting for the mail to arrive, and you don't need to do it with your email either.

01 RESPOND is your work - that's where you should be when your email program is open. You go to your inbox to define and stage only. Then, get the heck out of there - or you will be sitting in the field of distraction. 


Are you ready to run your email, rather than have it run you? Then, try out these strategies and gain time, clarity, energy, and peace of mind.

Stay tuned for posts on additional email tactics to run email like a pro.