Three Email Management Tips

March 25, 2024

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Email can be a huge time management pain point for some of us. Let’s go over three strategies we can use to help alleviate that pain.

I also share actionable bite-sized time management strategies on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/_kellynolan_/. Come hang out with me there!

Full Transcript

 Episode 47. Email

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey, hey! All right, so today we’re gonna talk about email. Now, email, as we all know, is a beast of a topic. We could talk about it for days. I actually have a short mini course on my website on email organization and management, which you can check out. But today what we’re gonna do is talk about three practical tips. We’ll just start with three. I’m sure we’ll have more podcast episodes about email, but we’ll start with three tips that you can start using today to help you feel more on top of and in control about your email inbox and hopefully less stressed.

Tip One: Email Can Take Up a Lot of Time – 1:02

So the first tip is email takes time, so let’s protect time for it. Now, email is one of those things that typically we don’t calendar time for. It lends itself well to nooks and crannies. It’s kind of always there. It’s never ending. It’s not really a start and stop event, so we typically don’t protect time for it in our calendar. But the hard part is that email can take up a lot of time for some of us.

Now, you might be someone who only spends half an hour of time processing email. You might be someone who spends five hours a day processing email. There’s no right or wrong here. It truly varies by industry, by position, by person, all of that.

To give you context (because I think it’s helpful to have a kind of touchstone to think about), in 2012, McKinsey did a study that showed that the average American worker spent 2.6 hours in their email inbox every single day. So you can kind of use that as a gauge of, “Do I use more than that?” “Am I in there for less than that?” I think it’s helpful to understand that the average worker is in there for 2.6 because often we underestimate the amount of time that we’re in our email inbox. So I want you to at least think about that. You might resist it and be like, “I don’t spend two hours in my email,” which is totally fine. Trust your gut. But I use it because we tend to underestimate, and I want you, if you’re kind of one of those people that’s at your computer a lot, my guess is it’s 2.6 hours or more. What I want you to think about is you don’t need to calendar 2.6 hours or even more than that, but I do want you to calendar at least a portion of it.

So if you spend, let’s say, three hours a day processing email, I want you to calendar at least an hour of the time in your calendar. You can move it around. You can be flexible with it. But as a default each day, I would love for you to have an hour in your calendar where you have time protected to process that email inbox. The rest of the time you can kind of use whatever approach you would like of nook and crannying email and things like that, but at the very least, you know you have an hour of time protected each day to process email, which is just acknowledging the reality of the situation to begin with.

What I really want you to hear is the point of this is to protect time for something that you are doing. It’s also to make clear what your remaining capacity is for work. So let’s pretend you have an eight-hour workday. If every day you are planning a beautiful eight hours of work and meetings and things like that, and every day you’re running behind, my suspicion is you have 2.6 hours, or whatever it is, of email derailing that 8-hour day that’s beautifully planned out. By protecting at least an hour of time for email, we’re upping the chance that your plan is more realistic because you have a more realistic understanding of what your actual capacity is to do anything that’s not email related.

Protecting time in your calendar for email in this way will help you, obviously, protect the time for email, which we all need to process that email, not have email derail plans because, as we just talked about, your plans are now more realistic because they account for at least part of your email processing time, and it helps you manage your stress around email the rest of the day, knowing that you do have time protected to process it.

Now, I’ll say that I tend to encourage putting this in a low-energy window. This is a quote from somebody else: “Email is a to-do list created for you by other people.” [Laughs] It doesn’t necessarily mean that it contains the stuff that you should be working on. I would rather you use your best energy for work that you know is important, but because of that, I would put the better work that you’ve decided you need to do in your higher-energy windows, and then save process email time for a lower-energy window. That tends to be towards the end of the day for people, and so, earlier in the day, they can either ignore email or, as they see the email come in, they can let it go knowing they have time later protected to process email. The reason that reduces stress is because you have that kind of assurance that you have time later to process the email. You don’t need to jump on it right now.

I think so often, with email and almost anything else, we let other things derail our plans because we think, “If I don’t do it now, I’m gonna forget and it’s not gonna happen, so if I want it to happen, I have to do it now.” And so, we let ourselves get derailed by email and things like that. Instead, if we have time protected in our calendar to process email, we can let that go a bit because we’re like, “No, if I don’t do it now, it’s okay because I have time later that I’m turning to my email.” All right?

