There are several problems with having this kind of inbox (not least the feeling of dread they create).
The most important one is that an out-of-control inbox is simply a time-suck.
When you don’t have systems in place for dealing with your overflowing inbox, tasks go off-course, communications break down, and you spend half your day trying to keep up rather than progressing on important projects.
So isn’t it time to tame that monster and make it your ally?
Let’s take a look at how to do that.
- Designate email time
There’s a chance you’ve heard this before. But you probably don’t do it. So here’s a reminder:
If you find yourself being constantly drawn into your inbox throughout the day, set yourself designated blocks of email time instead. The idea is to only check your email during those designated times.
How many times per day you do it is up to you. An example might be to read and reply to emails first thing in the morning for 1 hour and again for half an hour after lunch. Or maybe you face your emails in 15 minute blocks 3-4 times per day.
The key thing is to keep your email client closed (and mobile notifications turned off) when you’re working on other tasks, so you don’t get interrupted by incoming messages or caught up replying to things that could easily wait.
- Take immediate action
For every email you open, try to take some kind of action right away. That doesn’t mean you have to reply to every single one right there on the spot. It just means that opening an email, deciding you can’t deal with it right now, marking it as unread, then repeating the whole dance four times over before finally deciding to forward it to someone else it is not the best use of your time.
There’s an inbox management approach called “Inbox Zero” which breaks it down into the following actions: Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer and Do.
The principle goes like this: if you can respond to an email in five minutes or less, reply straight away. If it’s going to take longer, you might choose to defer it.
If no action is needed, archive it; if you want to delegate it, forward it straight on; if it’s rubbish, don’t dally – just hit delete.
Creating the habit of acting immediately is one of the key steps to a tamer inbox.
- Know when to pick up the phone
Yes, we know: we live in a culture of emails, messages, and emoji-speak. But sometimes there are situations where complex, lengthy explanations are required. And by the time you type them out (and re-read them three times to make sure they make sense) you’ve wasted an entire hour.
Instead, save yourself a lot of time by just picking up the phone or scheduling a quick catch-up meeting. Say what you need to say, avoid the voluble emails, and get issues sorted with a snappy dialogue rather than a War and Peace-length email trail.
- Separate your email from your to-do list
There are plenty of ways to keep to-do lists.
Use your calendar. Use a planner. Use a dedicated app. Scribble them on a chain of brightly-coloured post-it notes if that’s what floats your boat.
But if you’re struggling with a messy inbox, don’t use your emails as your to-do list. Keeping emails unread as a reminder that you need to action them or trying to keep up with various labels and tags only adds to your inbox confusion.
If something needs to be actioned, put it on your to-do list then leave the email be. You can always search for it or go back to it once you get to the task.
- Use templates and canned responses
Pretty much every email software has some kind of function for templates or canned responses. Anytime you find yourself sounding like a broken record, it’s time to set one of these up.
Yes, it’ll take a moment to save the response as a template. But that little moment can save you bucketloads of time in not having to type out the same response again.
This is perfect for responding to common customer enquiries. But you can also use canned responses for things like meeting requests, placing orders, and any other kind of recurring task or repeat request.
- Keep it safe and secure
Being in control of your inbox doesn’t just mean keeping it tidy – it also means keeping it secure. There’s no better way to invite chaos into your inbox than to let it be infiltrated by spam, viruses or phishing emails.
The first thing is to know how to spot fake emails so you don’t fall prey to anything dodgy. If you’re not sure, report it or query it with your IT support.
Similarly, keep your email password strong, keep it safe, and never share it with anyone.
- Unsubscribe, block, filter
It only takes a few seconds to delete unwanted emails, but those seconds accumulate into a lot of wasted time.
Rather than repeatedly having to clear out emails you don’t want, be ruthless about unsubscribing from unwanted mailing lists, blocking unwanted senders, and filtering particular types of messages that waste your time.
- Find the level of control that works for you
Having mentioned Inbox Zero, we think it’s important to address another point: Don’t get too caught up in your inbox being perfect – and certainly don’t freak out if you don’t manage to keep it consistently empty.
For many people, trying to be too organised or to keep a zero inbox is just an added stress. When a few un-actioned messages bank up, you’ll start to feel like a failure. And you’re not. You’re just a human being, tackling a sea-monster. So cut yourself some slack.
The best thing to do is really to work with your own personality, your preferences and your strengths. If you’re the kind of person who’s genetically wired to need order in everything right down to a colour-coded sock drawer then, by all means, you do you. Keep your inbox empty. (We doubt you’d be reading this article anyway).
If you’re more of an organised-chaos kind of person, then that’s fine too. Implement as much of the above as you need to reach a point where you tip the scales in your favour. The goal here is to get in control of how much time you spend wrestling with your inbox – and being in control doesn’t necessarily equal perfection. It just means finding a system that works for you.