You cannot be organized if your email is not organized. If you cannot keep up with your email then you scream to people that you’re overwhelmed with your job, and maybe your life (depending on how many personal emails you get and do not answer). Don’t tell me you get too much email. Everyone gets too much email. You still need to be able to be effective with it.
Here are three things people do that they shouldn’t. If you do any of these, you need to get a better grip on your email.

1. Do you keep emails in your in box to remind you to do something?

Get a real to do list. Your email box is not a to-do list. Well for some of you maybe it is, but it shouldn’t be. Your to-do list is very important. It determines what you will get done in your life. It determines what your priorities are and what you value. So why would you let someone else dictate your to do list?

If your in box is your to do list then you have so little control over that list that you don’t even add your own stuff. (Unless you are sending yourself emails, which is so dysfunctional that I’m not even going to make it an item in this list.) If you aren’t writing the items on your to do list then you are not controlling your own destiny. Really. It’s that serious. So write a note to yourself on your to do list about each email, prioritize it, and then delete.

2. Does it take you more than forty-eight hours to respond to people you love?

This is lame. It’s actually lame in response to anyone, but especially for people you love. A twenty-four hour response is the expectation of email. If you can’t meet it don’t use it. It’s like this: If you respond to an IM message ten hours later, you’re not using IM, you’re using email. And if you respond six days later to an email you may as well write a letter.

If people you love send you stupid emails that you don’t want to have to respond to, then tell the person directly. This is a much more effective way to operate than to passive-aggressively take a long time to respond.

3. Do you avoid scrolling through your in box because you know it’s filled with emails you don’t want to have to answer?

Try resorting. I usually sort by date sent. But I accidentally sorted by sender, and I noticed that I owed 80% of my responses to five people and 20% to 20 people. Just knowing that situation encouraged me to get moving. Instead of thinking of the task as thirty emails, I could think of it as five people. Much easier.

Here’s a game I play with myself: No reading unless I’m deleting. Either I respond right away or file the email and add it to my to do list. That’s a lot of work —filing and adding. So I tended to answer quickly and right away. And the more practice I got answering email quickly the easier it became.

I noticed that the primary cause for not answering an email right away was not that I wasn’t sure what to say, it was that I thought I needed to say something amazing. But really emails need to be timely more than they need to be amazing.

Something else I noticed. It’s fine to respond with a quickie one sentence when you are getting back to someone right away. But if you wait five days to respond, and then send a quickie sentence, you look like a procrastinator.

On the other hand, if you spend all day answering your email obsessively, you also scream to people that you’re losing your mind. Because if you answer all mail as soon as it comes in you’re not doing your real job — unless your only job is to answer email.