Managing your Inbox

If you receive 100 emails every day, that’s around 22,000 to 24,000 per year – and this stat assumes you only handle each email once, which is quite unlikely. Steuart Snooks has some top tips on improving your effectiveness – and sanity – when it comes to mail management.

Are you ready to revolutionise your inbox and save a surprising amount of time, effort and headspace? In other words, effectively have your very own EA to manage email!? Let me introduce you to the 4D methodology, a proven and powerful way to process email and any other inputs. Here’s the key…

The 4D methodology

The very first (and only) time you look at each and every email, ask yourself what the next action needed is – and make one of four possible decisions:


Once you’ve read the email, if there’s no further action needed and you don’t need to keep the message on file, you can simply delete it. This may be spam, a newsletter, an update or an FYI.


If you can do the next action in two minutes or less e.g., a quick reply, it’s quicker to do it right now than the time it takes to store the message, keep track of it, retrieve it, read it, get up to speed on it and then do it sometime later.


If the next action needs to be done by somebody else, forward the message to the appropriate person.


If the next action needs time and effort you can’t give it right now, decide where it needs to be stored and when you’ll get back to it.

The triage method

Next, my unique triage method needs you to set up three columns in your inbox. Here, you can assign a priority (high, medium, low), type a quick description of the next action needed and allocate a date when you’ll get back to it. This turns your inbox into something like a dated to do list. It stores what you need, where you need it and for when you need it.This frees up an enormous amount of headspace that would otherwise be used trying to keep track of all these things.

Note that the facility to add these three columns to your inbox is only available on a desktop version of Microsoft Outlook – but there are workarounds for other versions of email.

The Quick Steps function

Now we’ve established the four possible decisions for each email, Outlook users can take advantage of its Quick Steps function to speed up processing of these decisions. If you’re not familiar, Quick Steps allows you to apply multiple actions to an email with just one or two clicks.

For example, you can forward an email to your exec, add a phrase to the subject line, write the text of a message and automatically file or delete the original message – all with one single click! A wonderful time-saver for many of the tasks you repeat time and time again. It’s like having somebody else do the work for you, especially the ‘housekeeping’ aspects of managing email. Here’s how it works…

Every time we look at an email, we need to make of the 4D decisions. Each of these has a corresponding action:

  • When you Delete the email, you click the delete button
  • When you Deal with the email, you click the reply (or reply all) button 
  • When you Delegate the email, you click the forward button
  • When you Decide to action the email later, you move it to some other location.

Can you see how each decision has a corresponding action? Well, you can set up Quick Steps to do some of this work for you.

When you Delete an email, it goes to the deleted items folder and stays there until either you or the IT system empties it. But you can also permanently delete it, which immediately deletes it from the deleted items folder in one single step. The keyboard shortcut for this is to click the shift and delete keys at the same time.

  • My suggestion is to set up a Quick Step for each of these actions – ‘delete’ and ‘delete permanently’.

When you Deal with an email, you click reply, type the message then click the send button. Then you must go back to do the housekeeping; to either delete or file the email.

  • My suggestion is to set up a Quick Step for each of these actions: ‘reply & file’ and ‘reply & delete’. The system will do the filing or deleting of the email automatically, saving you having to do it manually.

It’s the same when you Delegate an email. You click the forward button, type the message, click the send button then go back to file or delete the original email.

  • My suggestion is to set up a Quick Step for each of these actions: ‘forward & file’ and ‘forward & delete’.

Is it a Decide email? Well, when you can’t action it straight away, use a Quick Step to quickly move it in one of three ways:

  1. To an appropriate folder (rather than drag ‘n’ drop – how many times have you dragged and dropped an email into the wrong folder?)
  2. To the calendar (one click will convert the email into a calendar appointment with the email as an attachment)
  3. To the task list (one click will convert the email into a task, with the email as an attachment).

With these last two Quick Steps, you can add a step that automatically files or deletes the email after converting it to a task or calendar item – but I suggest you don’t do this when you first start using the system. My experience has been that many people get anxious when the email disappears from their inbox, taking time to get used to the fact they’re now keeping track of it in a different location. So instead, once you’re comfortable that you know where the email is, add this extra step to automatically file or automatically delete the email.

One of the reasons so many have built up hundreds or thousands of emails in the inbox because they have simply found it too overwhelming to go back and do all this housekeeping. But, when you think about it, every time we look at an email we make one of the 4D decisions and take one of the actions. So why don’t you set up these nine Quick Steps once to speed up and automate some of your manual labour forever?

Quick Steps will allow you to do these chores as you go through the inbox, eliminating surprising amounts of time, effort and energy every day to offer greater support in your role. You’ll instantly free up headspace to focus on higher order thinking, priorities and projects for your boss.