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

Everyone Has Their Own Agenda for You

Each of your Dastardly Initiatives has one manager who you coordinate with. You have a Zombie manager, a secret Library of Congress manager, and, of course, your Doomsday Device Engineer. All three send emails this morning.

Your Zombie manager needs a logo for the Zombie army. Write down “Hire designer for Zombie army logo” on your temporary list. Your Library of Congress contact says he needs a fake entrance ID to get inside. Right now, the only action you’ll take is to wrote “Acquire Library of Congress credentials” on your temporary list. Lastly, your Doomsday Engineer ran out of yellow cake uranium (AGAIN!) and they need more. And the engineer thinks he is top priority, so he has been emailing every 20 minutes or so, burying your inbox in useless chatter.

It would be so tempting just to run out, grab your villainous crew, and snag some uranium. But don’t! Just add “Acquire uranium” to your list. Now that you have your list, it’s time to decide what to do first.

You haven’t acted on any of the emails yet. This is good! Because you don’t even know if any of them deserve any of your time at all. For that, you need to look at them in the context of your entire task list, not just the tasks that came from your email.


Review your paper temporary task list. Also look at your master task list. Then, add your incoming email tasks to your list at the place that reflects their actual priority relative to your job overall. Urgent but non-important incoming email should get ignored, in favor of important tasks on your existing list.

It will be tempting to organize by how urgent each of your managers has made their task seem to be. Your inundation of Doomsday Device uranium emails may feel the most important because of his persistence. But as you review your other tasks, your feelings may change. After all, Uranium has a long half-life, so the yellow cake can wait.

Your prompt response just encourages the parasites to email more!

If you need guidance on how to prioritize tasks, and understanding the difference between urgency and importance, see the previous Get-It-Done Guy article How to Prioritize Your Life.

Indeed, the engineer says the uranium isn’t actually needed until next week, it would just "be fun to have it early." Your Library agent, however, says that the ID must be secured within two days or the security codes will be changed. This is now the most urgent task. After all, you can’t take over the world without a priceless artifact to hold hostage.

The uranium is certainly still important. But it’s now clear that there’s a more urgent and important task to do first. Plus your Doomsday Engineer should learn that sometimes the less squeaky wheel gets the uranium. Clearly, the Zombie army logo is prioritized last. It is so cool to have a soaring zombie eagle for your undead army’s emblem, but it is not as urgent or important as weapons grade nuclear explosives. 

Actually we could debate that one. But for now, you’ve prioritized the tasks on your list. Now it’s time to get them done.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins 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.