It doesn't matter what you do, modern jobs seem to require that everyone barrage you with email at all hours of the day. If you're feeling overwhelmed and like you'll never get back to a clean inbox, here are 10 of our favourite tips to help you manage the ever-growing mountain of email.
10. Get to Know Your Email Client
If you're going to effectively manage your email, you'll need to know your way around your email client like the back of your hand — whatever your client may be. We're big fans of Gmail, and we've written a lot on how to become a Gmail master, including some of our favourite experimental Gmail features you should definitely enable. If you're not a Gmail user, we've written many tips about Outlook and Thunderbird too — but you can't go wrong with reading your client's documentation to learn a bit more.
9. Learn Your Email Values
Lots of time you spend dealing with email is spent writing email and clearing up confusion with email you sent earlier. Spend less time on email and more time working by practicing good email habits: like clarity, concision, making it actionable and relevance. The less time you spend communicating simple ideas, the less time you'll spend sifting through your inbox.
8. Filter Priority Messages
Chances are, not every single email you get requires your attention right away. Filter out the important messages so when you're crunched for time, you can prioritise what email you answer. Gmail's Priority Inbox is a fantastic, automated way to do this, although you could probably accomplish something similar with a few well-crafted filters in any email client.
7. Don't Check It Too Often
Whatever you do, don't be a slave to your email notifications. Answering your email every time you see that little popup, hear that little ding, or watch that icon badge climb up another point will kill your productivity. Assign yourself a 15-minute minimum for email checking: Let the emails come in, and then check it periodically throughout your day instead of every time a new one comes in. And don't check it first thing in the morning, either, or you'll never get anything done.
6. Respond In a Timely Manner
Responding to your email quickly keeps you looking professional, but it's a balancing act. Try following the 2-2-2 rule, which says to aim for answering emails within two hours of their arrival. If you don't have time to respond to it right now, a service like Boomerang for Gmail can remind you of it later on so you don't let it float to the bottom of your inbox. Remember, responding in a timely manner is not the same as responding immediately — not only does that mean you're breaking tip #7, but it means people will then expect you to always reply instantly, which is often an unachievable goal.
5. Keep It Under Control When You're On Holiday
If you think your email is overloaded, wait until you come back from a week-long holiday — it becomes an unscalable mountain. Instead of dreading your holiday, take an actual delete-all-email sabbatical. Let everyone know you'll be gone, set up an auto-responder that tells them to email you back later and delete everything that comes in. That way, you come back to an empty inbox, and anything important enough to wait for your return will be re-sent when you come home.
4. Use Text Expansion to Save Yourself Hours of Typing
If you find you're typing a lot of the same phrases over and over again in email, it's time to automate that. We've long advocated using a system-wide text expander that replaces tiny snippets of text with oft-used phrases. That way, when you need to type a canned response, an address or any other tedious amount of text, you can just hit a few keys on your keyboard and be on your way to the next email.
3. Learn to Use the Search Function
A recent study found that wading through email folders is an inefficient way to search through old messages. This doesn't mean don't use folders — You don't want to become an email piler, where everything piles up in your inbox — but it means learn to use your client's search function. When it comes time to find that old email, don't go clicking through folders, use advanced search operators in conjunction with good filters to find what you're looking for.
2. Get Rid of Unwanted Spam
It's unlikely work email is the only thing overloading you. The other thing taking up all that space in your inbox is spam, and while it seems impossible to get rid of, there are a lot of techniques you can use to keep it at a minimum. First, make sure you know which messages were sent directly to you and not to a mailing list, by colouring them in Outlook, highlighting them in Thunderbird or turning on personal level indicators in Gmail. Next, you can avoid incoming spam by filtering the word "unsubscribe", and filter future spam by using a temporary, disposable email address from a service like Trashmail or Mailinator. With a few extra filters and tools, you can keep your inbox (mostly) free of any spam that comes your way.
1. Triage Your Email to an Empty Inbox
In the end, the best way to get to inbox zero is to get your email out of your inbox, act on it, then archive it away. We've always advocated triaging your inbox with the trusted trio of folders: Follow Up, Archive, and Hold. If you can get by without ever leaving a read message in your inbox, you'll be able to achieve that mental peace you've always wished for. Check out our full guide to triage to learn more.
These aren't the only tips that'll help you keep a clean inbox, but they're some of the ones we've found most useful over the years. Got your own tip or trick to dealing with a constant barrage of messages? Let us know about it in the comments.