If you work in an agency or do any client work, your world likely revolves around your inbox. But what happens when what your world revolves around is completely and utterly...chaotic?
Enter, inbox overload.
In fact, it's more likely that most mornings you don’t even want to “enter” your inbox for fear of what you might find, or fall behind on!
All joking aside, it is something to take seriously. When your inbox is overflowing, it can take a toll on your productivity, efficiency, and well-being. As Merlin Mann, productivity expert and author of Inbox Zero shares “The ‘Zero’ in "Inbox Zero" doesn't just refer to the number of emails in your inbox. It’s also the amount of time an employee's brain is in their inbox."
If most of your days are spent with your brain in your inbox, you’re not alone! A 2021 study by the email wizards at Superhuman, found that work communications (email or Slack) are the worst distractions for remote workers. Even more shocking, 22% of remote workers want to leave their jobs because of the sheer number of emails they receive.
Still, as more businesses make the switch to hybrid or remote working models, work communications aren’t going anywhere any time soon. What you need, according to Mann, is a system in place for managing messages.
With that, we’ve rounded up eight of our favorite agency-approved tips for tackling inbox overload. Our goal? To inspire you to adopt a process that can turn your inbox into a place for meaningful messaging and let the constant clutter go:
1. Answer emails by priority
Not every email you get needs to be answered ASAP. So how do you decide where to start when you’ve got 99 problems and almost all of them start in your inbox? Prioritize, by triaging. According to Harvard Business Review, any email you get should fall into one of three categories: Delete, respond, or file.
Delete any emails you don’t need to respond to. Maybe you were copied as an FYI on a task, or you’ve got newsletters, invites, junk mail, and the like. As soon as you get them, scan through, access, and delete.
Respond to time-sensitive emails rights away. Maybe it’s a client looking for a number for a meeting in an hour or a direct report who needs immediate help. Here you can also prioritize responses that are quick and require only a few minutes and/or a few sentences to write.
File. If an email requires looking into something, finding a file or a more thought-out response, star it or snooze it (a function built into Gmail) until you can get to it. This way it's off your immediate to-do list until you have time.
2. Get emails out of sight and out of mind
Instead of filing away emails to respond to later in your brain, file them away in your inbox! Get to know the organizational functions of your specific email client. If you use Gmail, for instance, you’ll have access to folders and labels, so you can get messages out of the way and organized in the right place. If you have these functions or similar functions in your inbox, use them to clearly identify what action is required for each email coming in.
One method popularized by productivity pro Jeff Su, is to create folders for: follow-ups, waiting, and read-through. To take it one step further, if you have multiple client accounts, you can create a folder for each client and use labels to identify next steps for each. No matter what works best for you, the name of the game is to get messages out of your immediate inbox so they’re not a constant distraction.
3. Block time to check emails
Do you have the ability to multitask? It's probably in every job description for every job in existence, but how helpful is it, really? Studies go as far as suggesting that when we switch between tasks we can lose as much as 40% of our productivity. Yet, how many times a day does an email pop up, and you immediately drop everything to dive right in?
Instead, block time to check your inbox throughout the day. Maybe it's in the morning, afternoon, and late afternoon. If you’re afraid you’ll miss an important client email, set up custom notifications for those and snooze the rest! Scheduling time for emails will allow you to answer emails when it's best for you, resulting in more productivity and efficiency outside of your inbox, too. Apps like Boomerang allow you to send off emails and have them reappear when you are ready to jump in, while Gmail does that with the snooze feature.
4. Create templates for your go-to responses
Let’s face it. There are a few standard responses for emails that you use on the daily. When time is of the essence, why take precious time to type out your go-to response, yet again? Whether it be an introduction email or sending someone a document, the solution is simple—templates! We use templates in so many of our daily workflows, but rarely with email. We recommend creating a bank of standard email response templates that are ready to copy and paste when the time comes. Gmail for instance, has a templates feature that lets you bank templates for your most common responses. Perhaps take an extra minute to personalize them as needed, and off you go! Additionally, using a mail merge software can help you stand out with your go-to responses as it can personalize them.
5. Be clear and concise when replying to emails
When you set aside dedicated time to tackle your inbox, it’s easier to do just that (and ignore other notifications and communications!). You’re more likely to have a fresh mind that’s free of distractions, which will give you the space you need to craft clear, detailed messages. After all, we could all benefit from less back-and-forth email communications.
Speaking of being focused, try to keep your emails clear and concise, too. One of our favorite ways to keep emails brief and to the point is to follow the military's lead (yes, you read that right) and keep the acronym BLUF in mind, aka “bottom line up front.” WIth BLUF, state the reason for your email upfront and include a call to action at the end. That way, the reader will immediately know how to action the email (if they need to) or if they can simply read through and file. Better yet, include the email’s purpose in the subject line, whether it be “ACTION NEEDED, INFO NEEDED,” etc.
6. Click unsubscribe
It shouldn’t be news to you that you’re likely subscribed to a whole bunch of newsletters that you simply do not need (or want) to read! Whether it’s work or personal, you simply don’t need the clutter. Take a look at what newsletters you’re subscribed to, pick three to five that you open the most, and kick the rest to the curb. A tool like Unroll.Me was made specifically to clear out pesky subscription emails. It'll show you all the newsletters you’re subscribed to, help you unsubscribe, and consolidate the rest into a single daily email. Problem solved!
If all of the newsletters you receive are important to you and you genuinely benefit from receiving them, consider switching them over to their own inbox or folder. If you are going the folder route, it's important to limit these, as deciding what folder to throw hundreds of emails in may be just as time-consuming as reading through the emails themselves!
7. Move convos out of your inbox
If you’re using email as a to-do list, you’re doing it wrong. In fact, there are tools built
specifically to manage all of your tasks and work. As project management pros here at Teamwork, we always recommend using an end-to-end project management platform (like Teamwork!) to keep your tasks, projects, and communications organized and on-track. Easily assign work to specific people, leave comments, and update the status of your projects in one place rather than sending lengthy emails with all of the updates housed within.
Being able to identify what tasks require email is important too. Take the time to ask yourself if a task is worthy of an email. If any given communication requires a lot of back and forth, do yourself and your recipient(s) a favor, and schedule a call to work it all out in a quick meeting rather than spending an entire week emailing back and forth. Or if an ask is quite small, leverage a direct messaging tool to get your question or request answered quickly. And while we're on the topic, did we mention agencies love using Teamwork Chat for just that?
8. Don’t just save cleaning (your inbox) for spring
Not sure where to start? We love a good clean slate! If you’ve got hundreds, maybe even thousands of emails in your inbox, you can either start filing those away with the recommendations we shared above or (more likely) you’ll aim to start with a clutter-free tomorrow. To do this, you can archive old emails so they are visually out of sight and out of mind—and stored for future reference if needed. Once you’ve done this, commit to a process for going through your emails and stick with it. If you fall off the bandwagon and don’t have the bandwidth to go through and organize every day, maybe it's every other day or at the end of the week to start the top of the week off right.
No matter what method works best to clear up your inbox madness, as long as the end result is little to no overload in your inbox, it doesn’t matter how you get there. Arriving and staying on track is the most important part of being an #inboxzerotohero in no time!