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Think about how much the internet has changed in the last decade. Responsive web design. Wi-Fi availability everywhere. Productivity shifting from desktop apps to web apps. The entire web carried around in our pockets without a second thought.

But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: email. In fact, the emails we send today are quite similar to the very first email sent in 1971 — the main difference is the sheer quantity of emails we have to deal with. Did you know there are 2.4 million emails sent every single second 5 Staggering Email Stats That Are Hard to Believe 5 Staggering Email Stats That Are Hard to Believe Email, email, email. Think you know everything there is to know about it? These statistics may just blow you away. Read More ?

Of course, you did. You can feel that number every time you open your inbox and sigh at the overwhelming amount of spam, tasks, and correspondences. But here’s one more thing that hasn’t changed: the way Bill Gates handled his email in 2006 is still relevant and effective today.

How Bill Gates Handles Hundreds of Emails Daily

In an article he wrote for CNN, Gates laid out his so-called “digital workstyle” and how he manages to get things done in a timely and orderly fashion. His full routine involves tools like SharePoint and OneNote, but we’ll just look at his email procedure, which has three parts:

  1. Dual monitors — Actually, Gates mentions having three monitors in his workstation setup, but only two of them are relevant to emails. The left monitor is dedicated to displaying his inbox always. The right monitor is used for reading and replying to emails.
  2. Filters and whitelists — How does Gates only have “hundreds” of emails? With his level of prominence, shouldn’t it be more like “thousands”? His trick is simple: he filters his inbox using a whitelist to ensure he only gets emails from within the company, from partner companies, and from his assistant. Everything else gets swept away before he even has a chance to look at it.
  3. Inbox as to-do list — Though we’ve shown you that to-do list apps can be useful, Gates says that he’s “not big on to-do lists.” Instead, he sees his emails as his tasks for the day, marking and sorting them into folders based on content and priority. He says: “We’re at the point now where the challenge isn’t how to communicate effectively with email, it’s ensuring that you spend your time on the email that matters most.”

That’s it. No secret mantras or esoteric steps. No paid tools or services. No revolutionary concepts. If Bill Gates can tame his inbox without resorting to anything more complicated than an email filter, so can you.

Setting Up Your Inbox Like Bill Gates

The process is quick and easy. If you have a lot of filters to set up, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. For most users, you can be ready to go in under 10 minutes. Here’s what you do.

Arranging Your Monitors

Every serious office worker should have at least two monitors. Three is ideal but may not be possible due to limits in budget or workstation space. Any more than three is excessive and likely won’t boost your productivity any further. But two is more than enough. A laptop plus monitor works, too.

Don’t have two monitors? That’s okay! Not all is lost. Keep reading because we provide an alternative method near the end.

How Bill Gates Manages Email with Two Screens dual monitor setup different screens

There are two main setups for dual monitors 2 Main Positioning Approaches To Make Use Of A Dual Monitor Configuration 2 Main Positioning Approaches To Make Use Of A Dual Monitor Configuration Read More . If the two monitors are the exact same, you can put them side-by-side or one-atop-the-other with your eyeline resting along the divide. If the two monitors are asymmetrical, put the larger screen in front you (as normal) and set the smaller screen off to the side. In this case, your email client should be on the smaller screen.

Check out our tips for a productive dual-monitor workflow How to Be More Productive with Dual Monitors How to Be More Productive with Dual Monitors You need space for several documents, to get an overview and swiftly shift between tasks. What's true for your desk also applies to your virtual workspace. We show you how it matters. Read More . In addition, I highly recommend switching to a vertical taskbar Why You Should Use a Vertical Windows Taskbar Why You Should Use a Vertical Windows Taskbar The Windows Taskbar has always appeared at the bottom of the screen. Depending on your monitor, vertical Taskbar might have several advantages. Let us show you what they are. Read More , which can be far more efficient in a multi-monitor setup, both in terms of productivity and screen space.

Filtering Your Email

Every modern email client and email service offers some form of filtering and whitelisting. If yours doesn’t, you should really consider switching to one that does. The lack of filtering isn’t a dealbreaker on its own, but could indicate your client or service is outdated in other areas (like security).

So, what kind of filters should you create?

First things first, make sure you utilize the Spam or Junk features of your email client. If you receive spam, mark it as Spam! This helps your email service better recognize spam in the future. Or in the case of a client like Postbox, marking as Junk helps it to auto-filter potential junk messages.

