Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How Effective People Handle Email

If you’re like most people, you feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the amount of email you receive. You would rather spend time on high-impact projects instead of digging through your inbox.

But as we advance in our creative careers and add responsibility to our jobs, the amount of email (and texts, and calls, and meeting invites) we receive is likely only to increase. Getting on top of your communications—and staying ahead—requires subtle, yet important shifts in your mindset and strategies.

Mainly, those who feel overwhelmed by email usually work from the assumption that if someone sends them something, they absolutely must read it and respond. However, effective people tackle email differently. Here’s how:

They always add value.

Before you send a reply, ask yourself: are you responding just to reply, to show you’re paying attention, or just to say “thanks?” If so, you’re typically wasting time that could be spent producing something of value and only encouraging people to respond, thus adding more email to your inbox.

They prioritize replies.

Give yourself freedom to delete messages that don’t require a response and/or from strangers. If you don’t have the time to complete your essential job functions, answering miscellaneous emails needs to fall off your to-do list. This saves you time by avoiding typing up the reply and reclaiming the mental space it takes to think about how to respond to random messages where the appropriate answer is unclear.

They save articles and videos for later.

From a video to a podcast to a survey, effective people know that a quick run through your inbox can turn into an hour or more lost productivity if you start following email rabbit holes. Put a time limit on how long you can spend going through your email. (Many of my clients set an alarm.) Wait to watch videos, read that article, or do other learning until you have some time set aside for such activities by keeping a “to watch/read” later list or folder or by using a service like Pocket. When you are in your inbox, you should only be doing one thing: answering emails. 

They aim for a 24-hour turnaround.

If you reply within about 24 hours, you’re still being professional and many issues get sorted out without you. Recognize when the pressure to reply is real and required for things to get done, and when it is all in your head to “appear” responsive. Your career will be made on your ability to get things done, not your ability to answer emails immediately. 

They use standard responses.

Text expanders are tremendously useful tools that you can use to quickly reply to emails that need a simple standard response (some text expanders for OSX are available here, here, and here). Text expanders, which are simple to use and inexpensive, allow you to type a two- or three- letter abbreviation that will expand to phrases like “Thanks! All the best, Elizabeth” or “I’ll take a look at the material and get back to you soon. Regards, Elizabeth.” You can also have entire paragraphs of text show up for commonly needed responses. This can cut down answering time from minutes to seconds.

Your career will be made on your ability to get things done, not your ability to answer emails immediately. 

They make answering tough emails an item on their to-do list.

Most of us work best when focusing on a single task for 45 minutes at a time and taking a short break afterward. For those emails that really do need you to reply but require some extra time, make them into a to-do item for later in the day. That way, you can quickly clean out your inbox (focusing on a single task) and then later come back to the messages that need 20 minutes or more for a thoughtful reply (again, a single task).

When possible, they bypass email all together.

If you find that the response would end up being too long by email, pop over to someone’s desk for a face-to-face chat or give them a call. A five-minute conversation can straighten out an issue that could have led to an extended email debate that would have disrupted an entire day. Particularly when emotions, miscommunication, and/or complex coordination are involved, consider transferring the discussion from email to another mode of discourse.

How about you?

How do you keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed by input? 

More insights on: Email Strategy

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

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Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at
load comments (38)
  • Paul Jarvis

    Great article (and great to meet you at 99school). I do most of those things (and should do all of them). I also unsubscribed from every newsletter, promo type email and commerce site I’ve ever bought from. That’s freed up at least 50% of my inbox.

  • growthguided

    The efficiency of email is fading when we have to clarify one action with three responses. What happened to the days when we walked down 5 cubicle rows and greeted each other with connection and dealt with the problem first hand!

  • Michael Simmons

    Great article Elizabeth! I particularly liked the concept of the Text Expander. Is that hard to learn. It sounds really useful, but I fear the learning curve.

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      It is SO easy. At least with TypeIt4Me you simply download the software, “edit clipping” meaning that you create an abbreviation and then corresponding text, and then you can use it anywhere on your computer.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Judy Caroll

    I like your idea in giving value for emails, actually it pays to give time and give best for the content before sending it. Actually it is only an email said by anyone, but it can construct relationship POSSIBLE.

  • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

    You’re welcome! Glad you can support the fact that these techniques work!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Mike

    When people stop using email as an inventory of “evidence” instead of communication, the challenges with overflowing in-boxes will disappear.

    • Sarah Peterson

      I completely agree with this assessment! Use your BRAIN to remember things. If not your brain, a to-do list. Not email.

  • Ellen Barshevsky

    I am VERY PROMPT in replying to my e-mails. The judge like’s that I am so responsive, especially b/c I do NOT do any kind of email’s to him that I do NOT copy opposeing counsel. YAY!

  • Joel Harding

    I saved this article to read later.

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Nice :)

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Adrian Ramirez

    There’s on inbox productivity booster we rarely realize we have: software.

    If you’ve waited for an email to open after clicking it, or for you inbox to load,
    you’ll know what I’m talking about. Those few seconds you wait every time you
    want to do anything add up quickly.

    That’s part of the reason I love Mailbox for iPhone, and Sparrow for Mac, and Mailbird for Windows. They’re fast.

    They save you this time by removing all the loading times; Everything moves faster.

    Take the Mailbird app for example. Their their surveys show that it’s users save about 5 minutes for every hour they use their inbox. Over the course of an average
    workweek (2.5 hours in email/day * 5 days/week), that’s 60 minutes saved that
    were being spent just waiting!

    Over the course of a year, we’re talking days saved. Not bad for a free app (or even a paid one like Sparrow or Mailbird Pro).

    So yeah,if you want a quick hack to save a ton of hours in your inbox, get a good email client for whatever platform you’re using.