So, point one: email takes time. Protect the time. How much time is gonna vary by person. You can experiment with this a bit, but take a guess, protect at least a portion of it, and see how it helps you understand your capacity to do other things better, protect time for email, and reduce your stress throughout the day knowing you have that time coming.

Tip Two: Filter Out Emails – 6:02

Point two is a little more tactical. It’s really using filters to filter out certain types of emails and put them directly in other folders or even to delete them if it makes sense. 

So, just to be clear by this, Google calls this filters, Outlook calls it rules, but essentially what it is is you set it up so that your email software (or platform or whatever you would call it) takes email coming in, and based on words or subject line or even the sender, automatically can put it into another folder. You actually can use rules and filters in a whole lot of ways. This is the example I want to give today.

So I’m gonna give you an example. When I was an attorney, we got a lot of conflict-check emails, and these emails are things that you’re supposed to read in realtime and skim through them and make sure that you don’t have any conflict with any of the new matters coming in, and if you do have a conflict, it’ll go through a certain procedure to make sure you can actually take on that client.

Now, in theory, that makes a lot of sense. It makes sense that it’s supposed to be done in a timely way, all that kind of stuff. Depending on the firm, though, this can be incredibly disruptive. If you actually were like, “Yes, I’m gonna interrupt whatever I’m doing every single day five times a day to look at these conflict-check emails,” it can be very disruptive. And so, I’m not advocating this as an employee encouragement. I’m just using this as an example. I got really sick of the constant interruptions, and I created a rule — at that time I was using Outlook — that took any email that was a conflict-check email, because they all had this certain thing in the subject line that made it clear what they were, and I had it automatically take those emails and put them into a specific folder, so it never went into my email inbox.

Then, the second part of this is that you need to calendar time when you’ll review it. So you can think about, “Okay, how often do I need to review this type of email? And let me calendar time reminding me to do that.” So are you gonna look at that type of email two days a week? Are you gonna look at it once a week? In another example, you might decide to look at something just once a month. But any sort of maybe CLE or CME or continuing education type stuff, you might automatically put it in a folder, and then once a week, once a month, whatever it might be, remind yourself to go look at that folder and skim what you want to at that time.

The calendaring portion of this is very important because, just remember, the email’s not coming into your email inbox anymore. You’re not gonna see it. So you need to calendar time to remind you to go look in the folder and pull out those emails and check them out if you want to.

I really like this because taking a step back, to me, the more I can make my email inbox be close to 100% relevant emails to me — like, when I open my email inbox, it is relevant email that I want to see and act on, that’s a good goal. That’s my goal. So if that’s my goal and there’s other email I still need to get that doesn’t really fit that goal, then I can use these rules or filters to redirect those less relevant emails, get them out of view, help them not distract me as I’m trying to do my most important work, but then have the calendar remind me when I decide I want to look at that type of email, to go look at the email and process it however I need to.

Another example of this in my personal life is newsletters, stores that I like and subscribe to that give sales and things like that. I don’t want to see those newsletter emails (the sales and all that kind of stuff) in my email inbox. So I set up rules so that they automatically redirect to I think it’s called ZZ Newsletter or ZZ Shopping, so it goes to the bottom of my folders. They all go there. But then when I want to actually shop for something, I can go look in the folders and see if there’s a sale. I promise you this is saving me probably so much money because it saves me from also buying something when I don’t need to just because I get an email about it, but when I do need something, when I am going shopping, then I can search my email or search that folder. I often just search for the store name in my folder, and I still have the emails. I’m still on their newsletters. I’m still getting those discounts. It’s just not in my face in my email inbox. It’s out of the way so it’s probably saving me money, and it keeps my email inbox relevant to me.

I also know that some people do this in a different way where — I’m just making this up. So let’s say me email address is ke***@gm***.com. From what I gathered — and I don’t do this personally myself and I probably should have researched it before I start talking, but this is what I gather. Instead of ke***@gm***.com, I could do sh******@gm***.com">kelly+sh******@gm***.com, and I could use that email address to sign up for any sort of retail newsletter. The plus sign and whatever it is still goes to your email inbox, but you can use that to filter what you see.

It also is really great if you get a ton of emails from things you didn’t sign up for. Let’s say you were signing up for my newsletter and you did ke********@gm***.com">kelly+ke********@gm***.com, and then you start getting emails from five other retailers and it says ke********@gm***.com">kelly+ke********@gm***.com, you know I’m the one who sold your information. Just to be really clear, I do not do that. I never sell your information to anyone if you sign up for my newsletter. I’m just using it as an example. All right?

