Use This Famous Method To Take Control Of Your Inbox

Drowning in email sucks.

Email is a great communication tool but a terrible work management tool.

aVery rarely do I receive an email for my benefit. 99% of the time, the emails I receive are sales/promo type stuff or requests for me to complete an action; almost always, they are a request for my time.

The people sending these emails have no context of my schedule or my priorities and probably have little concern for them either.

Since becoming self-employed, email has become the bane of my existence. Because emails are a request for my time, they force me to work reactively rather than proactively.

Even more amusing, I read somewhere that the average professional spends at least 15 minutes a day reopening and rereading emails. If you spend just 15 minutes per day to revisit, readdress or re-read old emails, you’re wasting 97 hours per year, taking no action, just redoing the same thing.

My daily battle with my inbox almost disappeared overnight when I came across an email management principle created by David Allen, called ‘touch it once.


The ‘touch it once’ principle changed my approach to email for good. It’s saved me a massive amount of time and frustration.

The method is easy to follow and based on four simple rules below, which I’ll outline below.

Check my emails once per day. I only review my emails once per day. So I can avoid the ‘switching cost’ incurred from multitasking. This keeps me working on my schedule rather than someone else’s.

Deal with every email each time I open my inbox. I only dive into my emails when I have time to review and action them. By doing this, I don’t re-read emails multiple times. If I’m not ready to deal with them, there’s zero point in opening them in the first place.

Action any emails that take less than 2 minutes to complete. Some emails might require hours of work to action, while others take 5 seconds. A lot of my emails can be dealt with in a short space of time. I knock these off immediately.

This keeps my ‘todo’ list manageable. If an email takes 30 seconds to read and another 30 seconds to action, but you leave it for later. You’re going to spend more time reading than dealing with it.

Task and remove every other email from my inbox. Every email, once opened, gets actioned.

I read each email, determine the next action required for that email then add it to my to-do list. This way, you are working proactively rather than reactively. By managing your emails with a ‘todo’ list, you can deal with emails according to your priorities and work schedule rather than someone else’s.


This is how it works. My approach is different from David’s, and yours will likely be different from mine. Start here and then adapt to find the best method for you.

1. Set time on your calendar for dealing with your inbox. I’ve now reduced this to just three times per week. Depending on your job and email volume, you may need to set more time aside and do so more often.

2. I open my inbox during my set aside time and start processing my emails. I start from the bottom of my inbox (oldest emails) and work my way through to the newest. The earliest email in my inbox below is from Phil. So, this is the first email I need to review and take action.

3. First, I jump into the email for full context.

As per the email, Phil would like me to review some content he has created for our gym (further down the email are seven attached documents). This is going to take me longer than 2 minutes to complete. So I need to determine the following action required and task it for later.

4. First, I drag the email across and drop it in my task list. The tools I use are Gmail and google tasks, which makes this process super easy. As you can see, the email is now sitting in my task list with the title “some content for the website blogs, etc..” ‘Google tasks’ automatically labels the task with the subject line of the email and automatically attaches the email.

  1. I edit the task name to describe the next action required. I can do so by clicking the pencil icon. As you can see here, I’ve renamed this to “Review world fitness website content drafted by Phil.”

By clicking on the task, I can also make use of additional google task features. Each task can also include a description (A), can be added to a specific task list (B), and can have a due date set (C).

I often use these additional features to prioritise the task and add more info if needed.

See my updated task described below. From a glance, I can see this needs completing by August 31st, and it will take me at least 60 minutes to action.

Finally, I archive Phil’s email and move on to the next.

I rinse and repeat this process until I have 0 emails sitting in my inbox and a task list of action items ready for me to complete.

Suppose you are using Google products, excellent. If not, adapt this process to fit your tools. This same system can work even with Pen & Paper. The system is more important than the means.

Practise makes perfect. After a few weeks, you’ll quickly tell if the email can be actioned or will require tasking for later. You should spend dramatically less time in your inbox, drop the ball less, and lose your email anxiety.

Good luck.

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  • […] Check Once, why? Because task switching is expensive, and emails are someone else’s plan, not yours. Deal with them once. Why? Well, why open an email if you’re not going to do anything with it. Surely it’s not that fun? Deal with them once and be gone. Action emails, why? Instead of building up a nagging to-do list, this rule will keep only important shit on your to-do list. If it only takes two minutes to action, it’s not worth keeping on your mind. Task and remove, why? This is the step that breaks the camel’s back. An email either becomes a task, i.e. you add it to your to-do list and remove it from your inbox, or you hit the delete button. Don’t be the guy that opens, re-opens, re-opens, re-opens, re-opens….. You can do better. ^ This happens all the time, BTW. If you’ve used Hubspot before, you’ll know that it’s not uncommon for people to reopen the same email 10+ times. Surely you’ve got better things to do, like watching Squid Games. It’s that simple. If you want an in-depth explanation of how to play the inbox zero game. We’ve written one here with more words and pictures. […]

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