13 Email Management Best Practices To Declutter Your Inbox

By Harsh Vardhan
email management

How much time do you spend managing emails every day? I am sure that number is in 'hours' and not 'minutes.'

An average professional receives 121 emails every day. It's certainly very easy to lose control of your inbox when you have to deal with that many.  

For most of us, reading and responding to emails takes away as much as 28 percent of our workweek. Email constantly poses a threat to take over our lives!

At the same time, we struggle to deal with the email OCD - the subconscious need to check your inbox every thirty minutes or so. The stress related to email management is real. 

But the good thing is - there are plenty of practical and proven ways to help you manage the barrage of emails you receive every day.

Let's dive right in.

1. Allocate a specific time for email every day

An average worker checks email 74 times a day (the OCD we just spoke of).

Even though email seems less intrusive than a phone call, it can end up creating far more stress. Thinking about email all day without really acting on it is surely a source of anxiety.

The first start to solve this is by allocating a fixed time every day to deal with email. Leaving email open all day long will mean notifications, alerts, and beeps interrupting the workflow and disrupting focus.

Schedule specific blocks of time just for email. And get rid of them as fast as you can. Also, while you do this ensure you’re not multitasking elsewhere. If need be, turn off your cell phone or shun yourself from the world to do this in utmost silence.

The end result will make you feel like a warrior and also release your mind of email guilt for the rest of the day.

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Tim Ferriss has mentioned a great hack in his bestseller, The 4-Hour Work Week by crafting this email template:

Due to high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mail twice daily at 12:00 pm ET [or your time zone] and 4:00 pm ET.

If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12:00 pm or 4:00 pm, please contact me via phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX.”

2. Hit that “delete” button

As clichéd as it may sound, hitting the delete button is therapeutic. These are always those emails that have been lying unattended in your inbox for ages.

The sender has probably forgotten about it by now or is tired of following up with you. It does not make any sense to reply to any of these (not that you have the time to). So let go of your guilt and your ambition of being able to reply to them one day.

Be brutally honest with yourself, think practical and delete what you don't need or won’t act on. Delete as much as you can. Go wild! Say goodbye to all those things you are not going to miss.

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While you are on your deleting spree, don’t forget to “report spam” on anything that seems unfamiliar or forced.

For the emails you aren't ready to delete just yet, archive them. The probability of you never needing them again is probably very high, but if you do, you will breathe a sigh of relief.

3. Labels, folders, and categories to the rescue

There is no universal rule that applies to the creation of categories. Every person is different and responds according to their personal preferences. It’s really about figuring out what works best for you.

For example, someone in operations who goes out for meetings once a month may need just one meeting folder, whereas someone in sales who heads out every day for multiple meetings will benefit from having several.

Prioritize, group, filter and sort emails into categories to create an organized inbox. The more refined this process is, the easier it will be to locate important and specific emails at the time of need. You can also create parent categories and subcategories for various projects or clients for a superior experience.

Here’s how you can do it in Gmail - head to your inbox and look at the left sidebar menu in full view. You will see “manage labels” under the “categories” tab. Click on “create a new label” under it.

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Every label is a folder, and you can name it accordingly. Make sure you use search friendly words to describe the content of the email so that it can be easily searched for and found.

4. Unsubscribe or “mass unsubscribe”

There have been so many times when I have winded up having promotional emails I have never needed. We seldom realize when we accidentally let then “tick” for promotional email subscription go unchecked while signing up to any website.

Be wary of what you are signing up for and subscribe to only those emails that you truly want to see in your inbox. Look out for patterns like when you archive or delete the same subscriptions on a regular basis. Perhaps it’s time to unsubscribe from them.

You can also aim a notch higher and mass unsubscribe if the number of subscriptions is too overwhelming for you to do it manually. Unroll.me is a great way to achieve this. It helps you see an instant list of all your subscription emails and easily unsubscribe from whatever you don’t want. I cannot even tell you how much clarity this has brought into not just my inbox, but also my life.

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5. Set up filters to send emails where they belong

I swear by this simple hack. These filters take care of what you would like to do with any incoming email manually, whether it is to send it to the appropriate folder or dump it into Trash (feels so good).

It’s easy to set filters up in Gmail.

  • Open your inbox and click the down arrow on the right side of the “search” box.
  • Enter your search criteria in the available boxes such as email senders, receivers, subject, keywords, attachment and chat details etc.
  • Click on the option “create filter with this search” on the bottom right and choose what you would like to do with those emails.

6. Multiple inboxes to the rescue

Along with your primary inbox, you can create mini inboxes within it according to sections, email types, clients or topics. This is a great way to organize those hundreds of emails that accumulate in your main inbox over weeks, months and years in a haphazard manner.

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Here’s how you can do this on Gmail:

  • Click on the top right corner of your primary Gmail inbox.
  • Select “Settings” under the dropdown.
  • Click on “Labs” in navigation and search for “multiple inbox” in the search bar. Make sure you save changes.
  • Once you are done, go back to “settings” and you will be able to see a new tab on the extreme right called “Multiple Inboxes.” Click on it and fill up the details.

