Does your inbox do strategy?

Could you better organise your inbox? Todd Brown has strategy ideas. 

Ever had a day when you were driven by your email inbox? Where you spent the day responding, with the odd break for meetings you needed to attend and, perhaps, a spot of lunch at your desk?

Most of us have had this experience. Given the number of emails coming at us – the average office worker receives about 70 on an average day according to a recent study – it’s understandable that we focus on email. The more email I can deal with, the subconscious mind says, the more I’ll stay ahead of the game, the more productive I’ll be. 

In this way of thinking, it’s not a big mental leap from being ‘productive’ to being ‘successful.’ In a recent seminar for a global social media company, one of the delegates described his job as ‘doing email.’  It’s as if that’s all we need to do to achieve personal and professional fulfilment. 

But this approach to our working lives isn’t without its costs. Over-focusing on email usually means that the tactical trumps the strategic; that the urgent blinds us to the important.

Try this as an exercise. Close your inbox (yes, it can be done). Now create a list of all the things you want to accomplish this year. Make the list as comprehensive as possible – include both personal and professional things – so that it might include things like ‘hire a new assistant’, ‘plan our summer holidays’, and ‘roll out the next version of our app.’ 

The more email I can deal with, the subconscious mind says, the more I’ll stay ahead of the game, the more productive I’ll be. 

What you’ve just created is a composite picture of the future you want to create for yourself by the end of the year. It’s a strategic vision of the things you would like to achieve. Don’t be surprised if the list you end up with is quite long. For most people a comprehensive list of these ‘desired outcomes’ might well include many dozens of things. 

Now go back to your inbox. Look through the last two weeks’ worth of emails and see how many of them are related to the things on your strategic list. Simply mark the things on your strategy list as you find emails related to them. 

Once you’ve finished with the last two weeks’ emails, check and see how many of your strategic projects did not have a corresponding email. You’ll probably find that many if not most of them didn’t. 

So if you’re letting your inbox drive your day, you’re likely neglecting a large number of strategic things that you would like to be giving attention to. So what’s to do? Give those strategic things a fighting chance in the battle for your attention. Take each one of those outcomes that had no related emails, and decide a ‘next action’ for it.  

Make the next action a clear indication of the tactical thing you are going to do to move toward the strategic outcome, such as ‘create an outline of the proposal’, ’email the team re the budget workshop’, or ‘talk to my partner re ideas for our summer holiday.’

Keep that list of ‘next actions’ close at hand, so that the next time you feel like email is driving your day, you’ll have other possibilities to focus on. 

Your inbox may not do strategy, but you can.


About the author

Todd Brown is co-founder and managing partner of Next Action Associates. He has been a leader in the global learning & development and talent management community for more than 20 years. 


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