Getting to inbox zero doesn’t have to be an impossible task. Anyone can do it! Knowing how to manage your inbox can improve your focus and productivity. Email is a wonderful thing – it’s a quick, easy and convenient method of communication. But because of that, it has also increased in volume to the point where it can be impossible to deal with. The amount of information that is sent to our inboxes (and into our lives), is staggering.
What makes it even harder is that email is a mix of frivolous messages, important personal and business communication and a place for every company that you deal with to get in touch with you.
There is no set thing that you need to do each time an email comes in. It can be as diverse as writing a long message back to a distant friend, or spending an hour checking out car insurance because your renewal is due.
These are the routines and methods I use with to maintain inbox zero most of the time. I use Gmail on the web, and have done for many years. It’s easy to access and has brilliant search functionality. However, most of what I do would work on any email client, so don’t worry if you use a different platform.
How To Manage Your Inbox – The Low Down
Aim for inbox zero
The key word here is aim. And let it go if you aren’t there all of the time.
Why inbox zero?
The simple reason is that it’s one less distraction, one less thing that’s on your mental radar of things you haven’t done. I love technology and I’m passionate about using it, but it should not take over your life. It’s meant to help us!
Now, I am not perfect at inbox zero, but generally I like my inbox to be pretty empty. Having email sat in my inbox is a distraction. It’s a signal that there are things I haven’t dealt with (for me personally).
It’s important to note that I didn’t get to inbox zero overnight. I cleared out my inbox many, many times and ended up with hundreds of messages all over again – repeatedly. It took quite a long time of learning to trust in a simple system, observing my own behaviour and why I procrastinated over certain mail, and being disciplined enough to regularly deal with email before my inbox started to stay mostly empty, most of the time.
Sometimes I hear people asking how you can ever get to inbox zero when email is constantly coming in. For me personally, I consider it inbox zero if I’ve dealt with everything up to and including the previous day.
There’s no point checking email every half hour and then trying to deal with every mail as it arrives so that your inbox stays empty. This is going to distract you from your day and be a constant source of stress!
Reduce the noise
Cut down on on what you have to deal with in the first place. A key tactic in how to manage your inbox is keeping it as clutter free as possible.
I only subscribe to a couple of important mailing lists. I think it’s important to decide exactly who you want to be receiving communication from and to unsubscribe from anything that doesn’t fit your current goals/lifestyle. This ties in with the fact that focusing on one project or goal at a time is the most beneficial way to achieve what you want to achieve.
Turn off notifications
Turn off non-essential email notifications. I don’t get anything from LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. If I use a platform regularly, then I’ll see what I need to see the next time I log in. If I don’t use a platform that often, then it probably won’t be that important that I get a notification about it. Most of us get notifications on our phone anyway, so having them emailed to you as well is duplication, plus it gives you more digital clutter to deal with.
Delete unimportant emails immediately
Don’t leave them lying around. And if they’re not important, why are you getting them anyway?
Don’t go mad on folders
I used to have loads of folders. Folders made it feel like I was totally in control of everything. However, after a while I realised that the folders themselves were a distraction. I had to make a decision about where to file every one of my emails when I had finished with it.
Gmail allows you to search for pretty much anything with 100% accuracy (subject line, to, from, date, email text, etc). I started to rely more on the search to find things, rather than filling them away. Eventually I dumped folders altogether.
When an email is finished with, if it’s something I want to keep, it just goes into the big pool of received email. In Gmail this is unlabelled and you can find them all under All Mail in the left hand menu. Now, I only use folders for email I haven’t dealt with, e.g. I have a folder for ‘School’.
The ideal state of these folders is completely empty :-).
I use them as a handy way to segregate the different things I’m working on.
If you want to be more in efficient in how you manage your inbox, consider reducing or even completely removing folders from your system.
Keep email in line with your life’s goals
Incoming email shouldn’t be used as an additional news channel. I’m a big advocate of only focusing on what’s important to you.
Are you subscribed to 45 different newsletters from different industries, 17 business networking groups, 24 fashion emails and 51 forums?
If so, you have to ask yourself if you are genuinely going to consume all that information – ever. If you have been struggling with how to manage your inbox and all the email you are getting, unsubscribing is one easy way to make a big difference.
How much time do you want to spend at your computer? How important are ALL of these things to you? Is it perhaps possible that you could cull 95% of them? Would you get more value out of the ones that are most relevant to you at this point in time?
Have a waiting area
I often get emails that I am waiting on, and I used to have no idea what to do with them. Achiving or filing them away meant I tended to forget to follow up on things. Also, that meant emails that could ultimately be deleted kept ending up in my archive. Leaving them in my inbox just made it feel messy and soon enough I’d be back up to 967 messages.
I stopped all this by creating a folder called Waiting. I move things into the Waiting folder immediately after dealing with them if there is a follow up action I’m waiting for. These tend to be things like order receipts, delivery notifications, customer service requests, etc.
Every now and then I scan through the waiting folder. The emails that are no longer required get deleted. If necessary I follow up on what’s left and then I’m done. Having these emails out of sight made it easier for me to maintain my inbox. Part of learning how to manage your inbox is experimenting to find strategies that work for you.
Have a routine
I batch process school emails about once a week. This means getting the calendar out and marking all the events and dates up for each child. Often there are things that I need to remember for school activities like costumes, things to take into school, or raffle tickets. I find it much easier to just focus on school separately from everything else.
The rest of my email I tend to process in one go each day. On a work day I’ll do this earlier in the day. When I have my toddler home all day I sometimes do this in the evening if I’m not too tired. I find that as long as I do this MOST days, email never becomes a mammoth task that I put off dealing with, and my inbox remains at zero (or close to) most of the time.
Have one email address
I’m not quite sure when it happened, but many years back I ended up with three main email addresses. It started with one on Gmail, one on a domain I owned, and one for something else (I think I wanted a funky new address or something). It was awful. Not only did I have to login to three different accounts to see what was going on, but I ended up with loads of different username and password combinations for logging onto other websites. Sometimes I even accidentally registered for things twice using two different email addresses.
Now I’m sure it was just me that was crazy enough to think I needed more than one email, but just in case you are working that way, let me tell you that having one, single email for everything is SO much easier.
I do have one email address I use for Simple Days, but it’s only for this blog. Other than that, everything else goes to my Gmail account. It took me months to move everything over to the right place. I am still dealing with occasional old emails that come in and logins that need to be updated, but it is so much easier with one account. I can’t tell you how much easier it is now I finally dumped the others.
Bonus: Gmail Specific
I don’t use Gmail’s tabs (primary, social, promotions, etc). They work for some, but don’t feel that you have to let a tool, or someone else dictate how to manage your inbox. I don’t like having to click between different tabs to see mail because it slows down my work process. The exception to this is school emails, which I have created a separate folder for. I do this because I have three children and it means I can sit down with my calendar and deal with all the school info in one batch.
In Gmail you can turn off the automatic tabs by clicking the gear icon, and going to Settings -> Inbox. Just uncheck everything except primary and you’re back to a single inbox again.
Make it look pretty
I do love things to look nice, so I add a custom background to my inbox. When I’m at inbox zero, I get to see my chosen picture in all its glory:
You can choose your favourite from a huge selection under Themes. Click the gear icon, top right, to get the drop down menu.
Email is a big part of our lives and it takes time to get a smoothly working system.
You aren’t taught how to manage your inbox at school or at work, so it takes trial and error. Don’t get disheartened if you try something and fail. Keep at it. Eventually you will master your email inbox and it will be a haven of peace and loveliness!