    Just like that, you’ve saved about an hour a week.

  • Carol Parsons

    Great article. One more thing I might add is I love to utilize my favorites bar along the top of my browser. I have links in order of how I want to approach them. Like I start with my personal e-mail which usually only has 10-15 e-mails which are easy to read and delete or reply. Next I go to business e-mail address it usually has 150-200 each morning so I can skim through and address the important ones. Next I have my link to my community, blog, web-site, LinkedIn, then twitter. So I can visit each spot in order and know that I haven’t missed anything. This takes about 1 hour and relieves any anxiety so that I can go about my day knowing that business is cared for and ready to move forward.

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Excellent tip! Thanks for sharing!

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • jdrch

    From my observation, it seems most people decide simply to not reply to anything. I do totally agree with the 24h turnaround though. If you can’t reply to something effectively within that time frame, drop a line saying you’ll get around to it within

  • Rene

    I came across these articles from Leo Babauta a while ago: and

    They are helpful and if you like to work with e-mails that way I can tell you from my experience having an empty inbox is wonderful.

  • Antone

    Good tips Elizabeth – email just seems to be a growing time consumer. There is a fine line for me between wasting time with email and also realizing that my team members need quick resolution to their questions/needs. And I need to be able to facilitate that. I stumbled across a resource though that has changed my whole email/task structure and that is Michael Linenberger’s Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook. His system for email organization has definitely helped me in the area of organization and productivity. Worth the expense and the read. Thanks for the reminders today! Helpful.

  • Antone

    And you are exactly right. Each of us, though alike in many ways within our work spaces, demand specific nuances that “make it work” for each of us. The key for me is being disciplined to use what us working and keep tweaking along the way for that best fit. Thanks for your reply.

  • Crafty Magpie

    I disagree on the first point about not replying if you’re just saying ‘no thanks’ I think it is unprofessional not to respond, yes there are emails that are blatanly being sent in the hope that someone replies i.e. spam but if someone has gone out of their way to contact you, you should be polite and respond even if you’re not interested

    • D Eiland

      My company has a protocol – if not policy – to respond quickly with an acknowledgement of thanks or an estimate when you’ll respond. I try to assess if the matter is urgent – from the boss – or simple response. If research is required – which is usually the case then a simple “I got your message. I will research and get an answer by certain date / time” In a large enterprise where it is common for someone to no longer be responsible for a particular product as documentation is usually the last thing to update; it is good to know that you have the right person or they acknowledge that person xxx is now responsible. This allows you to move on.

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      I appreciate your perspective. I agree it is nice to acknowledge receipt. However, many individuals receive hundreds of e-mails a day. If they replied to every one, there would be more important work that wouldn’t get done.

      As the number of demands on your time goes up, you need to do less of what would be nice so that you have sufficient time to get the absolutely necessary items done. In my experience as a time coach, this is the only way that managers and executives can do anything other than answer e-mail all day.

      To your brilliance!

  • ThreeBooks

    I find the best way is to treat emails as any other task, as you say. I postpone answers and put them on my planning as any other task. I find that often you gain productivity but most of all you’re calmer. Often an email arrives at a time you’re not ready for it , you’re working on something else, and you feel tired at the idea of answering, and even angry, You don’t read it carefully enough, and it seems more annoying than it really is. Then when you go back to it later, as you would solve any other issue of your day, you often realize while answering each point it’s not a big deal, you just needed to focus.
    It’s also important to answer every point of an email and not to answer part of it. You lose so much time getting half answers to full and legitimate questions…

    Thanks for the article ;) (I’m a project manager in a web agency and have a litterature blog)

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Excellent points! I agree that it’s important to set aside time for e-mails that need a more thoughtful response so that you don’t avoid them and/or answer them in a careless manner.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • mike rana

    Switch off the email notifications and schedule your time when you will attend to emails.

  • Matt

    I have to say that the illustration for this article is perfectly appropriate. :-D

  • GaleThompson

    these are proper e-mail etiquette

  • Blaine

    I use thunderbird email which lets me tag items in 5 different priority levels and color code them. That way I can go quickly though and open everything and color code them quickly. Then start with the top priority and work through the rest as I can. Then when I respond or handle the issue I remove the tags so I know what still needs doing.

  • Frank

    Love your article Elizabeth! For all the reasons you pointed out here I created Intentdo. It solves it. You get to own your time as a recipient; with a to-the-point and quick format that encourages clarity, where you state your intention and add up to four supporting actions, you send intents rather than emails. We’ve just launched and it’s per invite right now. I invite yourself and the readers to give it a try. code “the-way-of-intent”. Let me know how you like it at ^founders (intentdo addresses carry a caret sign ;)

    • Studio Manusha

      Hi Frank, I had a look at and it looks great. Any chance of getting another code to test it? Let me know where you are at with this. Thank you!


  • Solublepeter

    If you are using iOS and want to go a step beyond “Text Expander”, you may find “FAQ Email Composer” useful.

    We use it to store the answers to every common question our users ask. Answering a typical email is just a case of just selecting 3 or 4 checkmarks to get the correct combination of opening phrase, answers and closing phrase, to produce the perfect reply.

    It was developed to speed up customer support, but can be useful for lots of different types of email, and really reduces typing on a mobile device. Try it out on the App Store at

    Soluble Apps

    Disclosure: as the developer of FAQ, I may receive some benefit from its sale.

  • Rob Hughes

    We have clients who set an auto responder to run 24/7, saying “Thanks for your message. I respond to emails between 3PM and 4:30PM, daily. If it’s urgent, call 555.555.5555 and ask for NAME.” In this way, they “train” others to either work with their support team member or grow patience. Now, I realize not all service industries have this luxury, but for them, it’s one piece of their Email Strategy.

    This video discusses Email Strategy, and the development of one therein.

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