How to Tame Your Email Inbox with a Pencil and Paper

Tame your overflowing email inbox using a pencil and paper. Process your email in a way that fits with your current priorities; don’t let your actions be dictated by the overwhelming email senders!

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #421

Are you an email slave? I know I was. I would sit down at my computer, open my inbox, and BAM! My next several hours would be spent taking care of all the incoming messages. I’d try to read and reply to every single one, which means, if you think about it, that I was being a slave to whoever happened to send an email, fulfilling their requests about whatever they thought was important. My own priorities? Invisible. After all, I was the only one who wasn’t emailing to demand my attention.

It gets worse. The more someone emails you, the more time you’ll spend replying to that person. Even if they’re not the most important person emailing you. Your prompt response just reinforces their tendency to email you more. Great. Just what you need. A brand new dependent. Yippee.

Someone who is very courteous, and very important, and only emails you once with a carefully thought-out email, might even fall through the cracks. You need a way to prioritize the important stuff, even if it’s infrequent, and untangle yourself from the people who use you as a dumping ground for their own work.

Don’t Let the Senders Drive Your Agenda

So don’t read and respond to email reflexively. Read through your inbox, collecting to-do items on a paper list first. Then merge it with your existing task list. Then, and only then, start going through your task list to accomplish items.

Let’s say you’re an evil super-genius and you’re making plans to take over the world. (We’re just saying this. I’m sure it isn’t true. After all, what are the chances there are two super-geniuses discussing email overload on one podcast?) You create a plan to build a doomsday device and hold the world hostage. You have another plan to get the maps of the secret tunnels under the Library of Congress so you can steal the Gutenberg bible and oppress free speech in print. And, of course, you have your old standby: raising a zombie army to pursue world domination.

Create a To Do List

Start by pulling your tasks away from your email. Get out a pencil and paper where you’ll write a temporary to-do list as you go through your inbox. Use a real pencil and paper because you want to make this a little difficult. This is one time when you do want to be hard on yourself. Anything that isn’t worth the effort to write down by hand, you should ignore. This forces you to do a bit of screening.

Read each email and ask yourself the question, “What is the to-do item for me in this message?” Then, write the item down and move to the next email.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.