by Mielle Sullivan, Janus Networks
If you’re an employee or owner of a small business, the focus point of your attention is often your email inbox. Sometimes, it seems so many different people want so many different things that you end up spending all of your time in your inbox, just trying to figure out what needs to be done. Email can be paralyzing.

Many productivity experts have already fingered email as the bane of a modern worker’s existence and made it the focus of in-depth organizational programs. But whether you’re looking at Getting Things Done, the Pomodoro technique or another strategy, there is always one key piece of advice: create distance between yourself and your inbox. Here’s how to do that.

Set aside time

Taking little bits of time throughout your day to deal with email is a productivity killer. Set aside times on your calendar to deal exclusively with email. You want to gather it into groups and go through messages one after the other.

Divide and conquer

But what if you have to keep checking your email because some incoming items may be urgent? The rule here is fairly simple, but hard to follow. First, reassess what’s really urgent. Most messages can wait until you’ve got a time scheduled for email in your day. Over time, even your demanding co-workers will learn your new schedule. Let’s assume that you’re in the rare group for whom there are still drop-everything urgent emails. If that’s the case, go ahead and drop everything — but only for that email. The difficult part is not be controlled by messages that aren’t really urgent. Setting up files and filters that are intuitive to you, can help you separate emails into categories and define what needs to be done soon, what can wait for later, and what you just need to be aware of. Each person’s system will be a little different and will require tweaking over time. The important thing is having a system of “soon” or “later” action items that you know you will come back to as regularly as you need to.

Minimize your contact

The key to making the above two rules effective is to make sure that when you click on an email to read it, you don’t leave anything hanging. If at all possible, do whatever needs done: Respond to the email, carry out the needed action, or schedule a time to get back to it. Maintain a separate to-do list and contact database and use them instead of searching through your email. You should, as much as possible, only need to look at an email once. This counts in reverse, too. Make your email clear and concise, so that the recipient doesn’t need to puzzle over it.

Tools to explore

In addition to all of the above, you can help yourself out by having a great email program. Microsoft Outlook remains the standby for most people in business, but if you want webmail Zimbra is great. For Outlook, there are several great add-ons that help organize messages and the information in them: Xobni, ClearContext, etc.

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