4 steps to a clean and stress-free email Inbox

4 steps to a clean and stress-free email Inbox

Business man typing on a laptop whilst holding a phone. 4 steps to a clean and stress-free Email Inbox.

We’ve all done it. It’s incredibly inefficient, can lead to important tasks being forgotten and ultimately adds to, rather than reducing, stress. Some of us have done it occasionally while some do it all the time. I’m talking about double-handling in your Email Inbox.

Double-handing of email is the electronic equivalent of what we used to do (and some probably still do) with the physical inbox.

Paper In Trays

With paper it was the act of taking an item out of the In Tray, looking at it and then putting it back in the In Tray for another day. The item isn’t important enough to act on right now, but it’s too important to forget so it can’t be filed away. Better just to leave it where it is. The next day you repeat this process, handling the existing items for a second (or third, or fourth time) while adding new items to the pile.

Do that for a few days or weeks in a row and all of sudden the inbox is overflowing with ‘some day’ documents.

Electronic email Inbox

With your Email Inbox, it’s more or less the same thing. An email arrives in your Inbox. You read the subject and/or check the sender and decide that it is worthy of your attention. You know you’ll need to act on it or respond to it, or decide you want to read it … but not just yet. You need time to think, or you need to speak to someone. But you’ve got other things to do first. In order not to forget the email, you leave it where it is, perhaps even marking it as unread again as a ‘reminder’.

Somehow leaving things in the Inbox – paper or email – feels like you’re making them stand out. But, just like the paper In Tray, you never actually deal with these secondary emails. They drop down the list. Out of sight, out of mind.

After a week or so you’ve got a hundred emails in your inbox and you find yourself spending valuable time scrolling up and down to find the emails that need dealing with today, possibly because someone is screaming at you to get back to them. The truth is that many of these emails won’t resurface until that happens.

It’s all very inefficient and, at least subconsciously, stressful. Is there a better way? YES, there is. Every time you open an email, consider processing them using our Email Inbox 4D Process.

The 4D process of handling emails

The 4D process is a way of ensuring you handle every email only once. When followed properly and consistently, it means your Email Inbox will only contains emails that you have not yet opened – likely just a few.

To be fair, the 4D process isn’t easy… it requires some discipline for sure. But it will make your life a lot easier.

So, the 4Ds are:

If you don’t need it, delete it. Most of us keep far too much stuff anyway. Remember that (unlike paper) your trashed emails will sit in your Deleted items folder for now anyway, so you can always retrieve them if you need to in the next few days.

The important thing is to not allow unwanted emails to clog up your Email Inbox.


Deposit – aka file – emails that need keeping but don’t need any action from you. They relate to a project, for instance, and the information is important to retain… once you have actioned them. I suggest that you create specific email folders to organise emails you wish to keep (such as a folder for each project).

Whatever you do, don’t leave these ‘information only’ emails to clog up your Email Inbox.

Do Now

If an email can be responded to quickly (in less than 2 minutes is a good rule of thumb) then handle it immediately. If you don’t have time to do this now, you really shouldn’t be checking your emails in the first place. Knock out a reply, forward the email to someone else to deal with or otherwise act to clear it from your virtual desk.

Here’s the key though … once you have taken action, make sure you file (or delete) the email immediately. In other words, after you ‘do it’, go back to the start and either delete or deposit it. Don’t leave it in your Email Inbox under any circumstances.

The only exception to this rule is for those emails on which you may need to follow up. In those cases, move on to the fourth D…

Do Later

This is the most important step! If you cannot handle an email there and then, you have a few options to Do It Later or Defer it but still get it out of your Email Inbox. Either way, you’re going to schedule it for future action.

Here are a few Defer Options’:

Use a follow up email folder

Put the email in a folder for follow up. If you don’t have one, create a folder and call it, well, Follow Up. The trick here is to schedule a regular time each day (only once or twice) to go back and check that folder.

If you’ve followed the first 3 Ds closely, there shouldn’t be a lot of emails in this folder, but whatever there are at least aren’t hanging around in your Inbox.

Copy or move the email to your Calendar

In MS Outlook you can click and drag an email on to your calendar. This just takes a copy of the email and inserts it into your calendar. If you do this before moving the email to your Follow Up folder, you’ve got a stronger way of reminding yourself when action needs to be taken on it.

Use email flags

An alternative approach to the Follow Up folder is to flag the email. If your email program has a flagging option, then you can apply a ‘Follow Up Flag’ to it with a date attached. This is a far better option. Make sure you include a realistic date that you need to follow up by. Don’t just flag your emails indiscriminately.

You can do this in MS Outlook with the convenience that all flagged emails are automatically indexed in Outlook’s Follow Up folder or possibly your To Do bar (learn about optimising the To Do bar).

The great thing about this trick is that Outlook sorts these flagged emails according to the follow up date you choose … not according to the date you flagged the email. This means the emails requiring the most urgent action will always be at the top of this list.

Once again, once you’ve flagged an email, if your email program doesn’t move it out of your Inbox for you, make sure you do that yourself. NEVER leave an email in your Inbox with a flag attached. Learn to trust the flagging system and get these emails out of the way.

Get into the habit of following using the 4D process for a few weeks and you’ll soon find your Email Inbox is clearer and so is your mind. And you’ll have less people wondering what you did with that job they asked you to do.

Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting. The Productivity and Time Management Specialists. May 2019

Interested in knowing more? We cover all the tips and tricks for doing this quickly in our Productivity with MS Outlook Programs?

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