Email has transformed the way we live, work and communicate – and mostly in a good way. We can connect with people instantly, even when they’re on the other side of the world. We can open emails right away, or flag them for a more convenient time. We can run a business from anywhere with a wifi connection. But there’s no denying that email can also be problematic and stressful.
If you’re someone who receives dozens of emails each day, keeping up to date with all your messages can be overwhelming. No sooner have you finally replied, saved or deleted all your new emails then a new tide comes flooding in, making you feel like you’ve made no progress. Often it’s hard to get on with any real work because we’re continually reading and responding to new messages. And even for people who aren’t inundated with new emails each day, it can still be tricky to keep your inbox organised. If you want to manage your email more easily and efficiently, here are eight steps to help you do just that.
1. Only check your email at set times
If you find that you’re continually distracted by your inbox and struggle to get work done, one of the most effective steps you can take is to set yourself time limits for when you read and reply to your messages. The great thing about email is that it’s instant – but this is also one of it’s biggest problems. While we might live in a world of instantaneous communication, that doesn’t mean we’re obliged to respond instantly too. Feeling like we’re constantly contactable is a big contributor to stress and burnout, so it’s up to us to take steps to make sure email feels like a help, not a hindrance.
Unless your job is to reply to emails, it’s unlikely that your inbox needs to take priority over your actual responsibilities. It’s a good idea to set yourself strict limits for when you check your inbox. You could decide to check your emails first thing in the morning and again after lunch – and perhaps once more before you finish work for the day. By setting yourself time limits for email, you can read and respond to messages with focus and intention. If you’re replying to emails as and when they come in, not only are you getting diverted from the task you were doing, but your responses won’t always be as thorough or focused as they could be, because your attention is partly elsewhere.
Similarly, if you find your personal life is getting interrupted by email, you can set yourself the same boundaries. If you’re used to constantly checking your inbox, not doing so can seem unsettling, so it can be helpful to ask yourself if the messages you might get are really more important than spending time with your family, or enjoying some well deserved rest and relaxation.
2. Turn off email notifications
No matter our best intentions, the vibrating and pinging of email alerts can be a big distraction when you’re trying not to look at your inbox. If you happen to see an email flash up on your phone titled ‘URGENT!’, how many of us would still have the willpower not to hit that ‘read’ button? It’s human nature to want to read the message, but once you find yourself being distracted away from work that’s actually important, not just urgent, you may regret being pulled in by a notification.
So, it can be hugely helpful to turn off notifications for email – or at the least, silence them. If you tend to use a laptop or computer to handle email, don’t leave your inbox open when you’re not checking it: actively logging out of it, rather than just minimising it, is the best way to avoid being distracted. Remember that if someone truly needs to get hold of you, they’ll usually pick up the phone.
3. Create folders – but not too many
When we look at our inbox, we can usually identify two very different types of email: those that are important or urgent, and those that aren’t. One of the simplest ways to stay on top of your messages is reserve your main inbox for the emails that demand your immediate attention. Then, when the time comes to check your email, you can work systematically through them, knowing everything urgent has been ticked off.
For those emails you intend to respond to later – either because you need to read them thoroughly first or your response will take a little time – consider creating a sub-folder titled ‘To respond to later’ (or similar). Then, for emails that you can’t deal with until you’ve received some further action or information from someone else, you could create a ‘Waiting for’ (or similar), to avoid having them clutter up your inbox. This way, whenever you get a few minutes of free time – when you’re waiting for an appointment or meeting, for example, or for a bus or train – you can go through these less urgent emails, and feel confident that you’re on top of the emails that are genuinely crucial.
All you really need are three folders: one for emails you need to address now, one for emails that you’ll address later when you have more time, and one for emails that you can’t do anything about just yet because you are waiting on information or action from someone else first. If an email doesn’t fall into any of these three categories, the simplest and smartest thing to do is archive it.
It wasn’t too long ago that the best way of keeping on top of your inbox involved creating lots of folders and saving emails away in different files. But the beauty of email is that it’s all digital, and searchable – and organising it the way we would a filing cabinet can actually be unhelpful. The best way to find an email isn’t to look through files and folders – it’s just to search in your inbox, either by typing the name of the email or the sender, or some of the terms you know appear in the body of the message, into the search box.
4. Establish your own rules for replying to emails
If the idea of having only two email folders and archiving everything else sounds a bit too simplistic – or drastic – there’s another way you can avoid the stress of unread messages piling up, or worrying that a message is going to slip through the net. Each time you open a new email, choose from one of these three options:
If the email requires a response that you can do in two minutes or less, do it now (then, ideally, archive the email so you don’t see it in your inbox).
