23 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 into the email management tips.

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. You often end up worrying about it all day without really acting on it. This 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. 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 off all the worries. 

email management time

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.”

Even if you’re working in a senior position and receive time-sensitive emails, you can still use this strategy. Remember if it’s something urgent, people can always reach out to you over a call. This is essentially the first step and the most important step in email organization. 

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.

email management delete button

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.

Just make a note, in case you’re using Gmail then all the deleted messages stay in the Trash for 30 days. After this time, the emails are permanently deleted and are unrecoverable.

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. At work, you can create categories for things like company announcements, team collaboration & more. 

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.

how to create folders in gmail

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.

If you’re using Gmail, you can also assign different colors to your labels. 

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. It is owned by Rakuten Intelligence & it’s free to use.

email management

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.

email management saved filters

  • 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.

multiple inboxes for email management

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.

email management

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.

80-20 rule for email management

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.

oh my god wow GIF

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. In the free plan, you get 10 free message credits.  

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.

Image result for only handle it once

Copyright

 

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.

Image result for flag emails

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.

disable notifications for better email management

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.

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.

canned responses for email management

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

14. Deal with group emails right away 

If you’re tagged in group emails (example all those birthday emails you get on your company inbox), at your work or school, make sure to create a filter to assign it to a specific folder.

These emails are usually not very important or time-critical & hence it’s better it doesn’t show up in the main inbox. Trust me that’s checking these emails are last of your priorities. 

15. Schedule a time to clean your inbox 

Over the week your email inbox might be cluttered with a lot of emails. Hence make sure to keep aside a few minutes every day to clean up your inbox.

If you don’t schedule a particular time, the clean up task often gets delayed. You can set a calendar reminder to notify yourself for the task.

16. Invest in tools

I can’t emphasize enough on how beneficial & necessary it is to invest in good email tools. It has personally helped me a lot in keeping things organized and manage my emails better. Here are a few tools that I would recommend :

Boomerang

boomerang for email management

We’ve mentioned this tool earlier in our post. Apart from helping you schedule emails, Boomerang helps you to remove those emails that don’t need your attention or you’re waiting to follow up on. 

Sortd

sortd for email management

Sortd is another great tool for Gmail users. It serves multiple purposes, right from sales to teamwork. The best part is that it works right from your Gmail inbox. It essentially enables you to create buckets where you can drag and drop emails, something similar to Trello.

Sortd also helps you in tracking your emails & with team collaboration. To get started you can use Sortd’s free plan. 

Streak

streak for email management

Streak is another powerful tool if you’re looking to manage your Gmail. Some features include thread splitter, send later, mail merge, view tracking & more. You can start using the professional plan at 49$/month.

You can also create amazing workflows using Zapier and it’s API support.

17. Use keyboard shortcuts

Gmail Keyboard shortcuts have personally helped me to stay productive. I know it can be hard to remember these shortcuts in the beginning but trust me once get the hang of it it takes your email productivity to another level.

To enable shortcuts you just need to go to the settings in the top right-hand corner of Gmail. Under the General tab, you’ll find Keyboard shortcuts, just turn it “on” & click on the save button.

Here’s a small list of my favorite shortcuts -

C - The C key opens up a new compose window.

D - The D key opens up a compose window in a new tab.

S - In the Inbox view, the S key lets you star an email, hitting the S key again unstars the email. 

N & P - The N & P key lets you scroll through a conversation in a thread. When you need to expand a conversation, just hit the enter key. 

keyboard shortcuts for email management

Pro Tip - Create a sticky note for the email shortcuts and stick at your workspace. It will help you learn faster. 

18. Read Top Down, Write Bottom Up

Here’s a small hack that I stole from Atish Davda, CEO of EquityZen. He advises to consume emails by threads in reverse chronological order & to respond to them in chronological order. This has been quite useful for me.

Atish Davda further says:

This nuanced hack takes advantage of the fact that some folks respond to emails immediately, sometimes triggering an email "tennis match," eating up that hour you set aside to tackle your whole inbox, and leaving you feeling behind.

19. Use more than one email account

I personally cannot stand, order confirmation emails or credit card reminders on my work email. These emails only clutter my inbox & make it difficult to spot the important emails.

Hence, I use a different email address for all these emails of low importance. You can use this in two ways - either by creating a different email or by creating an alias address using your current account. 

20. Turn off notifications

I’d recommend you to turn off email notifications if you’ve turned it on, either on your browser, mobile or email client. According to a study from the University of California - “After a notification has forced us to switch between tasks, it can take us about 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand”.

Hence it’s better to turn off your email notifications. 

21. Take action immediately

Taking quick actions on emails can actually help keep your inbox under control. The whole idea is to not delay the task but to complete the task then & there. Whether it’s an email reply, email forward or deletion, make sure to act on that moment itself. The faster the action better it is.

I know it’s quite hard to make it a habit, but once you do, your life becomes so much easier. 

22. Follow the 1-minute rule

one minute rule for email management

If it takes one minute to reply to an email, reply to the email immediately. It takes more effort if you leave the email sit & being constantly reminded that you need to reply. This hack will help you in clear large chunks of email quickly.

23. Avoid over-subscribing to newsletters or updates

I know how tempting it is to subscribe to newsletters which you feel can be useful. But from my personal experience, the majority of these newsletters goes unread. Hence, before subscribing to newsletters, think twice. 

curb newsletters for email management

While signing up for any tool, there are times when they ask if you want to be notified about updates, make sure to uncheck this box. Unfortunately, not all tools ask for your permission, so you’ll have to unsubscribe manually.

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 is always up for a road trip. He also reads sometimes.

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