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blewis, my workplace is much less email driven than yours sounds, but there are still email conversations that I have to participate in promptly for similar reasons to those you have. My strategy is to quickly file the email to which I don't need to react. Then I use the OF clippings service to generate action items for things that I need to follow up on outside of email or at a later date. Those emails can also be filed once their actions are captured. Having purged those things from my inbox, I'm left with the email that warrants an immediate reply. I then crank through those.

I try not to check my email more than once every 2.5-3 hours. I have a repeating OF action to check email. If that item isn't on my action list, then I'm not allowed to check email (unless I'm waiting on something urgent).

There are certainly days where all I do is respond to email. I've just had to accept that. To me the two keys are:
  1. accurately determining which emails truly need a response, and
  2. maximizing my efficiency in processing my inbox.

Another efficiency item on inbox processing is to limit my categories for filing. I just have two mail folders for archival purposes: Personal and Professional. This makes filing effortless. Most every email clearly falls in one category or the other. If not, I save it in both.