Now that everyone is working and schooling from home, your email inbox has probably blown up. Friends, family members, co-workers, and all of your kids’ teachers are emailing you with unprecedented regularity. I have a strategy to offer for managing that ballooning inbox, one that I adapted over time from other people, the identities of whom I cannot now remember. I can remember these four words: delete, delegate, do, delay.

Delete. Many emails can be deleted the moment you read the subject or sender line. Marketing promotions, social media alerts, and various lists to which you subscribe intentionally or not, my recommendation is that when times are hectic, delete these emails the second they show up in your inbox. Some email management software automatically sends such emails into a separate folder. By whatever means, get these junk emails out of your inbox.

Delegate. Some emails you can immediately send to someone else – a coworker who needs the information, an employees whose job is to handle the task, a child who needs to manage his or her own school assignment, or information on which you’ve been copied. Get these out of your inbox immediately by forwarding them with as little explanation as possible or filing them in case you need the information later. When in doubt, file. Storage is plentiful and cheap.

Do. After you’ve deleted and delegated all the emails you can, now you look through the list of emails and, counterintuitively, look for the least important emails first. If the email requires you to perform a task that you cannot delegate, and the task would take less than two minutes to perform, perform that task as soon as you open the email. Someone is asking a simple question or needs your permission for something. Give them an answer in as few words as necessary, politely but succinctly, and move on. Now is not the time for verbose niceties. Take care of as many of these brief tasks as possible and then delete or file the email, depending on whether or not you need a record.

Delay. The last category of email is the one that requires a task of you that only you can perform, and the task will take longer than two minutes. Keep this email until you’ve deleted, delegated, or done all of the other email tasks in your inbox. These are the only emails that should camp out in your inbox. Keep the number of these emails below 20 if possible. This will help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

Here are additional quick recommendations:

  1. Work on email during specified times of the day. Don’t let email dictate your work life, otherwise you will sacrifice the important for the urgent.
  2. Don’t check your email within a couple of hours of bedtime. You don’t need that irritant to keep you awake.
  3. Never send an angry email. Electronic communication is permanent. Emails can be subpoenaed. Confrontational conversations should be held face-to-face or by phone where facial expressions or vocal inflections can provide context and prevent misunderstanding.
  4. If you must, write a draft of an angry email and then sit on it for 24 hours. Reread it the next day. Let a colleague review it for you. In the end, you’ll probably delete it so save time and just don’t write it in the first place.
  5. Use proper punctuation, spelling, and grammar regardless of who you are writing. Emails provide good opportunities to practice proper English, proper English shows respect to others, and respect is a good thing, especially in times of crisis.

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