Manage your inbox efficiently so you have more time to be creative

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Ah, the bliss of hitting Inbox Zero is amazing. It's feels as good as checking off all of of your to-do list items. As good as folding your last piece of fresh, warm laundry. As good as a post-workout high.

It's no secret that technology is overpowering our lives. It's causing us to have shiny object syndrome. Popcorn brain. In return, we're losing our ability to focus. In fact, our smartphones are actually making us dumber. Instead of using smartphones as tools to enhance our lives, we're letting them dictate our lives. We respond to every ding and bloop, every hum.

But before I go too far down the rant trail about how smartphones are turning us into zombies, let me come back to my original point. Inbox Zero. That sweet, sweet moment when you wrangle your email inbox down to not only a few actionable emails, but ZERO emails.

I literally hit Inbox Zero a few minutes before I saw this tweet thread, which starts with my friend Chrystina saying she got down to 8 emails in her inbox. The responses?

  • “Help me. I'm at 200.”
  • “Can you please write an email management blog post? I need help.”
  • “#HELP”

I butted into the conversation, because I'm obsessed with email management and time management. And I want to help!

Here's the deal. While I'm obsessed with email management, I'm also obsessed with wanting to do it efficiently. I don't want to spend all day with my inbox open, responding to every little ding and buzz from my phone, or every new (1) notification in my gmail window. I'll show you how to manage your email so it doesn't rule your life or your time, and therefore it will cause you the least amount of stress!

The ultimate guide to managing your inbox efficiently—don't let email rule your life!

My daily stress-free experience with email

Inbox Zero and Inbox Pause in Gmail - The ultimate guide to managing your inbox efficiently for inbox zero

I check my email twice a day. Once at 8:30am, once at 4pm. I never receive email notifications on my phone. No badges, no dings. When I do check my email, I am presented with a list of usually 10-20 new emails. I'll immediately mass-check the ones I don't want to read or don't need to read, then delete them. Then I'll go through the rest, and usually only touch an email once before archiving it or deleting it. In a matter of a half an hour or less, my inbox is back down to the magical 0-land and I close the gmail tab. That's it.

I actually use a third-party app now (Polymail) to manage email, but more on that later. I want to make sure the bulk of this post is relatable for most people, so that's why I'm showing you tricks in gmail first.

Want to feel in control of your email? Let me break down my process a bit further!

Mass delete new emails that you don't need to open

Whether you have 20, 200, or 2,000 unread emails in your inbox, you need to set aside some undistracted time to clean them out.

Have a dozen emails from Pottery Barn that you're not going to read or act on? Search for Pottery Barn and then select them all. Hit delete. Repeat for similar email groupings.

If you have only a few pages of emails to deal with, go down the list without opening any, and click the checkbox to mass delete emails. By doing this, you're getting rid of the bulk of emails so you can focus on the ones that need further action.

Unsubscribe like it's your job

I can't believe I'm telling you to do this, especially since a lot of my business and blog depends on email subscribers, but the purpose of this post is to provide you with sanity. Therefore, unsubscribe to the email newsletters that aren't doing you any good, even if you think you should be reading them.

Let me give you an example of an uncomfortable email-unsubscribe event I had recently. I am a web designer. I subscribe to Smashing Magazine's newsletter, because it's the holy grail of web design email sites and newsletters. After I watched myself delete about 10 of their emails in a row, I decided it was time to unsubscribe. As much as I'd like to think I'm going to sit down and educate myself on every new web design article in their newsletter, I never did, and I probably never will. I'm better off keeping them in my RSS feed and out of my inbox.

The other thing? Shopping emails. If you know you won't be buying anything from a certain site for a very long time—or ever—it's time to unsubscribe. Don't even let it come back around next time for you to mass-delete. Un-sub-scribe! Un-sub-scribe!

Also, in the themes of minimalism, subscribing to less retailer emails will end up with less packages being delivered to your front door, and therefore you'll have less stuff to deal with later!

If you aren't sure if you should unsubscribe or not, here's where my next tip comes in to play….

Create filters for certain emails

Let's say you receive emails from your usual retail shopping sites. Sometimes there are coupons, sometimes there aren't. Instead of being tempted daily by LOFT, Gap, Nordstrom, Sole Society, etc, you can filter these emails to go into a folder instead of hitting your inbox first.

If you're in Gmail, open the offending email. Click on More, then click on Filter messages like these. Gmail will automatically populate the “search”. Then, click on the link in the bottom-right of the window that says Create filter with this search.

In the next window, check the following boxes:

Use filters in gmail to help sort email you don't need to see day to day—the ultimate guide to managing your email efficiently

You want to make sure to skip the inbox so it won't bother you on a daily basis. Hit mark as read so you won't have the badge show up in your gmail. Then, apply a label (I suggest creating a new label for the overall type; in this example with an email from CB2, I chose to apply a Shopping label). Then, make sure to click “Also apply filter to 1 matching conversation.” Then, click Create filter and watch the similar emails disappear from your inbox!

Creating filters like this is kind of like the act of hiding clothes away before deciding to trash them. Usually once it's out of sight, it's also out of mind. So, auto-filtering your shopping emails may end up saving you money, too!

Only touch each email once

Once you've mass-deleted, unsubscribed, and filtered out a lot of your inbox, you'll be left with a reasonable amount of emails. Some will be super important. Others will be routine and boring. No matter what, the goal in this part of the email-attack process is to touch each email only once.

