It’s estimated that nearly 250 billion emails are sent every day.
So it’s no wonder if you feel a little overwhelmed by how busy your inbox has been. You’ve probably got one in the time you’ve read these three sentences.
We spend a lot of time checking, replying, and deleting each week. Simply processing emails as they come in isn’t always the best use of time. There are a lot of tools out there for email management, but it’s possible that the best system is one you come up with yourself.
Why? Because you know it will work for you. Email management, as odd as it sounds, is something kind of personal. A lot of how we communicate is through email and should be sorted in a way that’s easy and practical for you.
Whether you’re looking to fine-tune your current system or your inbox is a total mess, there are a few things you can do to help achieve inbox zero (or pretty close to it) each day.
1. Make your folder system work for you
If you aren’t yet using folders in your inbox, this is going to be a game-changer for you.
It can be hard to imagine become a “folder” person if you aren’t one already. It might seem like it will take a lot of extra time both to set up and maintain, but actually, it’s a fairly simple process and will make your life significantly easier.
Your system can be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be. There are a bunch of ways to utilize folders: by project, by urgency, by topic.
For example, a system system might be to create one folder for receipts. This gives you a one-stop place to save every receipt, so they aren’t clogging your inbox -- but will require some searching if you do ever need to look something up.
A more complex way to organize might be to have different folders for different kinds of receipts: Receipts - Work, Receipts - Personal, Receipts - Family. Or you could organize by date: Receipts - October 2019, Receipts - November 2019, etc.
It might take a little bit of trial and error to get this done, but you’ll discover what makes the most sense for you.
When it comes to processing messages that need action or replies, there are even more ways that you can use folders to keep organized.
Zach Hanlon, a marketing expert who has helped companies improve e-commerce and customer experience, swears by a model that only utilizes five folders: today, this week, this quarter, and FYI.
“Email will quickly become your master if you don’t take charge. So once you embrace this system, you need to adhere to it mercilessly–there are no half measures,” he writes for Fast Company. “We tend to get more lax about newly adopted habits as their newness rubs off. But I’ve actually gotten better over time at sticking to my five-folder rule.”
Part of the allure of the five-folder system is that it allows you to triage your inbox. What requires attention right now as opposed to something you need to remember, but don’t necessarily have to respond to? Immediate goes in the “today” folder and need to remember goes in the “FYI” or gets deleted.
This is a smart way to shift your inbox mindset. You don’t have to deal with everything that comes in, when it comes in. Instead, you put your email on your own timeline, so that you are back in control of the time you spend.
Nothing can sidetrack you like an email notification with one of those impossible-to-ignore clickable subject lines, enticing you to stop what you’re doing and read, read, read (and then buy).
There is but one true solution: unsubscribe. It doesn’t have to be every newsletter, but I guarantee you are processing emails every day that are adding no value to your life.
Scan your inbox and take an inventory of the subscription emails you don’t read. Has it been a while since you opened that cooking newsletter? Haven’t even shopped at that big box retailer since you moved to a new town? If you aren’t reading them, unsubscribe. These days, it almost always takes just one click.
Some email subscriptions will let you hit snooze for a bit, which is a good option if you have qualms about scrapping the notifications altogether.
If you’ve hit the point of being overwhelmed with newsletters and promotional emails, take one big step and handle it all at once. Unroll.me is a free service that allows users to unsubscribe from all of the unwanted email lists at once with one click. When you’re done you can roll the rest of the subscriptions into one daily email so you get all the stuff you care about it one place.
Taking an hour or so to organize all those pesky emails will save you many hours of time sifting through your inbox in the future.
3. Get comfortable with delegation
Another way to ensure that you’re not being overrun with emails is to delegate irrelevant emails to the right person on your team. If you frequently get customer service emails but that’s not really your job anymore, start forwarding them to the right person.
There are a few ways to do this efficiently. You can manually forward each email to the right person and simply let them reply (although it’s probably best to give them an in-person heads up that you’re going to start doing this, so they have some context).
You can also set up an auto-forward or an auto-delete. Let’s say you’re on a team list of 5 people who receive customer service emails, but it’s no longer really your job to reply. You can see about getting yourself removed from the list, but if it’s not possible, you can pretty quickly set up a filter in your inbox to either automatically forward or delete any emails coming to that list address. That way, the emails won’t even come into your inbox for you to deal with.
Don’t feel like you have to answer everything that comes your way, especially if it’s not your responsibility. Fielding every email is probably the number one reason we get so tripped up on our inboxes.
There are products, like Hiver, that help delegate emails without forwarding them. But if you’re just trying to get things sorted, a forward and note is a good, simple start.
4. Devise a plan
Fun fact: it can take you 23 minutes to return to a task after you’ve been distracted from it by something like an incoming email, according to researchers. Another study found that employees spend about one-third of their work life on email.
Avoid some of that distraction by making a plan in advance for how to tackle your emails. You don’t need a bunch of fancy systems if your mind is in the right place!
Start by thinking about how you use/check email now, and analyze what aspects can be improved.
For example, if you’re reading this article, there is probably some part of your email life that feels like a problem to you. What is it? Why does it feel like a problem? What aspects of your email life are going well? Can you replicate those habits in other areas?
Most of our email use falls into two categories, the quick responders and the lengthy explainers.
Quick responders: These emails take less than a minute of your time. If you could answer this email while in line for coffee, go for it. Anything that takes some research or consideration, leave it for later. Chances are the sender is not expecting you to reply right away anyway. Most people are sending you an email because *they* had a free moment, not because they actually need your response right now.
Lengthy explainers: These emails require some thought and planning. Consider carving out an hour or more of your day (if that’s what you need) to tend to those. Time will vary from day to day, obviously. Plan to only work on sending and replying during that time, instead of trying to shift gears mid-workflow throughout the day to respond to each individual message.
If your goal is inbox-zero, making time for emails at the end of your day is a great option. But setting aside this time in the morning can help you start your day off right and make you feel like you’ve already been really productive.
5. Send efficient emails yourself
Work smarter, not harder.
If you’re trying to breeze through emails, consider writing templates for the types of emails you send most often. These work really well for:
- Thank you notes
- Document requests
- Anything else that you find to be pretty formulaic and common in your line of work.
You can customize certain fields for these emails, so that they’re all specific enough but you don’t have to re-write the whole email every single time.
This is a game-changer for time and organization. You’ll be able to zip through the lengthy explainer emails in no time.
Another way to be smarter with your email replies is to think through the goals of your message before writing them out. What information are you seeking? Do you need a reply? If your emails are quick and easy to understand, they’ll be easier for people to reply to (or not reply to! Another time saver!).
If you are sending a project status update, write a draft and then edit it down to be as skimmable as possible. Consolidate like information with like. For example, batch all of your questions at the end of the email using bullet points. This is the best way to get a helpful email back that answers all your questions and doesn’t take forever to read.
If you don't need a reply on an email, you can say that in the message. Let people know "No need to reply, I'm just letting you know ___". Being clear on what you need back is a great way to cut down on waste.
Email management is a worthwhile investment
We often put off email management because, well, “it’s just email”! But when you really think about how much time you spend (and waste) on email, you just might realize it’s worth a little bit of thought and care. How much more could you accomplish if you weren’t constantly getting interrupted and annoyed by email?