By Lauren Beam (’07)

We are all bombarded with constant, incoming email messages in a world of smart phones and watches and hard-to-ignore notifications. With email often being the primary mode of communication in most professional work places, it can be a challenge to manage your inbox while still being effective and productive at your job. For young professionals, your first “real world” job might be the first time you have had to balance multiple forms of communication in a high-stakes environment.

Most often, our email inboxes can be the culprit for our lack of productivity at work. For some employees, email is used as a distraction from the projects and assignments that actually need to get done. In other instances, individuals feel overwhelmed, and therefore, simply ignore incoming messages and do not respond at all. There has to be a middle ground between these two approaches. So, how can you manage your email inbox in a way that increases productivity, decreases anxiety, and keeps incoming messages from distracting or paralyzing you?

Organize: Create labels and folders. Most likely you receive work emails that can be categorized in specific ways, such as by certain projects, team members, clients, etc. By creating folders, this allows you to sort and/or label emails that you have responded to (or need to reference later on) in an organized fashion. Additionally, this is a great way to clear messages out of your inbox rather than letting them stack up and overwhelm you.

Unsubscribe: Cut down on the junk. Take inventory of the non-work-related emails that you receive regularly. Unsubscribe or label and filter to a junk folder (see tip above) moving forward. Even though you don’t have to respond to these mass emails, they are still taking up your valuable time and your inbox space.

Schedule: Designate time for emails. Rather than keeping your email account up on your screen all day, set aside specific times throughout the day to read and respond to messages. Mark time on your calendar as a reminder to check your email like you would for meetings or other tasks. After getting into the routine of this, you may find yourself wasting less time by distracting yourself with your inbox.

Prioritize: What needs an immediate response? Once you’ve created labels and folders for organizing your inbox, as well as unsubscribed from unnecessary messages, let’s focus on the actual work-related emails. While you should respond to messages within 24-48 business hours (note: ask your colleagues or supervisor what the expected response time is in your office), it may not actually be productive to simply respond in chronological order. Ask yourself, “What is most pressing and needs an immediate response?” Deal with the most urgent and deadline-driven messages first. For other emails that require a response that you’re not able to provide immediately, reply to acknowledge that the message was received and let the individual(s) know when you will be following back up. As you prioritize in this way, managing your inbox should begin to feel less stressful and allow you to be more productive.

Unplug: Pause incoming emails! If you’ve ever found yourself working on a project and then getting distracted by the “ping” of a new message, you are not alone. One of the best ways to minimize interruptions is to download a button or app to pause your Inbox emails. You might also try disconnecting your laptop from the Internet while working on off-line tasks, and even putting your phone on silent or airplane mode. Taking the time to unplug and truly focus on a task will boost your productivity and give you a break from constant incoming messages.

Want more advice around boosting your productivity at work? Check out this article on Tips for Tackling Your To-Do List.