The Stack Method

Published: January 25, 2022

Email is work. You need to give your permission to work on it.

Prasanth Nair

Those of you that know me, know I’m slightly obsessive about all things productivity.

I have a pretty good way of keeping on top of my emails but when I kept hearing about this “Stack Method” for managing inboxes, I was intrigued and I had to go and investigate in case I was missing something.

Spoiler alert – I really was!

Prasanth Nair invented this system in 2004 because his overflowing inbox was stressing him out.

For the full methodology, I advise you to check out the many free resource videos he has created here: I’m going to summarise the process as I have tweaked it to my own needs a little. There’s a huge amount of free information on this system, the folders, and how to make it work on Outlook and Gmail with the tools on each on the website. It’s a wealth of information and I highly recommend you check it out for the full version if you want to try this rather than using my second-hand version.

Health warning number 1: This system relies heavily on folders. I’ve always been a bit wary of this, thinking that anything I put in a folder will never see the light of day again. If you fear this might be you as well, read on to be reassured!

Health warning number 2: Before you implement this with vigour you are going to need to empty your inbox. Empty it. All of it. It will not help you clear a backlog, it only helps you never get to that hideous place ever again.

And finally, health warning number 3: If like me you like to file things that are done into folders (by project, or client, or person) the purest version of this system would have you put pretty much EVERYTHING done in 1 folder. The theory is that you’ll use the search function if you need anything and also that we keep a lot we really don’t need to (guilty as charged). This made me twitch. I am trying to delete more and keep less but I confess to still filing! Outlook’s search function does not fill me with enough trust to do otherwise. There is a “When” folder for current projects but that didn’t really work for me and my pattern of work but it may for others.

So, if you’re OK so far. Let’s look at the system.

It’s in 2 parts. The way of working and the way you organise your inbox. Let’s start with the inbox first.

The Inbox

All folders of “done” things are now archive folders and should be tidied away as such. You want to now create new folders called “Do”, “Reply”, “Review”, “Forward” and “Meeting”. And that’s it. Pretty much. You’ll likely customise a tad once you get in the rhythm. When you attack your email first thing, everything gets put into one of these folders using Quick Steps or Quick Keys.

1. Reply

No action needed, you just need to reply to this and then get it off your desk.

2. Do

Pretty clear. Things to do. But, if they are going in here they should be able to be done in 5 minutes or less.

3. Meeting

Anything to do with your diary, finding dates and so on.

4. Forward

Another obvious one.

5. Waiting On

I added this as I need to track these things. Put in here things that are waiting for people to come back to you. This is my addition.

6. Review / Do Plus 5

I’m still not sure this is the right name for this folder but I’ve yet to find a better one. This is “Do” but in longer form. Things that are going to take a while. Tasks rather than emails. I find this folder the most useful. The idea is, if you put something in it, you block time in your diary to get it done. Once the time is booked, you flag it or categorise it as “booked”. When you review this folder, you need to check you have booked time for each task to be done.

The Process

The process itself relies on you being disciplined and adding email time to your diary. You have a longer block first thing (or last thing, whichever works for you) to work through your stack folders. During that block, you work through your stack folders systematically in order. Your brain works better when not switching between tasks. The key is to block your diary for this. One big session and then maybe twice a day, you work through your inbox either answering quick emails or flinging them with a glance and a Quick-Step (or Google equivalent) into the correct folders to work on during your next long stack block.

If you go into your inbox between your set times, you work out of the inbox. If you aren’t able to deal with it, move it to a folder.

How much time do I need to set aside?

Start with the number of emails you get per day on average, say 75.

Assuming that around 50% of those don’t need action or are junk, we’ll multiply that by 50% to get the number of action emails = 37

We’re going to estimate that each email takes 90 seconds to respond to (some will be less, some more) so we’ll multiple 37 by 1.5, giving us 55 minutes of email time.

Quick cheat sheet as a guide:

Number of inbound emailsNumber of action emailsTime needed daily
402030 mins
603045 mins
80401 hour
120601.5 hours
1601202 hours

Once you’ve estimated how much time your emails take to work on each day (emails are work, remember!) then block that time out in your diary in 1 or 2 chunks and stick to it religiously.


Reduced mental load

For me, even with my relatively good system before, I find having an empty inbox really calming. I know there are things in my Do and Reply folders etc but knowing they are all read and that I just need to work through them systematically is definitely reducing my mental load because I know I haven’t lost anything or forgotten anything. I have multiple inboxes and I have found this to work across all of them.

Getting more done

There is something about a smaller list and an allocated amount of time that makes me work through things and bash them out. Trivial emails used to lurk until a suitable time and now I just power through them in order to clear them out. Things don’t hang around so long.

Blocking time

The Review / Do Plus 5 folder is a game-changer for me. Emails that need more work used to sit in a guilt list of “do” and now, I make time in my diary and mark them, and then I don’t need to think about them again until that time. Again, reducing my mental load. I’ve always blocked time to do email but I am now much stricter at acting on them in that time rather than reading them, making sure they aren’t urgent and, then planning to reply later!

If you want to give the Stack Method a try, do check out the website for the full details. I think you might like it.

Stack Method website