How to conquer your inbox and reclaim your life


Shilpa (the wife): So, what did you do at work today?
Me: Quite busy today. You know, emailing.

A standard exchange for me at the end of a workday, till recently. And I’m sure it’s commonplace – the average professional today sends or receives over 120 emails a day. At even 2 minutes an email (assuming you don’t take breaks), that’s four hours of your workday! Vanished, lost, gone, hacking away at your keyboard fighting the insidious email monster, while the rest of the world moves on. Wait, scratch that. Everyone is hacking away at their keyboards, emailing each other.

Hacking away

But email is not really work, at least for most of us. And if something that isn’t work is taking up such a large part of your workday, guess what – you’ll have to work longer hours.


Over the last few months, I’ve made a number of changes that have helped me manage my inbox better (rather than the other way round). If you’re like I was before – where work equals emailing – here are 7 things you can do to reclaim your life.

1. Email only at specific times

Back in the days of snail mail, did you hang out near your mailbox and wait for the postman? Then why check your inbox all the time? People aren’t expecting you to respond 5 seconds after they email you.

So here’s a plan:

  1. Check your inbox first thing in the morning when you wake up (not good, but I know you’re going to do it, so why stop you). Decide which emails you’re going to respond to, when. If there’s work required to respond to any of it, fit it into your schedule.
  2. Don’t check again till about 11 am. Spend half an hour if necessary, clearing a bunch of emails.
  3. After that, check again at 2pm, and then once more at 5pm to triage any pending emails

At all other times, don’t check your inbox. And no cheating – log out and close your browser, close Outlook / Thunderbird, and turn off email notifications on your phone as well (got you! I’m nothing if not meticulous).

[Tweet “Do you hang out at your mailbox and wait for the postman? Then why check your inbox all the time?”]

2. Schedule less time for email than you need

If you read my previous post on productivity and are trying some of my tips, you would see the merit in actually scheduling time for email, rather than checking it whenever you’re bored.

The other little hack is to schedule less time for email than you need. Email, like work and play, balloons to take up the time you give it. There’s nothing like some urgency to plow through your inbox – your emails can get done in less time than you think.

[Tweet “Email, like work and play, balloons to take up the time you give it.”]

3. When you’re done with an email, archive it

Using the mailbox analogy again, once you’ve read a letter, do you put it back in the mailbox? Similarly, when you’re done with an email, don’t keep it in the inbox. Archive it  (or better still, delete it. If you dare).

Archiving takes emails out of your face once you’re done with them. Your inbox now includes only the emails that you have to work on – much simpler to decide what to do. Otherwise, it can become difficult to find emails that you have to act on, amidst the barrage of less-important emails, newsletters you don’t remember ever signing up for, promotions and spam. Not to mention how a full inbox tires you each time you look at it.

Sure, you can change your Inbox settings to keep unread emails on top. But those other emails that you see will continue to distract you.

Avoid all these complications – archive emails that you’re done with (if you use Gmail, it’s the first button that comes up in the header when you select an email). If an email is in your Inbox, it means you have to act on it. And you can always go back to your Archive (it’s the All Mail folder in Gmail) whenever you want to access an old email, and search works too.


But this is not enough. Which brings me to the 4th hack.

4. Triage your email with Google Inbox / Mailbox

The freedom that you feel when you first archive your inbox is great. But it won’t last – it still doesn’t solve the problem of your pending emails, which can quickly pile up. Let’s say there’s an email task that you need to get to two days later. It’ll sit in your inbox till then, serving as a constant reminder (and distractor), till you actually do it and archive it with a victorious flourish (before flopping down in your chair in sheer exhaustion).

People solve this problem by ‘starring’ emails they need to take care of, but can’t or don’t need to do today. If you’ve tried this, you’ll know (and if you’re going to, you’ll find out) that this can quickly get out of hand. Very soon, you’ll visibly cringe whenever you hear the word ‘star’ – a painful reminder of the toxic underbelly of your inbox that the Starred folder has become. But you’ll have to go back there soon, with full knowledge of the tsunami of to-reads that will deluge you.

