How to master your email and achieve inbox zen
About 6 months ago I sat down, told my inbox who’s boss, and can honestly say it’s been the biggest factor in boosting my daily efficiency and productivity. It’s also helped relieve a lot of the stress and overwhelm that can come from opening email each day.
Now, there are soo many techniques for ‘cleaning’ up your inbox or getting to ‘inbox zero’ as some people call it, so please do not take the below as hard and fast rules. I realize everyone’s circumstances are different, so take what works and leave what doesn’t! It’s important to only implement processes that are actually going to work for your personal day to day.
That said, below is what worked for me- I certainly hope you find something useful in here as well! If you do, please share in the comments! And If you have any tips- I’D LOVE to hear them.
10 Steps to How I Mastered My Email and Reached Inbox Zen:
*As some background: I currently use Outlook for my professional (day job) emails and Gmail for everything else. I used the below processes for both email providers and found they worked great. Different email providers might have different names or functions from what I mention below, however I think for the most part this should work no matter what platform you use.
Take a global look at your inbox and see if you can pinpoint the common themes for items you want to keep. These will help you determine the folders you’ll want to create (some examples below).
It helps to write out a list of all the folders you feel you want to create, then do a quick and brief scan (I really mean brief, don’t open or read anything at this point) of the emails in your inbox to see if each folder will really be necessary and/or if you want to add to the list. Once you’ve got your ‘blueprint’, go ahead and create each folder along with any subcategories if needed.
- Bills (subcategories could be specific companies or accounts)
- Taxes (subcategory for each year)
- Family (possibly subcategory for specific people)
- Receipts and Confirmations
- Travel Info
- …the possibilities are endless and need to be specific to your personal needs!
This is especially essential if you currently have a massive inbox. I had thousands of unread messages (most of which I knew were junk but still needed to go through and delete), and I know many people who have hundreds of unread messages that could actually be important emails!
To avoid even more overwhelm, and to ensure you’ll actually take action: set aside very specific times that you will work on this. I personally set aside 30 minute chunks each morning for a week until I sorted through everything.
If you work at your computer throughout the day, in addition to these specific time chunks, make an effort to also do 5 minutes here or there when you’re waiting for something to load or if you need a break from your current activity. I have a feeling you’ll find such instant gratification in seeing your inbox # shrink you’ll want to keep going! (Or maybe that’s just me…I got such a rush each time I made it to the ‘next page’ on my Gmail account!)
3. Sort by unread first
I found it helped to sort all the emails in my inbox by ‘unread’ and took care of those first. That way I knew that I answered, filed away, or deleted anything I hadn’t seen yet. Once that’s complete you can tackle the remaining read messages.
4. Get rid of junk- and keep it that way!
Very likely, most of what you have is ‘junk’ or items that you don’t really need to keep. I can be a bit of a hoarder and for a long time kept ALL my emails, thinking for sure I’d need them at some point later in life. However for the most part, you can probably delete the majority of what you receive. Once you go through and clear the junk, it makes it much easier to start filing away the items you want tot keep.
While you are deleting junk items, take the extra step to unsubscribe to anything you realize you aren’t reading or finding useful. There are lots of things we sign up for these days, and if you see 20 unread emails in a row from a specific retailer- it’s a good sign you aren’t benefiting from those emails and you likely won’t be changing the habit anytime soon. Just scroll to the bottom of one of the emails, and there should be an ‘unsubscribe’ link- typically these are pretty quick and painless.
This part takes some time, but it is SO worth it to keeping your inbox in check in the future. You’ll find each day there will be less and less emails to deal with by making this one change.
This is where you start ‘filing away’ all the emails you want to keep and that fit into the categories you initially laid out. You’ll see your inbox quickly shrink as you start moving the emails- very satisfying!
6. Set ‘Rules’
This is a little bit different for each email provider, but there is typically an option where you can set a ‘rule’ so that an email from a specific address gets automatically filed into a certain folder. So for instance you could have any emails from ‘Chase Bank’ automatically arrive to your ‘Banking’ folder.
Gmail has also recently created ‘tabs’ that automatically file emails into sections like ‘Primary’, ‘Social’, ‘Promotions’ and ‘Updates’. You can manipulate these tabs and set rules to decide where each email shows up, you’ll just need to set aside some time to make these decisions.
Rules in general are just a nice way to keep things organized from the get-go so you don’t have to file items away each day.
You (hopefully!) don’t leave tons and tons of unanswered mail and paperwork on your desk everyday. A messy desk is a proven stressor in people’s lives, and the digital inbox is no different.
Set up a process for yourself and a goal to have a clean and organized inbox, not leaving items unattended or piled up for weeks on end.
8. Leave emails unread or set as tasks
I personally have found it really useful to leave emails that I know require action ‘unread’. Even if I’ve read it I’ll re-mark it as ‘unread’ which signals me the next time I open my email to take care of it. For me, seeing unread emails is a major stressor and I’m likely to take care of them as soon as possible.
However, I also realize that depending what you do- you might have way too many emails coming in to keep them all unread. If this is the case, you might find that setting items as ‘tasks’ works better for you. Tasks are what I use in my work-related emails, which come through on Outlook. You can mark tasks to be completed by certain dates/times and even integrate them into your calendars or other project and time management programs.
Either way- the goal is to not leave anything unattended that requires a response or attention.
9. Play the ‘2 minute’ game
If an email can be responded to in 2 minutes or less, just do it! Otherwise: delete it, file it, or flag it for later
Especially if you have a large amount of emails coming through on a regular basis, try to sort through your inbox daily. Even better, if you can try to do a quick sweep morning, afternoon and night- you’ll find that you’re whipping through those emails and hopefully have banished your daily ‘inbox overwhelm’!
As I mentioned above, I’d love to hear from you! How long have you been living with ‘inbox overwhelm’? Do you have any additional tips for mastering your email? Please leave me know by leaving a comment below! And if you found this helpful, please share with others who could use benefit from these tips!