So some people like doing that where they might use a retail-specific one or it can even be like spam or shopping or whatever it is, that’s what you use, and then as those emails come in, you could have a filter that anything that’s coming in with sh******@gm***.com">kelly+sh******@gm***.com goes straight to a folder or at least is tagged in a certain way. All right?

So that’s a way that I don’t do it. I do set up my filters retailer by retailer, but it’s a smart way to do it that you could know that you just sign up for anything retail with that “shopping” in there, and then it will automatically get swept into a folder and a redirect.

Okay, so point one is email takes time; protect time for it. Point two is use filters to keep the potency of your email inbox there. You only want relevant emails in your inbox. And so, other emails that you do want to keep but aren’t as relevant, redirect them to another folder automatically and then make sure you calendar time when you want to look at them, if it’s important. I will say, I do not calendar time to go look at that newsletter/retail/shopping folder that I have, but I just like having it if I ever do want to shop for something.

But on the work front, I do really believe that calendaring time is important because, again, you’re not gonna get those emails in your inbox to remind you to look at them.

Tip Three: Determined Appropriate Email Response Time – 12:53

The last point is I guess a little related to the first but different in my mind. It’s really taking a step back and asking what is an appropriate response time for emails for you. This is typically, I’m thinking, at work and also thinking during business hours and then outside of business hours.

What is an appropriate response time for emails that come at you, whether it’s people from work, clients, anything like that. And then outside of work what’s also a response time, because it can be different. During work hours, I think we can have tighter response windows, where outside of work, hopefully, there is no response required, but for some of our jobs that’s just not really all that realistic. But you can still push it a little bit more, right? You’re not at work. You don’t necessarily need to be tied to email in the same way that people might expect you during those work hours.

And the reason that’s important to think through for yourself, and again, you can just guess and experiment, and over time try and extend the amount of response time you think is appropriate, but let that dictate how often you have to check email. This relates to that first point because, as we’re protecting time for email, if you think you need to respond in substance to most emails, let’s say every two hours, then you might want to schedule that process email time not just at the end of the day but throughout the day at a tighter frequency so that you’re giving yourself and you’re protecting time to do that is really what I mean. You’re giving yourself the freedom between those windows to do other stuff, but you’re also protecting time as necessary to meet that response time if you think it’s warranted.

What I will say here, though, is that often we impose tighter response times on ourselves than is actually expected. In some organizations, they’re very explicit about their response time needed, and it’s typically longer than what people individually impose on themselves. So I would just challenge yourself.

If you think it’s, let’s say during a workday, two hours that you have to respond in two hours, I would try and push yourself at least to four hours. Most places that I’ve done corporate workshops for I ask these types of questions before, and usually the same business day or the next — kind of if you think of a 24-hour clock but business hours, within the next business day of that time. If someone emails you at 2:00 PM on a business day, it’s like 2:00 PM the next day if it’s a business day. That’s kind of how a lot of people shake out is within a business day response. And so, I would just throw that out there for you. Breathe a little bit more time into it than you might think if you’re thinking you need to really respond quickly.

Again, that relates to how often you need to process email during your workday. To me, the part that is really game changing here is for outside of work hours. Again, I am not advocating that you be on email outside of work. If you can get off of email outside of your workday, please do so. More power to you. For those people who can’t though, I mean, there are jobs that it’s really difficult to completely clock out of the email at 5:00 PM and not get on it until 9:00 AM the next day, that’s where that response window can give you at least windows of freedom.

So let’s say you get out of work and get home at 6:00 PM, and you’re like, “I don’t need to respond for four hours, five hours when I’m outside of work,” then you truly can put your phone down, let yourself off the hook, not monitor email, and then if you needed to, get back on four or five hours later, make sure there are no fires. You don’t even have to respond to every email. Make sure there are no fires (anything you need to respond to), and then let it go until the next day.

To me, I’m all about realistic time management. I’m not saying this is ideal. In an ideal world, I’d love all of us to never be in email outside of work hours. I’d also love for us to not be in email most of the work hours. But that’s just my ideal world. But if I came on here and advocated that to you, I hope that — I mean, that’s not why you’re here. We want to find a realistic solution to you, and to me, really getting clear on, “What response time do I need outside of work hours if I have to be on email,” helps you own the time and have the confidence to put your phone down for that period of time knowing, “No, I thought about this. This is an intentional decision. I do not need to be on email for this period of time.”

