How to Manage Your Incoming Email

I haven’t had a chance to check out Mark Hurst’s newish book, Bit Literacy, but I was just listening to a talk he did for Ted a couple years ago on how to manage your incoming email, and I’m going to dive in and try it. Here’s the essential steps:

The overarching goal is to keep your inbox empty because inboxes are not good task lists. To get it empty in the first place, consider triage.

There’s four steps to follow:

  1. Go to the most important emails first, i.e. personal emails from family and friends. Get them out of the inbox by replying, forwarding, printing, filing, whatever.
  2. Go to the least important emails next — FYIs, Newsletters, etc. Read them now or delete them. Do not save them.
  3. Go to action items that require two minutes or less. Do each action item right now and delete or file the message.
  4. What’s left is action items that take longer than two minutes. Move these onto a proper to do list then file or delete.


  1. I use the ‘stars’ in Thunderbird to flag messages that require a response or a reply. I then have a saved search folder that displays all starred mails across all folders and that becomes the ‘inbox’ that I try to keep empty. The advantage to this approach is that it allows me to maintain my existing folders for personal mail, newsletters, freelance work, etc…

  2. thanks, victor – very well-written encapsulation of the e-mail method!

    one other thing to keep in mind is that managing e-mail is just the first step (of many) in achieving bit literacy… people also are overloaded by photos, bookmarks, files, not to mention action items, since bit-literate todo lists are rare… interested in your feedback on the book.

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