Step 1: Create Folders
When you use your in-box as default storage, it quickly becomes a digital junk drawer, which makes finding what you need tricky, says Peggy Duncan, a personal-productivity expert in Atlanta. You know that you can manually sort messages into folders, but did you realize you can set up filters that automatically route messages to their folder homes? For example, notifications from Facebook can go straight to a Social Media folder. (Gmail does this automatically, but you can set up a similar system with other e-mail services.) Once all e-mails of one type, like newsletters, are grouped in their own folder, you can delete them with one click. The number of folders that you work with and how you name them should depend on your needs.
Step 2: Aim for Only 20 Items in Your In-box
Yes, seriously. Twenty e-mails means that you can see your whole in-box without scrolling. As soon as you deal with a message, file or delete it. Only messages from the past week that you’ve yet to respond to belong in your in-box.
Step 3: Stick to a Schedule
Reading e-mails hampers productivity. For professions where constant communication is crucial, establishing a schedule might not be realistic. But if you take a long, hard look at your job, you may find that it is doable to designate reading time every 60 or 90 minutes. Set alerts on your calendar until you’re in a routine. “If someone needs to reach you, they’ll call,” says Marsha Egan, the author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence ($20, amazon.com). If you skim e-mails on your phone, mark those you need to follow up on as unread so that you don’t forget to respond later.
Step 4: Organize Before You Read
At the beginning of each scheduled e-mail session, sort by sender to spot messages from VIPs (the boss, your child’s teacher), then scan subject lines and delete obvious junk.
Step 5: Respond Strategically
Can you write back in two minutes or less? Do so immediately, says Egan. If an e-mail requires more time, flag it so it can be handled during a scheduled window later that day or the next morning. Afraid a long response will lead to a drawn-out e-mail chain? Time to pick up the phone.
Insider Tech Tricks
Improve your e-mail life with these little-known tools suggested by IT specialists at three of the top e-mail providers.
Gmail: Undo Send
Didn’t mean to hit Send? You have 30 seconds to nab back that e-mail. So get a move on!
How-to: Go to Settings, then Labs, then click Enable under Undo Send. Whew!
Yahoo: Disposable Addresses
If you hate giving your e-mail address to random websites, create an alternate address that routes messages to your real in-box. If the spare address gets spammed, you can simply delete it.
How-to: Go to the gear wheel in the right corner and click on Settings, then Security, then Disposable Addresses.
This feature lets you trash every message in your in-box from one sender (say, your ex or Groupon).
How-to: Open one of the sender’s e-mails, click on Sweep at the top of the screen, then hit Delete All From.