I’d also love for you to think about this on weekends and also even vacations (if you are in an industry where it’s really hard to fully check out). Please hear me. I’m not saying we should be checking email on weekends and vacations, but there are some of you listening that that is just the reality of what is expected of you, and so, let’s take control of that in a realistic way.

What I like to really think about here is corralling it, getting intentional. So, just take a step back and say, “If I checked email once a day on the weekend and processed it and protected an hour of time, let’s say, so I could really process if there’s a lot of email in there that I need to process. If I protected an hour of time each weekend to process email, would that give me the freedom to let it go the rest of those weekend days and not think about email and not feel that temptation or stress that I should be in my email inbox?” If that doesn’t solve it for you, would getting on there, let’s say, for half an hour earlier in the morning (like 9:00 AM, let’s say) and then also later at another point in your day, relieve that stress? What would relieve this stress for you? But calendar those times, and then decide not to be in your email the rest of the time because you’ve made this intentional decision about when you’ll be in there and, more importantly, when you won’t.

Similarly, on vacations, you could calendar time once a day to process email to give you the clarity that the rest of the time you are not processing email.

Over time, I’d love for this to — you can always play with this. So really aim for what will reduce your stress. Calendar that. Let’s say on the weekend you calendar two or three different times, I’d love for you to eventually get to one time a weekend when you process email, but start with what makes you comfortable and then calendar out maybe two months from now, “Consider scheduling email weekend time” for just one slot and see how it goes, and you can always re-evaluate down the road.

Bonus Tip: Respond, But Not In Substance – 19:17

All right, a final little bonus tip for those people pleasers like me that really struggle. Let’s say you’re during the workday, it’s not an email process time, but a really important client or boss of yours emails and you feel like you read it and you can’t let it go, and you’re like, “I know I have email process time, but I can’t let it go. I’m tempted to let this email derail my entire day or all the plans I have for the next hour.” What I really like doing is responding but not responding in substance.

So not to every email. I’m not saying that. But again, if it’s that important client or that important boss and you’re really struggling to let it go, and you’re feeling that need to show that you’re eager, those feelings coming up, what I like doing in those scenarios, just in those scenarios, is responding in your own words, however you want to do it, but essentially saying: “Got it. I’m on it. I will respond to you in the next two days.” I find that this strikes, at least for me. It kind of satisfies my need to be responsive and show I’m eager to that person and things like that, but it takes truly 2 to 5 minutes to type out and not the 45 to hour and a half it will take me to type out the actual substantive response to that email.

So if I can respond but not respond in substance, it’s a nice balance of allowing me to reduce my stress by letting me respond, but again not having it derail all of my plans for the next hour or so to do this thing that probably doesn’t need to happen right now. And then if I’m really stressed, I can also calendar when I will respond. So I will, then, protect time in my calendar for when I will respond even if it requires moving some things around to respond to it later. But then it let’s me get back to what I was trying to focus on to begin with, and that’s the really important part. We don’t want email to derail our time and we’re satisfying that (as I mentioned) urge of like, “If I don’t do this now, it’s not gonna happen. So I better do it now so I don’t forget.” If you calendar that time later of when you’ll respond to that specific email, then you can — really, it’s just weird how much the stress can melt away about that particular scenario.

So just wanted to give you that bonus tip in case it’s helpful for you too!

Recap – 21:27

All right, that wraps it up! The first one is email takes time; protect it. Number two is filters and calendar time to review those folders so that your email inbox really does contain just the most important emails that you do need to take action on. Point three is consider the response time you really need in work hours and outside of work hours. Let that help you dictate how often you truly do need to check email, so that you can be freed up the rest of the time from checking email. Do that for your evenings, your weekends, your vacations, and obviously let it inform your email time during your work hours as well.

I would love to hear your email tips, if you’d like to share them. Feel free to email me at ke***@ke********.com or shoot me a DM on Instagram. I would love to talk to you there as well. If you want to check out my email course you’re welcome to. It’s at www.kellynolan.com/email. But regardless, I hope these tips served their purpose today and help make you feel a little bit more in control of your email inbox and certainly less stressed about it.

Thank you for being here, and I’ll catch you on the next episode!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

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