Insider Exclusive: The Real Purpose of Your Email Inbox

Insider Exclusive: The Real Purpose of Your Email Inbox

By Randy Dean

As a time and productivity management speaker and author, I see it all the time: people not using their inboxes properly. The following three mistakes are the most common ways people incorrectly use their email inbox:

Using your email inbox as your default task list. It is not built for that. It is hard to prioritize individual items in an inbox, so you end up looking at the same items multiple times, trying to figure out which ones are important and/or urgent and which ones aren’t. Most tasking programs, including tools such as Microsoft Outlook, Toodledo, and Google Tasks, allow you to see your tasks in priority order by either date or project. You can quickly figure out what is most important/urgent. That is why I encourage people to stop the habit of “inbox tasking” and into the habit of building a smarter daily task list using an appropriate task tool every day.

Using your email inbox to store every email—or nearly every email—with no consistent filing or organization strategy. Most people have made a few folders, but they rarely file the emails they should in the folders they have already created. They leave literally hundreds of emails—many that have already been attended to—just sitting in their inbox for no good reason. As you continue to add emails into your inbox, you will lose more and more efficiency. Instead, once the email is “done,” put it away or add it to your task list or calendar.

Checking your inbox far too often. I recently read that between 20 to 25 percent of working professionals check their email 20 or more times per day! (That’s every few minutes, if you do the math!) How can you possibly be productive and focused when you are distracted every few minutes? Studies have shown that incessantly checking your email literally makes you stupid.

There is only one purpose for your email inbox and that is to receive and process new messages. When I teach my courses, I explain that you should handle the easy emails immediately and put the more complicated ones on either your task list or your calendar. This allows you to plan and prioritize. After you get them “done” or “tasked,” you can delete those messages or file them in a folder in your inbox for later reference. This is really the only way to use an inbox.

Using your email inbox incorrectly leads to poor productivity. Stop these bad habits today so you don’t literally lose years of productivity.

Randy Dean, MBA, is a technology management speaker and trainer, and he is the author of Taming the Email Beast. To learn more about Dean, visit

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