Is there anything worse than opening up your inbox and seeing a bunch of unread emails or messages you haven’t followed up with? Email management is overwhelming at best and demotivating at worst.
In fact, people who deal with more email experience lower job satisfaction and report feeling emotionally drained, frustrated, and exhausted.
A messy inbox is also a time suck. Data from RescueTime found people on average check their inbox every 6 minutes, which means we are often distracted when trying to get things done.
Solving all of this isn't complicated—it just takes good email management.
Whether you want to achieve inbox zero or comfortably ignore thousands of unread emails; a few strategic tweaks to your inbox management can save you time and help you reclaim control.
Here are our top 14 email management tips to clean up your inbox for good
1. Ditch email subscriptions for an RSS feed
The first email management tip to cleaning up your inbox? Get rid of any unnecessary emails.
Everyone subscribes to emails, whether it is to follow our favorite blogs or to receive news updates. But inboxes can get quickly get clogged up with subscriptions, and before you know it, this is what you have to deal with every morning:
Using an RSS reader, you can unsubscribe from these email updates and remain in the loop. Simply add the URL of each source you want to keep following and it'll appear in a separate screen instead of your inbox.
Feedly is one of many free RSS feeds you can use to keep your inbox mess-free.
Also, unsubscribing one by one takes a lot of time. Instead, use a tool like Unroll.Me to unsubscribe email subscriptions in bulk.
Now, you don’t have to worry about receiving tons of non-work-related email, but can still check-in on the latest trends and stories at your leisure.
2. Manage emails as soon as you see them
Whether you check your inbox often or set aside blocks of time each week (which we'll address further down), you need to deal with emails strategically. In other words, “when you see them” could mean as they come in throughout the day or within a designated time frame.
We recommend using a strategy known as the "one-touch rule" to deal with your emails:
Delete. Don't be an email hoarder. If you don't need it, delete it.
Take action. Pull the band-aid off and deal with the email as quickly as possible before filing it away. If someone is looking for a document or phone number, attach it in a reply and move on.
Delegate. Forward the email to the right person and tell them what action to take.
Defer. Worst case scenario is to hold on to it for later action and deal with it next time you are managing emails.
3. Move your email conversations to Chat
More companies are seeing the value of Chat software over endless email threads, lost conversations, and missing files. In fact, data from a Smarp report found employees tend to use 25% of their day checking emails.
With so much going on, it's also a challenge for companies to manage their internal communications with company announcements, updates, and other important information that tends to get lost in email.
Software like Teamwork's Chat helps teams communicate faster and more efficiently with a central hub to share ideas and get feedback from your team. Chat helps teams reach a consensus and make better decisions faster by connecting them to appropriate channels and groups.
A McKinsey and Company report found employees are more 25% more productive when they are connected and empowered to work. Give your employees the tools they need to succeed.
Implementing an internal chat software that works seamlessly with your team management tools is a great way to keep collaboration alive and teams more productive.
4. Delete your email app to minimize distraction
A mobile email app seems like a good idea, but it also keeps you hyper-connected to (and distracted by) your inbox.
Removing your email app from your smartphone or tablet will help to build the habit of only checking your email during your dedicated window. If deleting your app seems extreme, at the very least, turn off your notifications.
If you are a Gmail user, head to your settings tab, click “General”, and turn your desktop notifications off.
This small change can have a huge impact on your productivity.
Just the sound of a notification can disrupt your performance. Even if you don’t look at your phone, deleting your app can keep you focused on your tasks at hand.
5. Use canned responses for similar responses
If you look in your sent folder right now, it’s likely that several of your messages require a similar, simple response type.
For example, there are only so many ways to follow up with a lead or respond to questions from teammates. That’s why the easiest way to cut down on your time spent on similar email responses (and clean up your inbox in the process) is to use canned responses.
The process of setting up canned responses depends on what software you use to handle email. If you use project management software like Teamwork.com, it’s simple. Inside the inbox folder, access canned responses from the settings tab.
Create canned replies for emails you receive daily (like follow-ups or invoice notifications) and then insert them into your responses with just a few clicks.
6. Create a follow-up folder
Start thinking of your inbox like a mailroom: you can reply to mail immediately or file it away for later.
Creating a follow-up folder is a great way to manage emails into “urgent” and “I’ll deal with it later” camps. You should file away an email that isn’t urgent (like an agenda for a meeting taking place in two weeks) and deal with it closer to the meeting date when you’ve got some free time.
You might be asking, well, isn't this just kicking the can down the road?
The whole idea of this email management tip is to keep your inbox from becoming a dumping ground. Delegating your emails to the right places (like a follow-up folder or the trash can) keeps your inbox clean and tidy.
7. Become a ruthless deleter
If you open an email and it doesn’t fit into the “reply immediately” or “follow-up later” camps, bite the bullet and delete it.
There's a good chance your inbox fills up with a ton of time-wasting emails, like subscriptions and automated notifications (e.g. @name just replied to your comment on your project).
Subscribing to these notifications is important, but leaving them unread or undeleted is a one-way ticket to email overload. The solution?
Become a ruthless deleter.
Don’t make the mistake of holding onto something later “just in case.” If it’s not important, you don’t recognize the sender, or the subject doesn’t apply to you—delete it.
