A Super-Efficient Email Process

“Here’s my problem with email,” Jane*, a lawyer friend of mine told me recently, “I open Outlook expecting to quickly check my email, but then I read an email with a link in it, I follow the link, and then I’m lost on the internet for hours.”

“My job is to be on email,” Jane continued, “How can I avoid getting hooked?”

In my recent post Coping With Email Overload, I suggested that it’s better to bulk process email at scheduled times during the day than to read each email when it comes in.

At first, Jane — like most lawyers and many other people I know — felt like she had to be on email all the time. But after thinking about it, she admitted that no one would notice if she wasn’t. Taking hour-long email breaks throughout the day would be a good way to free herself up to do other, more thoughtful work.

But Jane needed a way to get through email efficiently. I’ve experimented with the following process and want to share it along with a few rules and commonplace tools that help me stay productive, meaningful, and efficient in my email exchanges. The first time you do this, it could take several hours since you may have a lot of clean up to do. But after the initial work, you’ll be able to move quickly. Typically I schedule 30 minutes in the morning, at mid-day, and in the afternoon to do email. Here’s how I use that time:

1. Send: I start my timer and begin by writing emails I had planned to send. This often includes follow-ups to meetings, thank-you notes, questions, and scheduling and other requests. I do this first so that if someone gets back to me immediately I have time to respond while I’m still in my 30-minute email period.

2. Delete: Next, I quickly glance through the “subject” and “from” lines on the emails in my inbox and immediately delete the ones I know I don’t want to waste time reading, including marketing emails and impersonal blasts I haven’t requested. This step just takes a few seconds but drastically reduces my email bulk.

3. Respond: I do my best to answer every single email that comes directly to me, even if it means just writing “Thank you.” Since picking through emails to choose which to answer first wastes time, I start with the most recent and work my way down. At this point I don’t click on any links in emails and I don’t read lengthy articles; I save that for step 5 below.

4. File: Once I open an email, I don’t leave it in my inbox. I found that when I did leave emails in my inbox, I’d re-read them repeatedly each time I opened my email, and each time I’d waste more time trying to decide how to handle it. So I either delete it or move it to another folder I’ve set up — waiting, read, someday, travel, client-specific. Every time I go through my email, my goal is to empty my inbox.

5. Read and follow up: In whatever time I have left before my timer goes off, I go through my non-inbox folders, reading through newsletters, clicking on links, and following up on emails in my “waiting” file.

End: When my countdown timer sounds, I close out my email program. Once I’m done, I don’t return to my email — on any device — until my next scheduled session.

As I go through this process, I try not to use email to give someone negative feedback, and I rarely respond to negative feedback over email. Email is a great tool for transactional conversations (Where should we have lunch?), sharing information (Here’s that file, there’s someone I want you to meet), or showing appreciation (You spoke powerfully in that meeting, I’m touched by your support — thank you). For anything else, you’re better off calling or talking to someone face to face. I also do my best never to go back and forth with someone on email about something more than two or three times. If it’s gone that far, it’s usually a better idea to pick up the phone.

There are a few commonplace tools I use that I have found helpful in moving through emails quickly:

Signatures: Most email programs have the capability to create multiple signatures that you can choose to appear at the bottom of an email. I have customized several signatures that I use as responses to common emails I receive. For example, I have a pre-written reply to people who ask about joining my company, want me to review their book, express appreciation for something I’ve written, etc. I often customize those emails based on the sender, but the bulk of my response is already written.

Rules: Most email programs also have rules in which you can automatically send emails that fit certain criteria directly to other folders. For example, when I send out my weekly email linking people to a new article I’ve written, I receive several “out of office” replies. I set up a rule that sends any email with “out of office” in the subject line directly to trash. That way I don’t have to spend any time processing it.

Timer: This is essential to staying within my 30-minute time frame. When I didn’t use a timer it was too easy to just keep going.

If you’re like me and Jane — if you find that email has the capacity to suck away your time and productivity — try experimenting with this process, customizing it until it works for you. A little structure might be the only difference between email being a useful tool . . .or a wasteful one.

*Name changed


  1. Felix says:

    Another tip I have to clear up your inbox would be to unsubscribe from a distribution list as soon as the email lands in your inbox (instead of just deleting them!) A little bit more time invested upfront will save tonnes of time down the track!!

  2. Debbie says:

    This is an excellent approach for email. Do you use a batch process for phone calls? Are they part of your 30 min.email processing?

    1. Peter Bregman says:

      I try to – but I’m not always successful – probably 80% of the time :-)

  3. Rachel Barnett says:

    I love Peter’s approach!
    A long time ago I turned off my email notification pop-ups for all but the urgent/high priority emails and appointments. That’s been a huge help in planning email time rather than reacting to each email as it comes in. I keep an empty inbox – Outlook’s ‘Quick Tasks’ feature lets me set up one-click actions, such as ‘mark as read and move to [specific folder].

    I have three email folders I use constantly: ‘Create file’ for new jobs coming in to me, ‘To be actioned’ for jobs that have files created but need my further attention, and ‘Pending more information’. Each of these folders is set to show me how many items are in each folder (not just unread items), so when I open my email program I can see at a glance what I need to do next: and then do it! I flag each email with a due date (5 days standard) and sort by due date. If something doesn’t fit into one of these folders, chances are I either didn’t need to waste time on that email, or it can be filed away for future reference. I have found that this system means I never have more than 7-8 ‘things to do’ at any time: I’ve gone from being stupidly busy to having time to kill!

    It’s such a great feeling to be in control of my email, and my work!

  4. I’ll be darned. I use pretty much the same method and I never have quite understood why people get so bogged down. Thanks for this post that I can share with them so they can feel productive too.

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