Waxing poetic aside, there’s an easier way. What if emails show up in your inbox only when you need to act on them, and not a moment sooner? Don’t have time to respond to a data request today – wouldn’t it be nice if it came tomorrow after your big presentation, instead of staring at your face till then? If you use Gmail, you can do just this with Google Inbox / Mailbox. Using these, whenever you check email (hint: do this at specific time slots only), you can first triage all your new email:

  1. Respond if it will take 2 min or less. Once it’s done, click on Archive / Done.
  2. If it’ll take longer, schedule the email for whenever you’ll work on it (make sure you block time for it!). The email will disappear from your inbox, and automagically reappear when you’re ready for it.
  3. Similarly, if it needs to be done later (like an email follow-up), schedule it to reappear on the day and time when you’ll act on it.

With these tools, your inbox will be nice and sparse at all times, easy to navigate. And hey, if you’re lucky, you may even read the much-fabled Inbox Zero at end-of-day. Enjoy it while it lasts, my friend. The battle may have been won, but the war will rage again tomorrow.

Quick note – If you work out of Gmail and want to try Google Inbox, let me know in the comments / over email. I have a bunch of invites. But if you use Outlook, such plugins aren’t available yet. You can try this Getting Things Done method though.


5. Manage your subscriptions better with

You know that ‘Quirky News of the Day’ newsletter you thought was fun and subscribed to yesterday? In two months, your inbox is going to drown in unread editions of the newsletter. And this is saying nothing about the newsletter you subscribed to a year ago that you find useless today. But you won’t unsubscribe because who knows, you might need it again next year. is one of those miracle services you don’t realize you need till you hear about it. When you first register, it scans your inbox and lists all the emails you’re subscribed to. You can then unsubscribe with one click. And retains a record of these, so you can re-subscribe anytime.

But you don’t have to unsubscribe from everything (especially my newsletter. Please?). The service removes newsletter emails from your inbox automatically, and puts them in a separate folder. So you can check them whenever you want to do some leisure reading.

6. Make less email

Stop Emailing

The reason you receive so much email is because someone else is writing them. So be a dear and stop contributing. No need to brightly respond, “Welcome”, whenever someone sends you a thank you email. And please, please – don’t acknowledge receipt. Reply when you have a response / answer / update ready. This is important enough to be a Golden Rule of Emailing:

[Tweet “Send only emails to others that you would have them send to you.”]

7. But, be nice and manage expectations

At the same time, it is good form to reply and manage expectations. If you’re going to respond to an email today or tomorrow, it’s fine. But if you’ll need more time to get to it, dropping a short email saying when you’ll look at it is a nice touch. And people don’t mind nice guys writing in (nudge nudge).


That’s it! Do some or all of these, and you’ll be well on your way to email nirvana. I actually had 3 more tips, but I’ve got to run. Got some… err… emails to write.

I would love your feedback in the comments – do these work for you, are there any other ways you manage email, etc. And if I can help in any way, don’t hesitate to comment here / email me at [email protected] / tweet at @jithamithra.

How to Supercharge your Productivity – Part 1

Do you feel like you’re doing too much? Working 7 days a week, and still scrambling to catch up? Finding it difficult to cope with the multiple things you’re doing, while maintaining a semblance of work-life balance?

Over the last two years, I’ve been doing a lot of things – running my startup, doing a few experiments on the side, etc. It’s not been easy, of course. But the worst is when some of the things you’re doing are time-sensitive, and others are open-ended. It’s very difficult, when faced with a barrage of urgent tasks, to look at other important tasks before they become urgent.

The result – Earliest Deadline First scheduling, which will start like this:


But soon become this:


Let’s face it – I’m sure there are better ways to journey through life.

Here are seven things that have worked for me. Start doing them today, to supercharge your productivity. (OK, that’s a little aggressive. But I’m sure they’ll help). My plan was to discuss all of them here, but then the post would become too long and dampen your productivity! So I’ve discussed three of them below, and will cover the rest in a separate post.


