12 Smart Habits to Help You Manage Your Email Inbox for Good
Overwhelmed by a cluttered inbox? Manage your email more efficiently with these productivity tips from the pros.
We all rely on email for instant correspondence—and assurance that our Amazon package is, in fact, on its way. But it's safe to say, for all its laudable perks, your email inbox can quickly turn into the bane of your existence if left unchecked. And the sight of a cluttered inbox is an immediate stressor pretty much everyone.
Regularly checking email is an everyday task that's impossible to avoid, and no matter how diligent you are in hitting "reply all," managing a mounting email inbox is easier said than done. And if you're less diligent—as in, you're more prone to letting your emails pile up unaddressed—that lack of inbox organization (and the anxiety of being in email debt) is likely affecting your productivity more than you realize. Luckily there's a way out of the chaotic inbox hole. In an effort to better manage our unruly inboxes, we tapped productivity pros for time-saving (read: life-saving) email management hacks that'll bring us that much closer to the seemingly elusive Inbox Zero.
1 Check Email for Only 15 Minutes at a Time
According to productivity expert and founder of Inkwell Press, Tonya Dalton, you can maximize your productivity by checking emails in short, 15-minute bursts. "You'd be surprised at how many emails you can read and respond to in a short span of time when you check your inbox in batches," she says. "The key is to set a timer, so you know when your 15 minutes are up and when it's time to move on to other work."
2 Schedule Time Blocks for Emails
In the same vein, get in the habit of scheduling designated time blocks (of 15-ish minutes) purely for email-checking. Reading emails on a rolling basis as they cascade into your inbox ultimately 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’s doable to designate email-reading time, say, every 60 or 90 minutes. Set alerts on your calendar until you’re in a routine. If someone really needs to reach you, they’ll email you again, send a direct message, or call. If you skim emails on your phone, mark those you need to follow up on as unread so that you don’t forget to respond later.
3 Purposely Use the Drafts Folder
“Don’t let your e-mail box become a to-do list,” something that you work your way through from top to bottom," says Charles Duhigg, journalist and best-selling author of Smarter, Faster, Better. “It’s the worst to-do list possible, because literally everyone can add to it.”
Create your own email to-do list by opening only those that need your attention. Seek out important emails that require immediate responses (e.g., for priority projects or from your boss). and open those messages only—or hit “reply.” Keep the reply window open on your computer, or leave the draft pending in the drafts folder. There’s your to-do list: this stack of replies. Use your prescribed email time to write thoughtful, cogent responses, rather than attempting to tear through a larger quantity of less relevant stuff. That way your goal can be to accomplish an empty drafts folder, rather than a pristinely empty inbox.
4 Receive Emails in Batches
If you can’t help but check every time you hear a ping, an easy way to manage the constant email barrage in your inbox (and curb distractions) is to use a tool like the BatchedInbox plug-in for Gmail could save you from constant distraction. It groups together your emails and sends them to you in waves—but only at the exact times of your choosing.
5 Ruthlessly Unsubscribe
Deleting irrelevant newsletters and sales notifications one by one may give off the illusion of productivity, but rifling through the same junk mail week after week only increases email inefficiency. "By law, all newsletters must include an unsubscribe link," Dalton says. "Take the time to click that link to submit your unsubscribe request. It's a 10-second investment that will pay off in the form of a cleaner inbox."
Dalton also notes that signing up for an email unsubscribe app or service isn't necessary to rid your inbox of clutter. "Many of those programs actually end up selling your email address to other companies to keep them in business," she adds.
RELATED: How to Clean Out Your Phone
6 Turn on the Preview Feature
Use your email program's preview feature, if it has one (most of them do). This will let you peek at the first few lines of a message in a separate window, so you won't have to open it entirely to read it, and you can delete junk instantly. (Bonus: This also reduces your chances of opening a message with a virus attached.)
7 Touch Emails Only Once (and Use the “Five D’s”)
Dalton suggests taking action as soon as you open up a message by considering the 5 D’s: Do, delegate, delete, defer, and designate. "Quickly do the emails that require less than two minutes of action, and delegate those that require action on someone else's part," she says. Immediately unsubscribe from and delete messages that require no action, and defer those notifications that require more than two minutes of action to complete. Lastly, file emails that contain pertinent information to a separate folder so you can locate them more easily in the future.
8 Folders Are Your Friend
When you use your inbox 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 can manually sort messages into folders, sure, but even better, you can set up automatic filters that route messages directly to a prefered folder. For example, notifications from Facebook can go straight to a Social Media folder. All messages from the marketing team will file straight into your Marketing Initiatives file. (Gmail does this automatically, but you can set up a similar system with other email services, like Microsoft Outlook.) Once all emails of one type, like newsletters, are grouped in their own folder, you can select all and delete unwanted ones with a single click. Find an automatic email sorting setting that works for you and your to-dos, then stick with it.
9 Draft a Canned Response
If you receive multiple messages containing similar requests, Dalton advises writing out a default canned response that you can adjust and personalize slightly with each email response. "Save the default response as one of your email signatures so you can easily auto-fill the body of your emails," she says. Genius, right? (Just don’t forget to modify for the recipient and circumstance.)
10 Create an Alias Account to Sort Mail
Many email platforms (Gmail included), allow you to create alias accounts that all feed into a single inbox. "I set up my alias accounts to feed into a single folder," Dalton says of the tactic she employs for organizing bills and other critical financial documents. "I don't deal with any of those emails until Friday morning, when I dedicate time to sit down and sort through all of my finances."
11 Just. Don’t. Reply.
There, it’s been said. This advice goes beyond dealing with obvious junk mail—and we're obviously not condoning ghosting your boss. We're talking about that message from your coworker two desks down. Duhigg maintains that “often people are asking questions when they can probably find the answers on their own. And if I don’t reply, they’re going to go find those answers.” How do you implement this kind of thinking without feeling rude? By worrying more about yourself and your own time than the time of others (ah!). A mantra to practice: “There’s no reason I should respond to people simply because they email me.”
12 Rethink the Inbox-Zero Dream
This maybe not be the right pearl of wisdom for everyone—there is something intensely satisfying for a lot of people about ending and starting each day with a clean inbox. But, for you, maybe this expectation is unrealistic and even a bit suffocating. Emptying out your inbox religiously might honestly be a waste of time (and maybe really about something else), says Duhigg. Hitting delete, delete, delete may be satisfying or appear to be productive, but why bother? He poses the question: “Are you doing it because it makes you feel good or because it's actually useful? And if it’s not useful, maybe you don’t need a clean inbox—and maybe you should stop using that as a barometer of success.”