Email Organization: How to Take Back Your Inbox  

Updated: 08 Apr, 2021 | Bill Peatman

Email is supposed to make us more efficient. Less intrusive than a phone call, the instant communication offered by email promises to save time. Until your inbox becomes an anchor that ties you to your desk or phone such that you are spending more than 3 hours a day reading and responding to messages if you are like the average entrepreneur.  

If you are spending 3 hours each day managing email, you are not getting as much done as you could (unless it is your job to read emails).  

Marie Kondo Your Inbox  

Tidying expert Marie Kondo says keep only the things that bring you joy. Joy may not be practical goal when it comes to email, though the extra time you save by reducing those hours spent reading and responding to messages may come close. Let’s start with the obvious.  

Just Say No   

You took the bait of opting-in to an email list or two, twenty, or 100 in exchange for a freebie, whether it be an e-book or a one-time discount. Now, much of your inbox is crammed with automated messages that you rarely open. Unsubscribing can be a hassle and may seem like more trouble than it is worth—especially from lists that force you to take multiple steps to opt-out. It is worth a minute or two today to save time later.  

Also, if you are receiving unsolicited emails, you can block them or report them as spam. To do this in Gmail:  

  • Open the message.  
  • Click on the three dots in the upper right corner of the screen.  
  • Select “Report spam.”  

Organize the Important Stuff  

One of the biggest drags on busy entrepreneurs’ time is searching through old emails that you left in the inbox for future use. The inbox becomes akin to the kitchen “junk drawer” full of miscellaneous and infrequently used items like scotch tape and rubber bands.  

One of the best ways to stay on top of your email is to organize the emails you keep using folders, categories (Outlook), or labels (Gmail) to make important but not urgent communications easier to find. There are subtle differences in the methods, making it possible to declutter the inbox as messages come in.  

  • With folders, you drag the message into a folder for future reference. Most email clients have a “Tasks” folder by default, which can be a handy way to store messages that require action on your part.  
  • You can also automate email sorting using filters to send messages from known senders into folders.   
  • Labels and categories allow you to assign a group name and/or color to an email to make it easier to find later. For example, if you label an email as “task,” you would find it with a quick search rather than going to a folder to look for it.  

You can also use rules (Outlook) or filters (Gmail) to automatically sort emails based on the sender's address, words in the subject line, or other criteria. However, sending a bunch of unread emails to folders doesn’t always end up saving you that much time because they can pile up quickly at some point you will still have to find the important ones 

Timebox Your Emailing  

Another way to prevent email from becoming a constant distraction is to set aside specific times to read, respond to, and organize messages. Some people do this at the beginning and end of their workdays. You may have to set peoples’ expectations—especially in an environment where co-workers or clients expect an immediate response.   

  • Mark your calendar as “busy” so co-workers can see that you will not respond to messages immediately.  
  • Create an automatic reply to tell external contacts when they can expect a response and what to do if they need immediate attention (call or contact someone else).  
  • Turn off notifications, so you do not see messages in the corner of the screen as they arrive or hear the Pavlovian “bing” that tempts you to interrupt yourself.  

Whatever method you choose to use to take back control of your inbox, stick with it. On average, professionals check their email 15 times per day (every 37 minutes). Creating some discipline around how you use email can help you recapture valuable time. Even if you just checked your email once per hour, it would cut the distractions in half.   

Have Your Assistant Do It  

Why not hand off your inbox management to an assistant that can help you recoup the entire 3 hours per day that you spend on email at work? What? Don’t you have an assistant? Maybe it’s time to change that.   

An increasing number of entrepreneurs are turning to virtual assistants to help them with various tasks that are time-consuming, repetitive, and (relatively) easy to learn and do. An assistant can remember your email preferences, respond to non-urgent requests, organize your inbox, and alert you to anything that needs your immediate attention. That’s not all. Virtual assistants can take other routine tasks like scheduling meetings, travel arrangements, and expense reports.   

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About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.

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