Next, add frequent and important contacts to your whitelist. This prevents any emails that come from these contacts accidentally being marked as Spam or Junk. Since spam filters need to be aggressive to be effective, this is a crucial step that you shouldn’t skip.

Lastly, use filters to sort new emails into folders. For example, all emails from @makeuseof.com would go into my Work folder while emails from partners would go into a Sponsors folder. You can also create specific filters for emails that somehow keep bypassing your spam filter.

Using Emails as To-Do Tasks

Take care to not be deceived by the trendy “inbox zero” movement. While it may seem like a good idea to empty your inbox every day, it may not actually solve your inbox craziness. In fact, Bill Gates isn’t the only one to suggest using your inbox as a to-do list How to Deal With Inbox Overload and To-Do Lists in Emails How to Deal With Inbox Overload and To-Do Lists in Emails Email is not just communication, it also largely dictates your to-do list. Let's talk about the best tips to link the inbox to our productivity with Andy Mitchell -- the founder of ActiveInbox. Read More .

Assuming you’ve set up your filters correctly, your emails should now be automatically sorted into relevant folders. Now you just need to go through and mark, archive, or delete them.

  • Marking — In Gmail and Yahoo, you can “star” emails. In Postbox, you can “mark as reminder” which is basically the same thing. Either way, the effect is the same: you can see at a glance which emails still need your attention. Also, you can filter by “starred” or “reminder” — boom, now you have your to-do list.
  • Archiving — If you’re like most, you probably keep marked-as-read emails in your inbox for reference or safekeeping. Unfortunately, this is a huge source of clutter and you should archive those emails instead. Archived emails are stowed away in a special folder, allowing you to revisit them when necessary without them cluttering up your inbox.
  • Deleting — Any email that you don’t want to save should be deleted. If you aren’t sure whether you’ll need it later, then archive it. Otherwise, delete it. Keeping your inbox clean makes it less stressful to deal with the tasks awaiting your full attention.

What If You Only Have a Single Monitor?

You can always use virtual desktops instead.

A virtual desktop is basically a separate workspace in Windows that manages its own set of open apps. In this case, you could have one virtual desktop dedicated to your email client and another for browsing or doing work. Switching between them is as simple as a keyboard shortcut, and you can have as many virtual desktops as you want.

How Bill Gates Manages Email with Two Screens windows task view desktops

To get started, check out our introduction to virtual desktops An Introduction to Virtual Desktop & Task View in Windows 10 An Introduction to Virtual Desktop & Task View in Windows 10 Windows 10's new Virtual Desktop and Task View features are quality-of-life enhancements that you shouldn't overlook. Here's why they are useful and how you can start benefiting from them right now. Read More and our tips for maximizing your virtual desktop productivity 5 Ways to Improve Virtual Desktops in Windows 10 5 Ways to Improve Virtual Desktops in Windows 10 Virtual Desktops can help you expand and organize your desktop. Here we show you how to improve and productively use Windows 10's Task View feature. Read More . It’s extremely useful and I consider it one of the features that make upgrading to Windows 10 worthwhile 6 Underrated Windows 10 Features You Must Try 6 Underrated Windows 10 Features You Must Try Windows 10 is different and constantly changing. You'll never be done exploring new features and tools. This article will help you discover tricks you might have missed so far. Read More .

In some ways, I think the virtual desktop route can be more productive than a dual-monitor setup. With two monitors, you’re constantly bombarded with email stimuli. With virtual desktops, you can focus on one thing at a time — and as we all know, multitasking is bad for productivity Single- vs. Multitasking: What's Best for Productivity? Single- vs. Multitasking: What's Best for Productivity? Multitasking is a common method to increase productivity. Turns out it's not necessarily the silver bullet for productivity. The key is to know when to multitask. Read More .

Now that you know how to manage emails like Bill Gates, let us know how it works for you. If you use a different technique, we’d love to hear about it. Share with us in a comment below!

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  1. RiverRunnerNot
    September 23, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    Thank you so much. I just switched to Thunderbird and have been looking forever on how to sync with my Google calendar.

  2. likefunbutnot
    May 24, 2017 at 3:34 am

    My inbox is a journal of my entire life. I don't tolerate messaging systems that thread discussions. I keep every message in my inbox. All of them. For all time (1993, in my case). Because I have so much contact with my email for both professional and personal correspondence, I have a pretty good idea of what I was doing on the date and around the time that I sent or read messages.

    There's less work in my method and no, my email clients aren't crashing or struggling with the load from all those messages. I'd say that it's the right way to handle things.