The 4Ds Behind Managing Email And Taking Back Your Inbox

soft focus of woman hand working laptop on wooden desk in office in morning light.

The 4Ds Behind Managing Email And Taking Back Your Inbox

The 4Ds Behind Managing Email And Taking Back Your Inbox

soft focus of woman working on laptop on wooden desk in office in morning light. Managing Email

There’s no denying it, managing email has become an essential business skill we all need to have.

Email has changed the way we work, allowing fast and effective communication with colleagues, clients and collaborators, both in the office and around the world.

Yet over the years we have placed email on a pedestal, taking it from an avenue of communication to a tool that manages our tasks, priorities, calendars and even our important files. For many people, keeping up with the relentless stream of emails has become their primary source of work. Instead of being a helpful tool to manage our day and communication, it has become our master – sitting open all day, ready to draw us away from pressing and important work at a moment’s notice.

The McKinsey Global Institute found that an average employee spends 13 hours a week reading and responding to email, equating to 28% or our productive working time or 650 hours per year. Perhaps more alarmingly, less than half of the emails we receive and respond to each day truly deserve our attention. Imagine all the creative and productive energy being lost to managing unnecessary email.

We’ve all done it, sitting at our desks, trying to meet a deadline or accomplish work that requires deep concentration. Then our email dings. The notification box pops up. We decide to open it just to stay on top of things.

But turns out you were just being CC’d, or it’s an email that doesn’t relate to you at all. Or perhaps it is an important email, and you flag it for action later, or even decide to work on it immediately. When it’s time to return to your original task, the one that requires deep mental work and a bigger time commitment, your momentum has dissipated and you have to start again. Then you receive another email… and so the cycle goes.

It’s time we put email back in its place as our servant, not our master. Here’s how:

Set a screen target – your “Email Radar”

Open your email window and look at the bottom of the screen. How many emails fit on the screen at one time? Depending on your screen size settings, it’s probably 20 – 30. That’s your new limit. You don’t want your your emails to go below the screen if you can help it. You should not have to scroll to see your unread emails because once they’ve piled up that deep, you’re in risky territory. You could lose important emails, forget what the flags mean, end up re-reading instead of acting. In other words, the longer your email list gets, the more likely you are to waste time managing it. From now on, you’ll never let it get beyond what you can see with a single glance at your screen. This is your “Email Radar.”

How do you do that?

Set an appointment to check your email

Instead of bouncing off to check your email every time that familiar ding tries to pull you away from the work you’re already doing, set an appointment to check it. Depending on how many emails you usually get, that may mean you have an appointment at the top of every hour. If you don’t get a lot, you may just check it at the beginning of the day and after lunch. While it may take a few days of experimentation to find out how often you need an appointment to keep your emails above the screen threshold, once you’ve got it figured out, you’ll be set.

If you need to, block off this time on your calendar or set a notification for yourself. It will free your mind up from constantly thinking about the emails piling up because you’ll have a concrete plan to tackle them soon. It gives you permission to wait and give all of your attention to the task you’re actually trying to finish, which ultimately means that task will take less time (and probably be done better without the interruptions).

Okay. So you’ve made your appointments to check your email, but they’re still piling up all day. Now what?

Manage emails by processing

The number one rule you’re going to follow with your new email system is this:

Only open an email ONCE.

No more marking it as unread to get back to later. No more pushing it down the queue because you don’t know what to do with it. Every single email in your inbox can be dealt with immediately. You’re going to process it the moment you open it because you are going to assign it to one of the 4 Ds:

Delete – By far the easiest (and least utilised) way to handle email is to delete it! We get so much unnecessary clutter throughout the day. Sometimes it’s superfluous reminders for events we’ve already got on the calendar. Sometimes it’s an announcement that doesn’t pertain to us or that can just be read once. Sometimes it is truly junk. Whatever the case, if you don’t need it, delete it!

Deposit – Your inbox is not a storage centre. It’s a holding zone for important information. If an email isn’t needed right now but might be needed later, it needs to be deposited into a different place. Just like you wouldn’t leave all of the mail you receive all year piled up in your mailbox, don’t leave all of your emails piled up in the inbox. Sort them into categories and put them away after you’ve acted on them.

Do Now– You’ve already set aside a short block of time to tackle the emails. If there’s a task that needs to be done and can be done quickly, then do it! If it will take less than two minutes, there is no reason to wait. Send a response, forward the email to someone who should do it (Delegate), or take the information an update your calendar. Once it’s done, make sure to move back to Step 2 and Deposit the email into an Email Folder.  Don’t let it sit in your Inbox after it has been dealt with.

Do Later– Sometimes you receive an email about a task that is too involved to tackle in the short amount of time you’ve allotted to checking your email. Sometimes it’s something that needs more information or another person’s input before you can move forward.

When you have to defer a task to a later time, it can be anxiety-inducing to move it out of the inbox. What if you forget? This is the most important part of the system. Find a way to do it later without giving up your precious inbox space and finite time.

How to Defer/Do Later

Let’s spend a little more time exploring the steps you could take to successfully do the task later.

  • Flag it, but if you do put a flag on it, make sure you also include a date. If you just flag everything, you’ll end up with a bunch of expiring flags the next day, which just put off today’s problem for a few hours. Anything that you’ve flagged will appear in your To Do bar, making it easy to find. And you can optimise your To Do Bar HERE.
  • Move it to a task. Add meaningful due dates that will pop back up when you are likely to have everything you need to finish the task.
  • Add it to your calendar. If you know when the email needs attention, simply left-click and drag the email onto your Calendar navigation Icon/button and add it directly to your calendar. Now just choose when you need to action it.

Once you’ve finished determining how to do it later, make sure you also deposit the email outside of your inbox.

By following these simple steps, you will have given yourself permission to spend your time on the task at hand rather than constantly chasing the latest call on your attention. Remember, your time is the most valuable resource you have because you can’t produce any more of it. Get a handle on the time you have by making your email inbox a manageable, productive place.


Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting, March 2018

Workload & Email Management Training/Coaching. MBTI Consultant

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