1. Lose your TV. And your TV Shows.

Essentially, minimize distractions. Whatever’s your poison – be it television, Facebook, Twitter or Cricinfo (see point 3 below). This is especially important if you work from home, like I occasionally do. I don’t have a TV at home. I also don’t watch TV shows – I love movies and I know there’s a lot of very good TV programming out there, but I don’t want to watch one episode of Breaking Bad and commit myself to watching 5 seasons. That’s way too much of a time sink that you’d lock yourself into right at the beginning.

Of course, there’s a downside to this. Whenever I go to my parents’ house and the TV is on, I’m like this. Even during ads.



2. Create a schedule, and stick to it

This is obvious at one level – I’m sure you keep a to-do list (if you don’t, start now!) or compile one every morning. Of course it’s incredibly useful to see what needs to be done when you get to work, but it’s only half the story. Personally, I’ve found it far more useful to schedule the tasks as well, i.e., put a time to them. Every day at the end of my workday, I take 15 minutes to review my tasks for the next day, and schedule them – I block time slots on my calendar for specific tasks through the day.

This way, you don’t come in to work in the morning wondering what to do, and then make a list. Scheduling your workday is a cognitively intensive task – trust me, you’ll want to check Facebook after that! The other advantage of this approach is that when you complete one task, you don’t spend time choosing what to do next – you already know what to do! Studies have shown that will power is a finite resource and any decision making drains it – reduce the no. of decisions you have to make on your schedule, and the more will power you can devote to getting your tasks done!

There are many task manager tools out there for organizing your schedule. I’ve tried a bunch of them, and I’ve found Todoist very useful – the free version is nearly full-feature, and they have apps for everything so you’re synced on all your devices.

A couple of other things you should do:

  1. Every evening, while planning the next day, jot down the three high-priority tasks you absolutely NEED to complete the next day – that’s your definition of victory. Thus, even when some task takes longer than anticipated and your schedule is thrown off, you know what tasks you cannot postpone – another decision saved (and another earned).
  2. Another important thing is to stick to the schedule, but reduce scope if required. Let’s say you plan to exercise in the evening from 7-8 pm, but a meeting runs to 7:30 pm. Now, you have two choices: (i) cancel the exercise plan; and (ii) do a shorter stint at the gym. It’s always better to stick to plan and start your task – even if you can’t complete it and have to revisit it the next day. You don’t want perfect to be the enemy of good.


3. Establish a routine

Apart from planning your day, try to establish a daily routine. Man is a creature of habit – if you do something at a certain time every day, then you don’t waste any precious brain cycles in making decisions.

Yes, I know. Your job / business / startup is way too unpredictable, and you don’t know where you’ll be during the day. And yes, that’s why it’s all the more important that you bring some predictability in, especially in more mundane tasks.

Mark Zuckerberg has, of course, taken this to another level, with a wardrobe of only grey T-shirts, so he can concentrate on running Facebook (brilliantly parodied by Scott Adams in this series of strips). But the more fashion-conscious of us (and those who don’t run Facebook) can do a little of this too.

For example, I have been experimenting with a new routine since Diwali (about 3 months). I get up at 5 every day, and do my best to maintain a fixed schedule – read for an hour in the morning, do a few remote tasks, then a little exercise. So when I get to work at 9am, I’ve already done at least 1 of my high-priority tasks for the day (see point 2). I also try and check my email only at a few pre-determined slots in the day – much easier than forcing myself to react every time there’s a ping on my phone. I’m now trying to do the same with phone calls – let’s see how it goes.

An important part of being able to stick to a routine is to have something to look forward to. Reading some articles / a book in the peace and quiet of the wee hours is something I genuinely look forward to, and, as I’m sure you agree, every small motivation helps in getting out of bed, especially in the winter months!


That’s it for now – I was planning to talk about all 7 of the productivity themes that have worked for me, but then this post would become too long. So, now to just add ‘Part 1’ in the title.

Would love your thoughts on the above – have any other things worked for you? Please comment / tweet at me (@jithamithra) / email me at [email protected]. And yes, do sign up for email updates – you’ll get a new blog post approximately once a week.

Update: Part 2 of this post is now up, here.

PS. I just signed up for an email course on ‘How to Become a Morning Person’. I’m already pretty much a morning person (can’t wake up much earlier than 5!), but seems like it’ll be useful to see the process that has worked for others as well. Expect a post on that soon!