Pro-tip: If you're not ready to delete, archive the email instead. You can archive emails to make your inbox tidier, but you won't lose access to them. Searching for a sender, subject, or keyword will include archived emails, and if you need one, you can just move it back to your inbox.
8. Block out time for your email
Time-blocking is one of our favorite email management tips.
Super productive leaders like Elon Musk and Bill Gates use time blocking to focus and tick things off their to-do list. Blocking time for your email has two advantages:
You can devote your time exclusively to your inbox
You won't be distracted throughout the rest of your day by email creep
Try blocking off 30 minutes in the morning to deal with any emails you’ve received overnight. Then schedule another 30 minutes after lunch to answer more.
Dealing with email two to three times a day should be enough time to reply and read all the important stuff without spending your entire day in your inbox. In one of these blocks each week, make time to deep clean your inbox.
A Friday afternoon is a great time to tie up any loose ends, take action in that follow-up folder, and take out the (email) trash. All of this culminates in a clean slate on Monday morning (can you hear the collective sigh of relief?).
9. Auto-reply and tell people when you'll get back to them
Set up an autoresponder to let people know exactly when to expect a reply from you.
This email management trick works the same way as an autoresponder for vacations. It'll let them know you've received their email and give them a specific time and date when you'll reply.
You can leave a phone number for urgent issues where people can reach you if they need a reply ASAP. Using autoresponders like this is a great way to set expectations (people know roughly when they'll get a reply to their email), and it also makes them feel heard (because you've already responded to them).
10. Turn on 'priority inbox' to push important messages to the top
Inboxes are getting smarter—some of them can even detect important emails based on subject lines and sender details.
Gmail’s priority feature automatically splits your inbox into three sections: important, starred, and everything else, then automatically filters incoming mail accordingly.
It’s also super easy to set up:
Select “Priority Inbox” from the “Inbox type” dropdown box
Customize the sections to suit your needs
Inside each inbox, pick how many emails you want to be displayed at a time (5, 10, 25, or 50). Also, if you prefer, choose to hide a section when it's empty.
Just collapse and open up the sections depending on what you want to reply to and clean up!
11. Make the most out of your inbox’s labels
Labels are like post-it notes for all your emails. Each label can have a name, color, and even sub-categories to keep your inbox structured.
If you are a Gmail user, these are called “nests.” For example, you can generate an “invoice” label, and inside, create sub-categories for sent, paid, and overdue invoices:
Each time you receive an email about an invoice, just click the label button and file it away under the correct folder immediately.
Not only will this keep your inbox clean, but it makes it easy to locate emails when you need them.
12. Automatically filter every email that's sent to you
Filters can separate your important emails from junk mail and subscriptions as soon as they hit your inbox.
If you really enjoy catching up on industry newsletters but don’t have time to read them every time you check your emails, add a filter so they are stored in a folder for later. In your settings, click “Filters and Blocked Addresses” and then select “Create a new filter."
Then, you need to describe the industry newsletters, so Gmail knows which email to filter into a folder. If you have unsubscribed from all of your irrelevant subscriptions (like we suggested in the first email management tip), you should be left with only the newsletters you really want to read.
Quick pro tip: Add a filter for newsletters containing the word "unsubscribe" because that phrase will exist in the copy of any subscription that lands in your inbox:
After that, click “Create Filter” and let Gmail know what label you want the newsletters stored under.
Beyond filtering your favorite newsletters, it may also be worth considering a spam filter service that will allow you to filter out any unwanted spam or cold emails.
13. Save time by learning the shortcuts
Another one of our favorite email management tips is using shortcuts. These quick key entries make it simple and fast to clean up your inbox.
There are a lot of shortcuts, so it can take a while to remember them all. However, they significantly reduce the time it takes to get from A to B.
Everything from creating a new email to archiving selected messages can be sped up with a shortcut. First, make sure Keyboard shortcuts are turned on by going to settings and then selecting it under the “General” tab.
Now they’re ready to use. Here are some of our favorite shortcuts (remember for PCs to use Ctrl and ⌘ on Macs.
C: Opens a new email window
D: Opens a new compose window in a separate tab
S: Stars an email
Shift + 8 + U: Selects all unread emails
E: Archives all selected messages
R: Reply to an email
/: Opens up the messages search bar
Command + K: Insert a link
There are plenty more, so remember to check out the full list here.
14. Organize important stuff using a star system
Stars tag emails so you know exactly who they're from or how urgent they are. First, make sure the “Stars” feature is turned on (Settings >Stars).
Decide which stars to use for different contacts and situations. In the inbox example above, an exclamation point stars mean an email is urgent, blue stars indicate new leads, and green stars represent invoices.
If you only have a couple of minutes to check your inbox in the morning before hopping into a meeting, scroll through your emails, star those you need to deal with, and then delete or file away the rest.
When you get some more time in the afternoon to come back, you’ll know what emails to deal with first based on the stars next to them
Turn your inbox into a productivity hub
Your inbox doesn’t have to be a place of doom that drains your productivity. Your inbox should be just another task on your to-do list with a little organization and planning.
Reduce the time it takes to deal with emails using tools like labels, filters, and stars. Also, try to make use of the Delete, Take Action, Delegate, Defer strategy to cut down on the time spent procrastinating in your inbox.
Any email can fall into one of four categories, so it's okay to send it straight to the trash or archive it for later. Hopefully, following these email management tips will finally get you to the holy grail of email: a clean, organized inbox!