Let's think about the alternative. You're waking up and you reach for your phone. You open your email app. You scroll through a list of unread emails and you feel like you need to act on five of them. You click on one and read it. Someone needs a file from you. You can't do anything about it right now, so you close out your email app and get ready for your day. Meanwhile, those emails are sitting in the back of your mind, stressing you out. Maybe when you sit down to breakfast, you fire off an email from your phone, letting the person know you'll send the file later. Inevitably, that person will reply with an email asking you for more details. Then you're faced with an all-morning email conversation until you sit down at work and send the file and write out a comprehensive email.

Imagine it another way: you sit down at your computer. You open your inbox because it's your time in the morning to check your email. You see the email asking for the file. You send the file as an attachment to a real email with instructions, descriptions, what-have-you. You close your email.

Big difference, huh?

For less-important or quick-info emails, like your business's newsletter subscription summaries: open them once, then delete them right away.

For more time-consuming emails like newsletters: read or skim them right away. Put actionable items in your to-do list or bullet journal.

For emails that are full of awesome external links: open them in a new tab and then delete the email.

For emails that require a response: respond right away if you have time.

For emails that you truly need to stew on: make an exception to the only-touch-once rule and keep it in your inbox until you can act on it.

If you really want to focus on hitting Inbox Zero every day, follow my next tip.

Make to-do list items and archive

If you're good about keeping (and completing) items on your to-do list, use it in conjunction with your email. For example, if you get a email newsletter from a blog you love but you don't have time to read the attached blog post right away, copy the link and put it in your to-do list for a day and time when you think you'll have the capacity to read it.

Another example: if you receive an email you must reply to but you don't have time, create a to-do list item to respond to the person. Include the subject line if necessary. Then, archive the email in your inbox. When it comes time for you to complete the item on your to-do list, you can easily search your email archives to find the email in order to respond to it (so it stays in the same email thread).

The same can go for any email type that you wish to follow up on. Get a 40% off coupon for LOFT? Copy the coupon code into your to-do list for a lazy Sunday afternoon before the coupon expires, and worry about it then.

This app changed my email life: Polymail

I came across this app somehow when I was searching for email apps that would give me the ability to

  • send emails later
  • have emails come back to me at a later time/date
  • have both my work and personal email addresses stream into one inbox
  • some other features I'm probably forgetting at this point

Polymail was the answer to all of this. When I came across it, it was still in beta for desktop, and it wasn't even available on mobile yet. Now I believe Polymail for OS is in alpha and the iPhone app is in beta. But anyway.

Sending emails later allows me to check my email during my designated times and send them on a delay if I wish. Why is this helpful? Because if I "accidentally" check my email late at night or on the weekends and I need to send a response, I can have my reply send out on the next viable business day. This sets expectations for my email habits and won't leave others thinking that I'll fire an email back right away.

Setting expectations for your communication style allows others to calm down surrounding rapid fire communication (which isn't healthy for anyone, in my opinion).

Having emails come back to me at a later time/date is important because sometimes we get those emails that involve taking action in a week or a month from now, but don't warrant a response right away. For example, I exchanged emails with a blogger in March for a guest blog post I'll need to write for July. I will do my best work if I have that email come back to me in June so I can work on it for the July deadline.

Now that you've got your inbox under control, it's time to exert some self-control over how you relate to your email. It can be a huge mental shift to check your email once or twice a day, especially if you're used to keeping your inbox open all day long. Here are my best tips to staying sane when it comes to email.

Only check email at a computer

If you know me in real life, you'll always hear me giving out this piece of (sometimes unsolicited) advice: don't do anything on your smartphone that you can do on a computer.

Why? You can do almost anything on a computer faster and better than you can on a smartphone: whether it's scrolling through Facebook or checking your email.

By setting boundaries for yourself, you'll save yourself the hassle of checking your email on your iPhone when you're just waking up, right before bed, when you're bored at the checkout line in the grocery store, etc.

Too tempted by the badges or notifications on your phone? Follow my next step:

Turn off smartphone notifications

Turn off the little anxiety-causing red badges of death. Turn off push or fetch. Guess what, you'll survive. If someone really needs you to respond to an email, they'll text you or call you.

If you're really feeling ballsy, remove your email from your phone entirely. (I haven't done this myself, because sometimes you do need to quickly send an email to someone, but you get the idea.)

Only check your email once or twice a day

This is a HUGE mental shift. After Sarah Morgan suggested taking control of my email, I was convinced that I only needed to check email twice a day. But gah, sometimes you just log on to gmail by accident or you're in there to chat with someone on gchat, and in pour the emails. That's when email becomes hard to ignore.

There are two awesome ways to wean yourself off of checking email often.

Install Plugins for Gmail

Sarah Morgan also convinced me to install Inbox Pause. It's a simple gmail plugin that only allows for your email to be pushed to your inbox at the time(s) you specify. At one point I installed this and set mine to 8:30am and 4pm, and I haven't looked back since.

I also strongly recommend Boomerang, which allows you to get emails sent back to you at a specific date and time.

I use Polymail for both of these right now.

Schedule blocks of time to check your email

Don't use gmail? Or don't want to install something? Go to your calendar and schedule two chunks of time per day to check email and only check email. You may only need 30 minutes per time block.

The best way to succeed with email management is to put a plan in place and then simply practice.

What are your biggest struggles with managing your email?

Cover photo via rawpixel