Personal question alert: How many emails are in your inbox right now?
Are you a “Let it build for a few weeks and then ruthlessly delete everything” kind of person? Or an “Every email is precious to me” user who refuses to get rid of any ‘just in case’? How about a “I refuse to even look at an email sent before three days ago”?
If you’re a human with an email address, you probably struggle with maintaining control of it. What other function in our work/home life requires us to spend half a day on it?
We’re here to tell you that you can tame the beast and improve your productivity and sanity at the same time. All you need is an email organization system. And we’ve developed that for you. Follow these five email organization tips to help you tackle, subdue, tame, and maintain your inbox.
Email organization tips
1. Perform an initial purge
Flex your fingers and crack your knuckles: It’s time to rain fire over your inbox. No email is sacred. No contact is exempt. You are in control now and the mission is to burn it to the ground so you can rise powerfully from the ashes. (Dramatic? Maybe. But a Game of Thrones mindset can infuse the process with a higher purpose.)
Start at the top and poise your finger on the archive key as you methodically work your way down the line. Ask yourself:
Is this email still relevant? Has the event passed? Did you or someone else already answer the question? Is it something you didn’t care about to begin with? ARCHIVE.
Is it from a subscription? Take the time to unsubscribe from every. last. newsletter. All of them. You can always resubscribe later if you’re missing the updates/news/discounts, etc. (Prediction: you won’t.)
Does it contain information you will need in the future? Is it an email you truly do need to respond to? Let it live. We’ll deal with it in a future step.
Important to note: To our knowledge, no one has ever died from losing an email. Even deleted emails can be retrieved. But most of the time, you can figure out a workaround to a missing email. Use this knowledge to your advantage—and even adopt a Marie Kondo type of methodology: thank your emails and let them go.
2. Use flags, tags, and stars
Now that you’ve achieved near Inbox Zero, let’s straighten up around here. Expert emailers with high-volume mailboxes use their inbox as a triage unit. They fly in a few times a day and deftly mark each email with a flag, star, or other shape (depending on their email provider). And they only take action on the things that need their urgent attention.
Assign a category (or threat level, if you want to keep the drama going) for each type of flag, i.e. a yellow exclamation point is “urgent—must be answered today”, a red bubble is “important—answer by the end of the week”, and a blue star might be “keep an eye on this”. Remember, you can add upcoming events and reminders to your calendar and save documents to your hard drive. They don’t need to live in your inbox. If an email doesn’t represent something you need to do, it can probably be archived or filed. You can read more on the pros and cons of the “email as a to-do list” philosophy in this article.
3. Choose a folder methodology
Speaking of files, let’s get organized. Now that you’ve thinned the herd, set up folders for the emails you want to keep around but don’t need to scroll through every time you enter your inbox. These might be current projects, clients, and even personal folders like travel, articles you want to read, or communication from your kids’ school. If you need ideas on how to structure your folders, you can look at these 4 ways to organize your email inbox.
Distance from emails can make us smarter—and more ruthless. Once in awhile, take a peek in each folder and see how many emails have accumulated there. Have you used them in the last six months? Did you forget they existed? What would happen if you weren’t hoarding saving them? Are there other ways to get this information, i.e. save documents to the cloud? If the answer is yes to any of them, reduce some visual clutter in your inbox and delete the folder.
4. Set boundaries and make it known to others
There are some people who seem to exist within their inbox. You know the ones. Before you’ve lifted your finger from hitting ‘Send’ on an email to them, they’ve replied to it.
This doesn’t have to be your life. It can be harmful to your productivity and wellbeing if you create an expectation that you respond quickly to every email. There will be entire blocks of valuable working hours that you can’t cut yourself out of the vortex that is your inbox. This is no way to live.
Figure out your email philosophy. Healthy boundaries might look something like, “I am only going to check my email three times a day at pre-determined intervals. I will spend exactly 20 minutes each time and go through each message with an eye to flagging and filing. I will only answer the urgent emails. On Fridays, I’ll set aside an hour to clear out the less urgent emails I accumulated in the week. I’ll review all personal emails on the weekend.”
Take it up a notch using Front’s Rules feature that helps you automate actions you commonly repeat in your inbox, like archiving, tagging, and moving emails to other inboxes or folders. You can even set up complex workflows like escalation, auto replies, alerts, and more so your inbox is being managed even when you’re not in it.
It’s important to communicate your approach to email organization to the important people in your life, especially if you’re changing your patterns. Let them know that if they have a truly urgent question or request, they should call or text you. Knowing that an email won’t be viewed right away often forces colleagues and employees to figure things out in another way.
5. Maintain your inbox
Prepare yourself for the beauty that is a clean and organized inbox. Keep that new mailbox feeling alive by performing regular maintenance:
Tempted to subscribe to a newsletter just to access the coupon code available to new subscribers? That’s fine, just add in another step once you’ve made your purchase: Unsubscribe.
If you’re being cc’d on projects or groups that aren’t relevant to your life or your work, politely ask to be taken off the list.
Set up filters that automatically go to the right folder, or to archive them. (This is where using Front saves you time!)
Learn the words and phrases to leave out of emails and share them with others on your team—this way no one wastes time writing long emails (and you won’t have to read novels in your inbox!)
Ever heard of the OHIO (Only Handle it Once) method? If you can deal with an email in less than a minute, don’t flag it for later or put it in a folder. Just answer it. Bonus: one less thing to do hanging over your head will make you feel lighter and more accomplished.
Stay on top of emails. Try not to let the “urgent—to answer this week” emails bleed into next week. Carve out the time to clear them out. If you don’t have the answers your recipients are looking for, respond to let them know it’s forthcoming. Then re-flag for next week. This helps stave off follow-up emails.
Create message templates for meeting requests, project updates, and other routine emails. If you use Front, you can automatically file or delete these emails so you have less clutter to cut through when you drop into your inbox.
Read the full list of business email best practices and share them with your team so that everyone is on the same page with how you should be answering and organizing your email.
Don’t panic if your inbox starts to grow every once and awhile. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed in your email organization efforts! It’s just a sign that you could refine your categorizing practices.
If you need incentive, imagine what you could do with the extra hours in your day (or use our calculator to measure how many hours you’re spending on email and what you could do instead, i.e. how many times you could read and re-read the entire Harry Potter series). Life outside the mailbox can be pretty great.
If you’re looking for email organization tips, check out our guide How to manage a shared inbox. You’ll get tips for:
how to set up a shared inbox for your team
best practices for managing email as a team
how to track metrics around your communication habits to help power your business forward
Written by Emily Hackeling
Originally Published: 24 October 2020