The Five Cardinal Rules of Email Productivity

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Email doesn't have to be a monster, but it often is. Many of the problems with email can be averted, though, by following a few simple rules.


Rule #1: Don't Touch Once

The best way to make the size of your inbox increase is to never empty it. There are is a lot of advice out there about how you should never touch an email more than once...saying that if you open it, you need to deal with it.

In theory, this sounds good. In practice, it is an excuse to procrastinate. After all, why open an email when you think you might have to spend more time than you have on it?

Let's face it...if you are staring at an email from a person whose emails generally require an hour of research, and you knew as soon as you open it you have to do it, wouldn't you put opening that email off?

A better way to approach email is to make a first pass through your inbox You will go back later and actually do the work.

This has two advantages: you process through your inbox, thereby keeping your inbox from growing; and it also gives you a first peek at how much effort dealing with your email is going to be.

Rule #2: Don't Work From Your Inbox

As an expansion of Rule #1, the second one is do not work from your inbox. Each email will require some sort of action, even if that action is deleting the email. On the first pass through the email, a decision should be made about what you need to do with each email.

The reason you want to avoid working from your inbox is that the things you need to act one will be buried under incoming email; each session through the email will become a duplicate of effort as you work your way through the new stuff and the old.

A great way to handle this is to have a set of folders or labels set up to indicate what you have to do with the email. If you need to respond, the email should go into a Respond folder. If it needs to be sent to your task list, then it should be in a folder of things that will be sent to your task list.

As another note: email should be used as a collection and communication point. It should not be used as a calendar or task list. The reason for this is that life doesn't occur just in email, and you don't want to have to be sending yourself dozens of emails a day to get appointments on your calendar or tasks on your task list.

Rule #3: Let Everything Go To Your Inbox

One of the alarming trends I see with many email packages is the attempt to help you manage email by pre-labeling or pre-filing it for you. Email programs can't think, and it can be dangerous to let it do that for you. Or someone might become overzealous and set up all sorts of rules on incoming email to pre-file it.

The danger in doing this can come from two fronts: if the email is automatically marked as "read" as part of this process, or if an email gets buried in a folder structure. Once that email is out of sight it is out of mind.

There are some things you can safely file without reading. But until you know exactly what those are, let everything go to your inbox where you can make the decision.

Rule #4: Make A Magazine Pile

One of the things to look for in your inbox, and that should be taken out of the inbox, are your electronic "magazines". Think newsletters, blog posts and news.

If you were to receive a stack of magazines at home, you probably wouldn't sit down right then to read through them, unless you had the time. You would put them aside until you had time to read them.

The same thing should apply to electronic versions of the magazine. They should be put into a single folder or label for you to read when you have the time.

The other thing you should bear in mind with this strategy also has a real world example. If you had a stack of newspapers months old waiting to be read, your best bet would be to toss the old ones because of the transitory information in them. The same should apply to the electronic versions: if it is over a month old, consider deleting it unread.

Rule #5: Ruthlessly Unsubscribe

This is going to sound paradoxical coming from a blogger, but my advice to you is to unsubscribe from any email lists that do not provide you with consistent value. There are ways to get the information without overrunning your inbox.

The same goes for any merchant you may have given your email address to. If you are not using the sales flyers, coupons, special offers and whatnot, unsubscribe.

By cutting down on the amount of email noise, you will be able to deal with the truly important stuff much quicker.


Email productivity is rooted in some simple principles: process your email without taking action; don't work from your inbox; have things delivered to your inbox; make a magazine pile; and unsubscribe from what doesn't bring value.

LJ Earnest is a computer programmer by day, productivity geek all the time. Using the principles of productivity and simplicity at SimpleProductivityBlog.com, she helps people get through the stuff they have to do so they can get to the stuff they want to do. Her latest course, Calm The Email Dragon, helps people get a handle on email with a step-by-step proven system.

Timo Kiander

Gautham Lurk - March 1, 2015

Hi Timo,

A huge thanks for this article on email productivity. I always end up spending hours and hours on the stretch scratching my head

    Timo Kiander - March 2, 2015

    Hi Gautham!

    Sure, but remember that this was a guest post by LJ Earnest!


Mitko - March 12, 2015

These are the essentials email productivity. Thanks Timo and LJ! :)

    Timo Kiander - March 12, 2015

    Thank you Mitko!

Michal - March 27, 2015

I agree with #1 and #2. #3 and #4 are dangerous. I prefer to create a set of subfolders and rules, especially for anything periodic.
I apply #5 to every email I get. If twice in a row I don’t get a value or don’t even know where and when I signed up – I unsubscribe.

    Timo Kiander - March 28, 2015

    Hi Michal!

    Have you used UnRoll.me for mass-unsubscriptions?

    It’s the tool I constantly use with my e-mail.


Michal - March 28, 2015

Well, the last time I’ve checked UnRoll.me was working only with Gmail accounts.
And thanks to my tactic I don’t have much list to unsubscribe from.

    Timo Kiander - March 30, 2015

    Hi Michal!

    Yes, it’s for Gmail only.


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