If the email requires a response you’re not able to give right now, you can snooze the email and deal with it at a later date – whether that’s at the end of the day, or at the end of the week or even month. Don’t worry about forgetting to respond, as there are plenty of handy apps and plugins designed for this exact purpose. Mailbutler is great for this, or Google has an extremely useful snooze function built into the Gmail app – just press the menu button above the email and click ‘snooze’. Once you’ve snoozed the email, you can archive it, safe in the knowledge it’ll flash up again – but only when you’ve requested it to.
If the email doesn’t require any action or response from you, then you can archive it.
This three-rule process works in a similar way as the two-folder system, but might feel a little more accessible. With both of these techniques, however, you’re removing the stress-inducing visuals of having too many starred or flagged emails. Because the irony is, the more of these emails we have, the more likely it is we’ll feel overwhelmed and forget to go back to an email in time.
5. Create templates for email responses
If you find yourself writing out the same few sentences over and over again on your email responses – or variances of them – then you can save yourself time by creating email templates. Whether you use email mostly for your personal or professional life, most of us have our own set of stock emails we send out – things like asking to make an appointment, declining an invitation, or requesting information or a document. If you want to be more efficient in managing your email, taking the time to set up templates can make a real difference.
The Airmail app is especially good for this. All you have to do is write an email and save it as a template – e.g. “making an introduction template”. Then, you can reuse the email template rather than typing it all out again by hand. If you use Gmail, you might want to check out their ‘canned responses’ feature, which uses artificial intelligence to suggest replies. It will only take about 10 minutes to write out a few templates, yet over time this small act can save you hours – and cut down on frustration, too!
6. Reduce the length of your emails
Email was designed to be quick and convenient – not to add extra stress and work to your life. If you find yourself spending too long writing emails, it can be helpful to try to reframe the way you think about your messages. Unless you’re sending a personal email to a friend or family member, then generally speaking, the shorter the email, the better. Try using email more like an instant messaging service, like Whatsapp or text, rather than a letter.
Keeping emails short doesn’t mean making them impolite – and you can still include pleasantries if you wish to. But usually all you need to include in an email is the background information that’s absolutely essential – the information the recipient needs to handle your request or enquiry – and the reason why you are emailing. There are exceptions to this, of course – for example, if you’re describing a detailed project, or leaving instructions. But keeping professional emails succinct and concise is a good rule of thumb.
If you’re keen to write shorter emails but are worried about appearing rude, you can add a small note in your email signature referencing the fact i.e. ‘Apologies for the quick response, sent on the move.’ or something similar.
Another perk of this technique is that, aside from saving you time writing emails, sending short, succinct emails makes it easier for the recipient to read it, understand what you want, and then – hopefully! – send back their own equally concise reply.
7. Unsubscribe from promotional emails
Most of us receive unwanted promotional emails and newsletters. Even if you don’t read them, they can still clutter up your inbox, overwhelm you with messages, and bury the emails that are actually important.
If you’re tired of receiving promotional emails and newsletters, simply unsubscribe from them. If you’re unsure whether you want to permanently unsubscribe, think about whether reading these emails actually adds any value to your life. If it doesn’t, it’s a good idea to be pretty ruthless on this front – as this can make a big difference to how ‘clean’ your inbox looks, too. If you want to delete yourself from a whole bunch of newsletters or emails at one time, simply search for the term “unsubscribe” in your inbox.
8. Mark all unread emails as read
If you’ve been struggling to stay on top of your inbox for a while, you might have hundreds or even thousands of unread emails in your inbox. Not only does this make it tricky to keep on track of new messages, it can also be very stressful. If you want to start with a clean slate, it’s a good idea to mark all unread messages as read – but sometimes it seems as though the only way you can do this is by manually going through each page of emails, starring the unread messages, and clicking ‘mark as read’. If you have hundreds or thousands of unread messages, this isn’t an attractive option!
Luckily, there is a way you can mark all unread emails in one go. If you use Gmail, type label “:inbox is:unread” into the search box and press enter. You’ll then see the first 20 unread emails in your inbox. Click the down arrow beside the menu and then choose ‘All’ – this selects all your unread emails. Then, click the menu button and simply hit ‘mark as read’. You can find more details on how to do this with Gmail here. To find out how to mark all emails as read with other email providers, click here.
Email has revolutionised the way we work, and it would be a shame to let an unruly inbox turn you off this enormously helpful tool. While there are several annoying aspects about email, there are also plenty of ways you can sidestep these issues and use your email to be more productive, not less. You don’t need to have aspirations of ‘inbox zero’ to feel in control of your email – usually, you just need to take a few proactive steps to help stay organised and ensure you’re using email the way you actually want to. Remember, you’re in control of your inbox…not the other way around!
Have you struggled to stay on top of your email? Or have you tried any new techniques or tools to help you manage your inbox? We’d love to know more about your experiences with email! Send us a message at [email protected] or leave us a comment below.