This feature also helps to select the maximum number of emails that can appear in your inbox at one time. It is a great way to organize your inbox and maintain inbox zero.

7. Convert your group email accounts into shared inboxes

We are all part of group emails which can get as annoying as Whatsapp groups. Messages keep popping up one after the other which may or may not be relevant to every single person marked in the group. It's possible only two employees are needed to act on that email, but somehow twelve others have to read them.

There needs to be a way where such emails can be organized to monitor your team’s workflow in an effective manner. Use an email collaboration tool that acts as an alternative to such problems.

For instance, Hiver lets you manage shared inboxes such as support, sales or info right from your Gmail inbox.

You can easily assign tasks to anyone on your team without having to forward the email. It also lets you communicate internally without having to write emails. Both of these things mean you have less email clutter to deal with.

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8. Apply the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 principle can be applied to almost all aspects of our lives, including email management. Also known as “The Pareto Principle” or “The Law of the Vital Few,” it states that 80% of the effects in a situation come from 20% of the causes.

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In order to effectively manage email too, we've got to focus on only 20% of the inputs that lead to 80% of results. 

In other words, the focus needs to shift to 20% of the emails we derive the highest value from. These can be emails from top clients, emails related to recent projects that will help you achieve breakthrough work, speaking opportunities, invitations to workshops etc.

It can also include powerful newsletters that you subscribe to that help you grow personally as well as professionally. The remaining 80% is not important and mostly junk.

The 20% emails are the ones that require immediate attention and reply. They need to be given the most priority. Follow the two-minute rule for these emails: If it takes less than two minutes, do it now. 

As for the remaining 80%, take some time to reply or follow any of the tips here to manage them better (or trash them out).

9. Pause your inbox

If you are overwhelmed with the number of emails at the moment and do not want to deal with it at the moment, you can take control of when you send or receive them.

Boomerang is an easy tool that acts as a personal secretary and reminds you if you don’t hear back from someone. It also helps you take messages out of your inbox till you actually need them. You can also write an email while you are on the go and have it arrive exactly when you want it to be in the inbox.

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You can keep your inbox from receiving emails for as long as you want and from whatever source you want. Boomerang also gives a host of other features such as scheduling emails, setting up auto-responses or hide emails till you want to see them.

10. Touch it once

As the name suggests, touch-it-once is a principle that relies on making a decision right away. It is also referred to as the Only Handle It Once (OHIO) method.

Coming back to the same email over and over again is bound to waste a lot of time. So you touch it once, take whatever action needs to be taken, close it and move on to the next priority.

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The touch it once principle may seem like its easy, but it can get a little hard to follow when it comes to email. Because we have a tendency to defer replying to emails, with the thought lurking in our minds for a long time.

But keeping this mindset is important, especially since we all deal with a humongous volume of email every day. This will keep you from constantly getting distracted by the thought of unreplied emails, which can dramatically lower your productivity. Choose your words well, so that there is no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation.

11. Flag emails that need 'more' attention

There will obviously be emails that require a well thought out and framed response. Spontaneity will not work in such cases. For emails you do not have time for right away, flag them and come back to them once a week in your downtime.

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Starring the emails will remind you that you need to get back to something which requires your attention. You can sort these emails in a way that they appear at the top. You can also mark the emails as unread so that you can respond to emails that are the most time pressing.

An efficient way to do this would be by allocating a specific time at the start of the weekend, let’s say a Friday, to do it all in one go. Creating such a scheduled window for responses will also help you come back to a cleaner inbox on Monday and start fresh.

12. Disable social media email notifications

News flash: Social media is distracting! I know you know that already but social media has a way of making way inside your head even against the strongest of restrains.

You really do not really need to know who commented on what photo on Facebook or who recently retweeted your meme, at least not right away.

Every little thing that goes on in your social media feed invades your inbox and ends up creating thousands of unread emails.

If you currently receive emails from social media platforms, you must be aware of the catastrophe it can create in your inbox. Log in to your accounts and deactivate all email notifications.

This will rid your inbox of thousands of emails every month. You need to do the same for any other kind of email app notifications.

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13. Set up default replies

If you find yourself typing the same message over and over again, you can create your own templates for similar responses.

Create different categories based on the kinds of replies you send and you can customize it accordingly for various replies. This will help you save a lot of time which otherwise writing a mail from scratch would require.

A lot of companies and individuals follow this when you contact them. They create a standard set of replies to roll out, adding just a touch of personalization to it.

You might like: How to create Gmail templates in 60 seconds

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Wrapping up: see what works for you

There is no 'one right way' to manage emails. What works for someone might not work for you. I know it's stating the obvious but you'd be surprised by the number of people who give up on these things quickly.

Managing emails requires imbibing some rules and a little discipline which might take a while. It's a lot like developing a new habit. Give it time.

About the author

Harsh is the content lead at Hiver. He's jocular, loves dogs, and spends most weekends doing road trips. He also reads sometimes.

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