Email ConceptSome people fall far short of their leadership potential because they let the best part of their time, energy, and focus get sucked up by non-strategic tasks like replying to emails. On the other end of the spectrum are leaders who don’t have the impact they’d like because they don’t consistently respond to important emails. When people can’t rely on a leader for appropriate communications, their trust and confidence will erode.

By adopting effective email habits, leaders gain several key benefits:

  • Clear, strategic thinking
  • Uninterrupted work focused on pre-defined priorities (answering emails generally is not work that is adding value)
  • Real conversations that demonstrate leadership presence
  • Full delegation of responsibility
  • Timely responses to emails that truly deserve your attention

Over the years, I’ve adopted several practices to maximize productivity despite the increasing volume of email. Here are several critical practices for leaders, regardless of your email application.

  • Turn off notifications on your desktop computer and mobile devices. An incoming email is not more important than the person you are currently talking to or the task you had proactively chosen to work on. Every time you take your focus off your current conversation or task to look at an incoming email, you subtract from your leadership presence and deep thinking.
  • Invest time setting up email filters. I use several filters so that only key email hits my inbox. Here are my two most important filters:
    • CC Mail: If my name doesn’t appear in the “To” field of an email, it goes into a “CC Mail” folder. These CC (and BCC) emails rarely require me to take action, and it saves a huge amount of distraction to keep them out of my inbox. I simply scan the folder several times each week to help me stay in the loop. The following image shows how I created this filter in Google Apps (Gmail).My CC Mail filter using Google Apps
    • Bulk Mail: As you know, spam is unsolicited email, and your email program should be helping you filter out that email automatically. Bulk email (also called “Bacn”) refers to e-newsletters, social media digests, monthly billing statements, and other email that you want to receive but has zero urgency. It’s a pain to set up a filter that includes all these senders (and add new ones as you sign up for them), but over time it adds up to a lot of time saved; also, email programs are beginning to provide smart filters that help automate this. These emails skip my inbox and go into a separate folder that I review a few times each month.
  • Turn off incoming email. Process incoming email only during scheduled timeblocks (see the next hack). However, you may need a solution for this that still allows you to 1) obtain information from past emails related to something you’re working on, and/or 2) access incoming emails that you consider time-sensitive at that moment. I use Inbox Pause for Gmail as my solution, because it allows me to access past emails without being distracted by new emails, and it allows me to see incoming emails if I really need to, by searching for the sender’s name or domain.
  • Determine how often and what time you really need to process your email. Given my role, I perform best if I limit this to once or twice per day … generally just a single mid-afternoon session. My main goal is to spend one hour or less per day on email, for the sake of productivity; my secondary goal is to respond to emails within 24 hours after receipt, for the sake of service. Depending on your role, you may need to be more or less responsive; however, it’s hard to imagine anyone truly needing to process their email more than four times per day. Keep in mind that the faster you reply to the sender, the more likely he/she will send you a new message; don’t encourage a higher quantity of email than necessary.
  • Stop using email as your to-do list. Because emails often contain assignments for us, it’s extremely tempting to use an email as a visual reminder of an action you need to take. But that’s a recipe for lost focus. If you can’t resolve an email within a few minutes, add it to a real to-do list and archive the email. (BONUS #1: Task-management apps like ToodleDo let you add a task by simply forwarding the email. BONUS #2: Project-management apps like Basecamp helps you keep conversations and tasks organized around the project, rather than stuck in your email.)
  • Clear out your inbox on a regular basis (a GTD-related practice commonly referred to as Inbox Zero). However, I do not believe leaders should worry about achieving Inbox Zero every day; that contributes to “majoring on the minors.” Some email just doesn’t justify a timely reply, or any reply at all. Also, don’t worry about filing all your emails into specific folders. After you process each email, just stick it in a single folder (I use Gmail’s default “Archive”) folder, and trust your email application’s search function to help you easily retrieve past emails. If its search function can’t do this for you, switch to a different application (I have tried several but keep coming back to Gmail’s web interface).
  • Know when to switch to non-email communications. Many people use email to collaborate on projects; this is terribly inefficient, leading to confusion, missed messages, people acting on old versions, and people wasting time searching for old information. Invest the time to find better tools for collaboration, project management, and file sharing. Also, if you find any email requiring more than three or four exchanges, it’s probably a sign to just talk to the person in person, over the phone, or using online video conferencing such as Skype or Facetime.

These seven hacks are critical for leaders to keep email in its place, so you can focus on productive work and strategic leadership.

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