Email has been around for a few decades now, which means there’s lots of advice out there on how to best organize your inbox. However, as both email technology and the way we communicate changes, we need to take the time to re-evaluate our email best practices.
Our inboxes are highly personalized according to our roles, our interests, and our decisions (an important email decision being how likely we are to subscribe to receive updates). Sometimes, our inboxes become overwhelming sources of stress.
If you feel the need to compulsively check your inbox throughout the day, or if the thought of cleaning up your inbox fills you with dread, then it’s time to step back and think. Like the papers on your desk, the emails in your inbox need reviewing and recycling (or deleting), too.
There are three general steps you should take to organize your inbox:
- decide on what you value
- set up your rules
- be consistent
We’ve gathered seven tips to help you make these key choices and to keep them in practice.
First, you need to think about what you actually want to spend your time reading. Is it the emails from a website you visited once two years ago? Probably not. Even taking the time to open and delete each of these emails is a waste of your energy on a daily basis.
Unsubscribe from as many email lists as you can. At the start of your email organization process, it’s a great idea to use a tool like Unroll.me, which will help you mass unsubscribe. As you continue to receive mailing list emails, unsubscribe to all of them that you find invaluable.
- Set Up Rules/Filters
This step is time-consuming but very worthwhile. You can set up rules, or filters in Gmail, to sort your emails as they come in. That means that if you don’t want to see your online shopping receipts in your inbox, for example, you can send them directly to the “receipts” folder (or label in Gmail) to be stored there. You can also set the rule so that your email client marks them as read right away, so you’re not left looking at that pesky bold unread number.
Take the time to decide which emails you will want to keep and to keep organized. Set up your rules/filters to save yourself the mental energy of sorting them. Take advantage of what technology has to offer!
- Turn Off Email Notifications
Whether or not you have your email app on your phone is up to you, although many productivity experts suggest leaving it off your mobile device. However, if you’re one of those people who must have access to email on their phone, then you should absolutely make sure you turn off your notifications for new emails. Those pings are dangerous!
Why is that?
Read the next tip to find out.
(P.S.: If you definitely need to be notified about a certain type of incoming email, set up the notifications settings in your Gmail app, and double check the notifications settings on your phone, so that you will only be alerted for that specific email type.)
- Schedule Inbox Check Times
Why should you take your email notifications off your phone? It’s the same reason why you should schedule specific times to check your inbox.
This is an absolutely critical rule that’s very hard to implement, and that’s where the self-discipline comes in. You should only check your email two or three times a day.
That’s a huge change for most people, because according to a University of California-Irvine researcher, the average worker checks their email 74 times a day.
While your number might be lower than that, you still probably check your email more than two or three times a day. However, every time you check your inbox you are distracting yourself from more important tasks. You’re dividing up your mental energy and losing focus on what’s really important.
Set your own schedule based on what works for you, and if you’re not sure what that might be, start off by imitating the experts. Tim Ferriss, a productivity guru, only checks his email at 12:00 PM and 4:00 PM. You might also need to add a third time to that schedule, and that’ s okay. Just make sure that you’re sticking to your schedule and not losing focus on what matters most.
- Use Your Labels
In our second tip we described setting up rules/filters to automatically sort your email for you. These rules will keep your inbox organized and the folders will store your messages right where they need to be.
But what about those emails that can’t be easily sorted by a filter?
Use your labels and apply them manually yourself. Do this during your scheduled inbox check times. Don’t obsess about it; just make sure that you’re keeping what’s important and you’re keeping it in a place that makes sense, i.e., a folder that has the accurate label.
- Respond Quickly
Sometimes you’ll receive an email that you know you’ll need to respond to, and yet you don’t want to take out the time to do it just then. There are other unread emails sitting in your inbox, tempting you to open them instead of responding to the important one you’re now seeing.
The general rule is that, if responding to the message is going to take two minutes or less, then do it right away. If it’s going to take more time and thought, then wait until you’ve dealt with the rest of your inbox. If it’s going to require a lot of time and thought, then you should schedule a block of time to respond to it later.
- Not Certain? Archive
There’s a very handy rule that helps many professionals stay at Inbox Zero: OHIO. Only Handle It Once.
Every email you see should be dealt with only once. As soon as you open it, either delete it, move it to the appropriate folder, respond to it and archive it, flag it to be responded to or read later (the one exception to the OHIO rule), or archive it.
If you’re not certain about how important the message is, then you should archive it. You can still access it down the road, if you do end up needing it, but it won’t be cluttering up your inbox.
Once you decide on your email values, set up a schedule for yourself, and are consistent in how you approach your inbox, then you are on track to have a much more productive workday and life.