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Get creative with your inbox and take control of email

  • Published: Aug 28, 2014 06:12
  • Writer: Detlef Reis | 1 viewed

Do you have email fatigue? Does your inbox constantly contain hundreds — even thousands — of emails? Does that number continue to grow? For many of us, email seems more of a curse than a blessing, a source of stress rather than a useful and speedy means of communication.

A few weeks ago, I decided to deal with my email problem. After soliciting advice from a more tech-savvy colleague, I implemented a new regimen in which I employed a few tricks and followed some rules. These have allowed me to regain control over my inbox and even helped to improve my work-life balance. Here they are:

1. Try very hard to end the day with zero emails in your inbox.

2. Create email folders with names such as "Reply today", "Reply at leisure", "Readings and links" etc — whatever categories make sense to you.

3. When emails arrive in your inbox, immediately deal with those you can by reading, replying or deleting them. Move those you can't respond to or act on right away to the appropriate folder.

4. Make sure you actually reply each day to all the messages in your "Reply today" folder lest it turn into your new inbox. Given the rate at which most of us receive email, if you don't respond to an email today, you may never reply to it. So empty your "Reply today" folder by the end of every day.

5. When you write an email, remember KISS — keep it short and simple. The vast majority of your messages should only be two to four sentences long.

6. Before you send important emails, read them aloud or — even better — sing them. If you stumble over the words, rework them until they flow smoothly and naturally.

7. Set a good example and restrict your recipient list to those who really need to know the contents of a message. Avoid adding recipients just out of habit. Sending messages to an unnecessarily large pool of recipients — and those in large organisations seem particularly prone to this — makes you part of everyone else's inbox problem.

8. Let others know you normally neither read nor reply to emails where you are CCed or BCCed. Then make good on this.

9. Create a filing system to store the emails you have dealt with but need to keep. My filing system for emails related to my business (I have a separate one for personal emails) includes five main areas: Company Core, Creation, Sales & Marketing, Operations and Finance & Legal. Within the Sales & Marketing folder, I have subfolders such as Pipeline, Clients, Partners and Dead Pitches. These subfolders may themselves contain other folders, as necessary. For example, in the Clients subfolder is a folder for each of our clients.

10. Quit your email program when you do creative work so incoming messages don't disturb you. Likewise, quit or silence your social messaging programs on your computer and other devices so you can focus on creating. As I've written before in this column, the brain's cognitive limitations mean multitasking doesn't work. So first create, then communicate. Don't try to do both at once.

11. Deal with email once or twice each day, either preceding or following creative work periods. For most people, this is at either the beginning or the end of the work day. Politely let people know they shouldn't expect instant replies from you, as you produce more and better work when you respond to emails in bulk and not as they arrive.

12. If an email angers you, go ahead and hammer out an emotional reply but do not send it right away. Keep it in your Drafts folder, sleep on it and the next morning read it aloud. If you still think it's appropriate and constructive, then send it. Otherwise, rewrite it until it says what you mean to say.

13. Does every email you get need a reply from you? What happens if you don't write back? Each time you're tempted to reply, ask yourself what's likely to happen if you don't. Chances are that 80% of the email you receive needs no action on your part, other than deleting it or filing it away.

You might wonder what these email tips are doing in a column on creativity. Creative people should use their working hours to create, and not to deal with email.

But the daily tsunami of messages doesn't care how creative you are, and will sooner or later overwhelm you.

So adopt a more disciplined approach towards your email and save your time and energy for doing what you love — creating meaningful new concepts and creative outputs. Adopting the above practices has worked well for me so far, and I expect continuing them will only increase my creativity and productivity.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Ltd (, an ideation and innovation company in Asia, and a lecturer in business creativity and innovation leadership at Mahidol University's College of Management ( He can be reached at