Have you ever been afraid to check your email? There was a time in my life that I was terrified to check my email and face the hundreds of messages waiting for something: a response, to be deleted, or to be saved. But last year I found a system that helps me manage and organize the beast that is my email and my world was flipped upside (in a wonderful way).
Before I get into the real steps to managing an inbox, I suggest that you go ahead and make it a pretty, pleasant thing to look at / less of an eye sore. I tend to rotate between the solar system, mint green, and trees. Okay, much better.
Raise your hand if you have too many email accounts. I currently receive email at 6 different email accounts and would go crazy if I had to individual check each of these. Instead, I have consolidated these email addresses into two Gmail accounts that make sense for my life: 1) Everyday (personal, work, and school addresses), and 2) Blog emails accounts.
Additionally, I have these two gmail accounts linked that I can be logged into my personal account and still check my blog email in a new window.
Organize with Labels, Tabs, and Filters.
Labels. The label function is critical for me. Some people say that you don't need them because you can use the search function. This is mostly true, but sometimes I forget the proper keyword to use to search. For example, perhaps I am looking for an email about a paid advertising opportunity but I can't remember the name of the organization (oops!). Luckily, I have filed it under a paid sponsorship label and can find it easily. I personally use labels within labels within labels so that I can quickly find emails but the important thing is to find a structure that works for you and stick with it.
Tabs. If you use Gmail then you may have seen the tabs along the top of the inbox. Again, while some people don't find it helpful, I really like it. The tabs allow me to quickly scan emails within each category (primary, social, promotions, updates, and forums) and mass delete if necessary (a common occurrence in the social and promotions tabs).
Filters. Many people recommend setting up filters or rules for your email that allow messages to automatically be deleted or archived so that they don't clutter your inbox. I personally don't like this strategy as I get nervous that I'll accidentally miss something important. For example, I always archive my auto-confirmation emails for my credit cards and healthcare payments so it might make sense to set up a filter or rule that would automatically do that for me. If I were to set up this filter, however, I wouldn't be able to see if I did NOT get a confirmation email since I wouldn't be expecting it. I prefer being able to see the subject line and archive it myself. And since I use the tabs function I can mass archive or delete in about 5 seconds.
The last step for organizing your email should be unsubscribing from emails you don't want to see. While you can click the little unsubscribe link at the bottom of each email, I prefer using Unroll. This program searches your email for all your subscriptions, compiles a list (I had 64 in my blog email account), and allows you to go down the list and unsubscribe from the ones you no longer read. Genius!
Establish a Routine and Boundaries.
This is the most critical component of managing my inbox. Ideally, I check my email during my scheduled ‘housekeeping' times throughout the day: in the morning, after lunch, and at the end of my work day. One rule that I established for myself last year is that I do not respond to work or school emails after 5:30pm or on the weekends with one exception: I told my peers that I would respond to emails outside of that time if it was marked urgent. This was a game changer. Once I set up email expectations and a solid routine, checking email because considerably less scary.
Turn Off Notifications.
Related the the previous point, go ahead and turn off your phone notifications. This may not work for everyone, but I decided to turn off my notifications this year and no longer feel like a slave to email.
2 Minute Rule.
The easiest rule in the book: If it takes less than 2 minutes to send, read, or respond to an email, do it immediately.
Canned / pre-saved messages make the process of sending emails so easy! I use several canned messages each day for school, work, and blog correspondence. Gmail users can find this function in the labs section of your account.
Get Inbox to Zero
EDIT: Mailbox no longer exists (RIP) but the apps Inbox and Polymail will also help you get to inbox zero the same way that Mailbox did! As of right now, I think that Polymail is more powerful but it is currently only available for iOS and Mac. Mailbox is by far my favorite email app. The whole point of the app is to get your inbox to the magic number of 0. I go through my inbox and either 1) reply to messages, 2) archive or delete, or 3) save for another time. I find that last feature especially helpful. Maybe I don't have time to respond to that particular message right then so I schedule to respond to it later in the day. Or perhaps the email is from a friend but I'm too busy to reply that day so I save it for the the following day.
I suggest playing around with the app for a while before you make a decision about it. I actually didn't like it at first (similar to Evernote) but am obsessed with it now.
While I don't typically respond to emails after working hours, I like to have a clean inbox (meaning no messages). So sometimes I will respond to messages outside of work hours. But since I've already set up the expectation that people will not be getting emails from me at that time, I use Boomerang to schedule the delivery. I absolutely love this plugin! I can respond to an email at 11:45pm and schedule it to send at 8am the following morning.
Boomerang also has other great features like sending your sent massage back to you in a couple of days if the receiver has yet to reply so that you can follow up with them.
1. Consolidate your accounts.
2. Use labels, tabs, and possibly filters to organize messages.
3. Unsubscribe from unwanted messages with Unroll.
4. Establish a routine, turn off notifications, and set boundaries.
5. Follow the 2 minute rule.
6. Use canned emails.
7. Get inbox to zero with Mailbox.
8. Schedule deliveries with Boomerang.