Managing Your Inbox: My Email Rules of Engagement

I’ve held back writing on this subject because I didn’t want to just add another blog post to the millions that already talk about productivity and time management

But I’m going to go ahead anyway because, frankly, there is too much advice out there that is either bad, or just pointless, abstract ideas.

I’m probably partly to blame because I encourage people to position themselves as a market leader by writing articles and blog posts, and adding their voice to the online conversations that are taking place.

(Apologies there!)

The trouble is…

Too many people are writing, without really saying anything!

Look, I’m all for people setting goals and reaching for targets, but if you’re going to plan a route to success it needs to be OBJECTIVE, and not SUBJECTIVE. (Social Media Experts – I’m calling you out too.)

By which I mean you need to have specific, tangible targets that can be measured.

“I’m going to work hard today” ISN’T a goal.

“I’m going to complete five items on my task list today” IS a goal.

Building and maintaining a successful business is a battle, and you need to operate with the precision of a finely-tuned, 21st century military. You need to study the terrain, select the appropriate weapons, plan your strategy and choose your angle of attack.

Let’s see how we can apply this by waging war against that notorious time sink…

The Email Inbox 

Your email inbox is the enemy of work productivity. It surrounds your important emails with trivial messages, and in no time at all it can become so overcrowded that it turns into a monster that you can’t control.

What follows is discouragement and a temptation to steer clear.

Which only compounds the problem!

Here are four six email rules of engagement, that I’ve used to help me take control, and have my email inbox waving the white flag.

1 – Make a Commitment

Before visiting your email inbox, make a commitment to stay focussed on the task at hand and DO NOT close your inbox until you have followed the steps below and processed EVERY SINGLE new email. You’re not going to just go in, scan for 1-2 items of interest, and then leave the rest to pile up. You’re committing to taking action on everything.

As we’ll discuss in a moment, this doesn’t mean you’re going to work on every single email, right now, but you are going to take action on everything.

2 – Filter Your Emails

Every email software application worth its salt comes with the ability to filter emails. Set up filters to move unimportant emails out of your inbox as soon as they arrive.

For example, if you purchase a domain from GoDaddy, you’re going to get several automatic emails, that you need to archive, but you probably don’t need to read. So setup a filter that automatically moves emails from GoDaddy, out of your Inbox, and into a Admin/GoDaddy folder.

Filters can take a bit of time to setup, but once they’re in place, you’re saving yourself some time every time you download your emails.

There are lots of different ways to filter emails, but to keep things simple, every email that comes in can be grouped into either “Actionable” or “Consumable”.

“Actionable” emails are messages that require you to do something. It could be a request for a quote on a piece of work, or an email from your Mum that needs a reply; either way, it’s something that requires action.

“Consumable” emails are messages that only require reading. This category could include emails that you REALLY want to read, and you might take this a step further and create different levels of “consumable” emails, but you must still make this distinction between emails that require consuming, and emails that require action.

Your goal at this stage is to move all of your consumable emails into separate folders, with the end result being that your Inbox ONLY contains emails that require some sort of action.

Now, if you’re using Gmail, I have two distinct types of filters:

  1. Auto Filing – These filters label the incoming email, mark it as read and archive it straight away. This way I never even see the email, but it’s filed away for reference and retrieval, and is just a search away.
  2. Auto Labelling – This is a filter that only labels the email to make correct filing (archiving) easier. For example, I might get emails from places like appFigures every day on the sales numbers for SitchSoftware; by having a filter “auto-label” the email, but leave it in my inbox, I can consume it, and then file it away in the correct folder  with just a click of the archive button

3 – Actionable Emails

Once your filters have done their thing and moved the consumable emails out of your inbox (you might still need to move a few emails out by hand), you’re ready to turn your attention to the actionable emails.

Work on each email in turn. If the work required is quick and easy, and you can do it now, go right ahead. Otherwise, for each email, take whatever action is required to ensure that it’s added to your work process. Most of them will probably be added to your “To Do” software (I use Omnifocus), but others might be sent to your virtual assistant to work on, or to your accountant to process, and so on.

Once you’ve processed each actionable email, move them to a “completed” folder. At the end of this step, if you’ve followed through on your commitment to take action on every single email, your inbox should now be a gloriously satisfying, empty white space.

4 – Consumable Emails

Through a combination of filters and manual movement, by transferring your consumable emails out of your Inbox, and into other folders, you’ve already actioned these emails.

But when are you going to go back and read your consumables?

Quite simply, when you’ve got nothing better to do.

If you have a 10-minute coffee break at 11am, spend some time reading your consumables. When you’re near the end of your work day and you haven’t the time to start something new, dip into your consumables. When you’re stood in a queue at the bank, load up your emails on your smartphone and fill the dead time with some reading.

Got it?


In case you were wondering, I’ve used Mailplane historically to manage my emails. It’s a nice little wrapper for Gmail and gives you some nice functionality, but I’ve been testing Sparrow App recently which is looking extremely promising.

5 – Subject Lines

OK, so here is where the OCD kicks in.

To the best of my ability I always try and “tag” each of my email subject lines with the project it relates to. I do this by adding a [TAG] to the start of the subject line. For example:

[Noise Reduction] Adjustment to the website functionality.

[PreneurCast] Show guest idea.

[SimplyHeadsets] Shopping cart abandonment stats.

I do this for two reasons:

  1. It allows me to use the filtering technique I mentioned above, to have all the reply emails I receive pre-filtered and labelled to the correct project (just run a filter/rule on all emails with [PreneurCast] in the subject).
  2. It allows me to batch process my inbox by project, not necessarily by date/time.

6 – Why Did You Reply To My Email With An Audio File?

If you’ve ever received an email reply from me, sent from my MacBook, you probably received this:

Thanks for your email.

I’ve attached a short audio response here (see attachment).


Q. Why did you reply to my email with an audio file ?



Here’s why:

But the tools and tricks you use, aren’t really important…

It’s the process that makes the real difference between using email effectively, or allowing it to suck up your time and slow down your productivity.

I don’t do the whole Tim Ferriss thing, and only check my emails on Wednesdays, at 11:35, on a beach. I’m too hooked on my inbox for that.

But when I do go in, I use these email rules of engagement, these positive constraints, to ensure that I’m not wasting my time.

Do you have any cool little email hacks that work well? Get Famous and share them with everyone below!

Pete Williams is an entrepreneur, author, and marketer from Melbourne, Australia.

Before being honored “Australia’s Richard Branson” in media publications all over the continent, Pete was just 21 years old when he sold Australia’s version of Yankee Stadium, The Melbourne Cricket Ground For Under $500! Don’t believe it? You will! Check out the story in the FAQ section (it really is our most asked question).

Since then, he’s done some cool stuff like write the international smash hit ‘How to Turn Your Million-Dollar Idea Into a Reality’ (+ the upcoming ‘It’s Not About the Product‘) and he’s created a bunch of companies including Infiniti Telecommunications, On Hold Advertising, Simply Headsets and Preneur Group.

Lots of other people think he’s pretty good too! He’s been announced as the Global Runner-Up in the JCI Creative Young Entrepreneur Awards for 2009, the Southern Region Finalist in the Ernst & Young 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year, and a member of SmartCompany’s Top 30 Under 30.

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