How to Stop Living In Your Inbox

How to Stop Living In Your Inbox

Every couple months I get a phone call that goes something like this, “Did you get the email I sent you?” I respond by saying, “I don’t think so. When did you send it?” The sender responds by saying, “Just now.”

And with that statement, they reveal themselves. They are of the unfortunate breed of lost souls that live in their email inbox. They’re subject to other people’s priorities, and other people whims. They don’t likely get their most important work done each day because living in the inbox means responding in real time.

Here is how to stop living in your inbox for good.

Caution: This takes unimaginable courage, extreme self-discipline, and the willingness to make other people’s priorities play second fiddle to what’s really important.

Do Your Most Important Work Before You Open Your Email

Don’t open your inbox in the morning. I mean it; don’t even launch the program.

I don’t open my email until I’ve done my most important work each morning. That likely means that I’ve written this blog post before I even know what’s waiting for me. It also means I’ve done some client-related work too.

By keeping my email program closed, no matter what shows up in that inbox it’s not going to derail my day, because by the time I see it, I am hours and hours into my most important work. When I do see it, my most important work will have already been done. BOOM!

Schedule Time to Check Your Email

Schedule time to review your email and use effective tools.

I’m using Sanebox to sort my email. It used to be when I opened my inbox I would be greeted by something near 100 messages. After setting up the Sanebox filters, I’m greeted by about 20 email messages. The rest of the email messages have found their way into a Bulk email folder (completely unimportant), a Newsletter folder (I wish I had time to read these), or a Later folder (okay to process later).

Even though I’ve eliminated a lot of my email, I still have to deal with the important email messages. So I try to check my email at ten o’clock in the morning and again later in the afternoon. I also check it at night.

I keep the inbox completely closed. I have no notifications set up to inform me that I received an email. And I’ll leave email closed for hours on end.

One of the other ways that I process a lot of email is to check my email while I’m waiting for something else to happen. For instance if I’m in between calls and have some time, I’ll pop open the iPhone or the iPad and processes as much trivial email as I can. I try to blast through anything that doesn’t really require my attention.

Process Your Email in One or Two Sittings

Checking your email is different than processing your email. Some of your email requires a thoughtful response. Some email might only take two minutes to reply to. Some needs archived. And much just needs deleted.

I move the email that requires a real response into Omnifocus, my task manager, so I can schedule time to respond to those emails in a meaningful way. When I’m processing the email, I process the email. I reply to every email that requires a real response.

I try to do this in one sitting a day. But it almost always takes two. On Sundays, when I send y newsletter, it takes five.

Train the People in Your Life

You have to train the people in your life that you don’t live in your inbox.

I’ve spent time training the people in my life that I don’t live in my email. You let them know that if they send an urgent email that it’s unlikely that you will receive it in a time that meets their needs. If something needs your serious attention, the best way for anyone to get a hold of you is to use the telephone.

I never turn my telephone off. It is right next to me, even when I am sleeping. And, I’ll bet you never turn your phone off either.

By letting people know that you might take some time to respond, you train them not to expect you to be always on, at the ready, living to type the next email message. But most importantly, you’ll get a lot more work done.


Do you live in your inbox? (You can be honest here; we’re all friends)

Can you get up in the morning without opening your inbox first thing? How much work could you get done if you waited until 10:00 AM to check your inbox?

Can you limit the times you check email, making sure you are available for important client communication, but not so available it derails your day?

How long would it take you to process your email, to clear it out and respond to the important email messages?

Who in your life needs trained to wait for a response? Who believe you should live in your inbox?



  • Jim Hunt

    Anthony, Thanks so very much. I feel like a short order cook some days taking the next order in my inbox. I am with you on this one and going to change my email pattern and procedure. Great advice and much appreciated. Best to you.

  • BarbChamberlain

    I feel better about my email handling with your distinction between “checking” and “processing” email. With the old-school thinking about never handling a piece of paper more than once, I felt guilty about checking email and then leaving things waiting for me to process a thoughtful response later. Still did it, mind you–just thought it was a bad practice because it meant giving that item thought space twice instead of once.

    As long as I don’t over-process small items that I really could deal with in the seconds it takes me to check that email, I’ll figure I’m doing okay.

    Now to retrain some people…. I trained them in the first place because I do a lot of work via email and am mostly pretty responsive. My mistake.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      I think you have to separate checking and processing. They’re two very different activities. A lot of stuff you can just zip through. That’s easy. But some email is real work.

      Thanks, Barb!

  • Claire_Fuller

    Great blog and I too subscribe to sanebox, it is fantastic. How good it is to have the less important emails somewhere else, making it much easier to see the important ones. I am pretty good at leaving email until it suits me as I know how much time it takes up and I prefer to feel good about my achievements before replying to email. I figure that if someone really wants me they will call me. I do turn my phone off at night though, always will do. I can relax properly then.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks, Claire! I still never turn the phone off. Ever.

  • Marc Zazeela

    Anthony – It’s kind of like turning off your cell phone for a period. Sure, important stuff comes up but it is also important to remember that we lived just fine long before inboxes and cell phones. Certainly, no one will be hurt if you don’t open your emails for a few hours.


    PS – I have a friend who will send a text asking if you got his email. If you don’t respond in milliseconds, he calls too!

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Why not just call in the first place?

  • Cathy Cleary

    This post really resonated with me. Thanks, Anthony! Now, to turn off my Mail program for a couple of hours…

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Let me know how that works out for you, Cathy! I think you’ll enjoy it.

  • Tim Rethlake

    Thanks Anthony. Well done and very useful (as usual).
    I changed the my default view of Outlook to always open to my calendar instead of my email inbox. By focusing on my appointments and tasks first, it helps me keep my BIG rocks visible.
    I also never have my phone off. I have three daughters, two of whom are away at college. Knowing they can get in touch with me if they have to let’s me sleep better at night.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Three daughters? It’s a wonder you can sleep at all.

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