My 1-minute rule for emails

How many emails do you get in a day? On average, I will get between 40 and 50 emails (split between my 3 email accounts) on an average weekday.

Over the years, I’ve tried different approaches to managing my inbox, some of which are commonly recommended, and they fall failed.

I’ll start with the worst, ending with the method I currently use and which I find to be the best for improved productivity, responsiveness, and sanity!

Bad Habit #1: Replying to emails as they come in

This is the worst mistake anyone can make: countless productivity & psychological studies have shown that the distraction (visual or audible) caused by an email appearing in your inbox will adversely affect your productivity: interruption of train of thought, memory loss, increased stress levels (dilated pupils, increased heart rate), etc. Some emails may require a 30sec answer, others 10min: it’s completely random and disruptive.

This is why I have all notifications off: no sound, no blinking red light, no popup, not even the little envelope in the task bar on my office laptop.

Bad Habit #2: Batching

Batching is trying to deal with a “batch” of emails all at once every few hours. This is better than Bad Habit #1: fewer distractions, so you can focus on your important tasks without interruption. All notifications have to be off of course.

The problem with batching is that it doesn’t prioritize your responses. So you’ll come into the office in the morning and try to deal with 10 emails (either chronologically, or by an instinctive sense of priority). You’ll end up with some emails addressed, others not addressed, but do you deal with those at 12pm? 4pm? Tomorrow? There is always a degree of uncertainty. In the past, I would find “unread” emails sitting in my inbox for 3 weeks! Not to mention that you will be receiving a ton of emails “during” the day as you’re trying to deal with the batches.

While this method addresses the interruption problem, it fails when it comes to responsiveness.

Bad Habit #3: Flagging

The flag! That little red icon introduced by Microsoft into Outlook 15 years ago and still going strong! Well it doesn’t’ work either!

At first glance, combine the “flag” with Batching and you may be onto a winner: you come into the office, deal with some emails, flag some of the others to take care of later, and then leave the rest as “unread”.

Once again, this is a method good at minimizing interruptions, but as I’m sure you know, you’ll soon end up with an overwhelming list of “flagged” emails, on top of a number of “unread” emails hanging around in your inbox for days and weeks.

Frustrating isn’t it?

My 1min email rule!

I think I finally “cracked” it! I’ve developed a methodology with the aim of:

  • Keeping the inbox empty of “unread” emails
  • Addressing all emails in a timely manner and come across as responsive
  • Minimizing interruptions and allowing me to focus on my tasks with full concentration and presence.

Here we go:

  • All notifications turned off.
  • I arrive to the office in the morning and open my inbox. I will do 3 things only:
  1. Immediately reply to any email if the reply takes less than 1min;
  2. Forward EVERY remaining email to one of 3 folders: REPLY TODAY, REPLY THIS WEEK, REPLY LATER (I use Nozbe but you can do it using Outlook);
  3. Scan the REPLY THIS WEEK & LATER folders and drag some to REPLY TODAY as applicable.
  • I open my Inbox ONCE every 3 hours, where I do 3 things:
  1. Dedicate up to 20min to dealing with the REPLY TODAY folder (rarely takes up full 20min);
  3. Go through newly received emails and allocate to the 3 folders I mention above;
  4. Scan the REPLY THIS WEEK & LATER folders and drag some to REPLY TODAY as applicable.


The result:

  • Anyone expecting a reply from me today gets it.
  • I have approx. 3 uninterrupted hours of productive work between rounds of email.

A common question is: what if someone sent you an “urgent” email. My response is always the same: if it is THAT urgent, she/he would call!

Give it a try. It will change your day.