Email management is one of the most common digital struggles that plague people these days. Over three hundred billion email messages move across the internet every day. No wonder we have trouble keeping our inboxes clean!
Nearly everyone has at least one email address, and some of us have dozens. We use email for personal correspondence, work, school, and many other areas of life. Our email addresses follow us around like phone numbers, persisting for decades if we allow them to. Some of these have been known to the internet forever, accumulating subscriptions all the while. And all of these addresses provide a way for the outside world to contact us at nearly zero cost.
How do we keep from being overwhelmed?
A lucky few don’t have any issues with staying on top of their email. Maybe they just don’t use it very much. Maybe they have good filing systems in place and good habits to avoid letting too many messages build up. Or, maybe they’ve miraculously avoided getting on too many shady marketing lists. But for most of us, ignoring our inbox for even a day or two can result in a stress-inducing backlog.
Here are seven common problems that turn the technological marvel of email into a psychological burden:
- Inbox overload: We receive dozens or hundreds of emails on a daily basis. This makes it difficult to stay organized even if we have oodles of time to spend on the problem.
- Lack of a system: Without a clear process in place to help us efficiently address our emails, we resort to blindly attacking our inbox without a clear idea of what it should look like when we’re done.
- Unclear priorities: We focus on whatever arrived most recently, without prioritizing which emails actually deserve immediate responses and which ones can wait.
- Unwanted emails: Spam and distracting promotional emails clutter our inboxes, quickly eating our email management time and making it difficult even to find more important messages.
- Missing important messages: With so much noise to wade through, we worry about accidentally deleting or overlooking important messages.
- Losing important messages: Over time, it can be difficult to find certain old emails as they get pushed down in the inbox or lost in various folders, even if you saw them when they first arrived.
- Time constraints: Even without any other problems, a simple lack of time can make it almost impossible to keep up with a steady stream of incoming messages.
If you deal with some of these challenges—and they often go together—your email is probably more of a source of stress than a productivity tool. Fortunately, reducing or even eliminating these problems is well within your reach!
Vanquishing the Email Monster
As with all other topics we’ve explored in Tidy Tuesday posts so far, what you need is a set of specific steps and the willingness to focus on achieving small wins regularly. Every big organizational problem can be solved by breaking it apart into smaller tasks and addressing them one by one, a little at a time.
Whether you have 100 messages to contend with or 10,000 staring at you from behind a frightening “unread” badge in your email client, read on for specific steps you can take starting right now.
Defense #1: Turn Off the Firehose
The first thing I recommend in an earlier post about forming good data organization habits is to turn off the firehose of new data. This applies to email more than almost any other category, since email is the most common source of unsolicited attention-grabbers.
You can clean up a big mess more effectively if you simultaneously stop making new messes. (Parents of small children know this firsthand.) In the context of email, this means unsubscribing from everything you don’t absolutely need—most newsletters, promotions, and notifications, for example. You should only keep what you truly derive value from, not just the things you wish you had time to read or think you might need. The goal is to move away from “frenzied reaction” mode, barely keeping your digital head above water, and give yourself room to breathe instead.
An alternative approach is to take everything currently in your inbox and simply archive it (if you want to go back to it later) or delete it (if you prefer a scorched-earth policy and want to start fresh). Or, you can blend the two options by deleting everything older than a particular cut-off point and archiving the rest to revisit later.
Defense #2: Develop an Organization Framework
This might seem like a complex task, but it doesn’t have to be. If all of your email currently ends up living in your inbox (all the way back to page 187), you can make a huge difference by creating just a few folders or labels. Many email platforms and tools provide ways to color-code labels to assist with the organization process. Every modern provider also lets you automatically label, sort, and otherwise filter incoming messages based on whatever rules you might want.
You can find handy tips for a few specific platforms below:
You can find similar guides for other platforms with a quick search online. The key is to decide what categories of mail make sense to you, then sort mail into the folders dedicated for each purpose without letting those messages linger in your inbox for a long time.
Defense #3: Assign Priorities
Not all emails require the same quantity or urgency of attention. While assigning priority is often challenging to do automatically with rules or filters, you can improve your efficiency just by staying aware of the fact that new does not mean urgent. Respond to the most important emails first and then work your way down the list.
If possible, you can also take a “whitelist” approach and create a sorting rule that moves all incoming messages into a “low priority” folder for later review, allowing only specific senders or subject lines through to your main inbox. You don’t have to ignore the low-priority messages, but you can at least ensure that they don’t take all of your attention.
Defense #4: Eliminate Unwanted Emails
Although this is similar to #1 above, it warrants its own task because turning off the firehose inevitably leaves a trickle (or worse) of unnecessary incoming messages. A newsletter or two that we allowed to remain, a weekly ad for an online store we’ve purchased from in the past, or even just a few things that we missed the first time around.
While the “email firehose” hopefully only needs to be turned off once, staying on top of future subscriptions requires regular attention. Fortunately, it’s a lot less work to keep up that way. Whenever you see a new message come in that isn’t written personally to you, evaluate whether it’s important enough to continue allowing it to take your attention—however briefly. Yes, you can just delete it in two seconds and stop worrying about it. But it already got your attention for five seconds when your “new mail” notification sound chimed earlier, and if you have a dozen such messages every day across weeks or months or years, those tiny distractions add up.
Be frank with yourself about what you really need, and don’t be afraid to cut off everything that isn’t truly valuable in your life. You can always re-subscribe later.
Defense #5: Increase the Signal, Decrease the Noise
In addition to getting rid of the noise by unsubscribing and monitoring for new sources of value-free distraction, it helps to bring attention to specifically important messages that you know you absolutely, positively, must not miss. Here, as before, labels, folders, and rules are your friends. These kinds of extra-critical messages are usually few in number, so creating rules isn’t too challenging. Create a dedicated folder or label for the important messages and create a rule that puts those messages into the folder, where you’ll be sure to get eyes on them.
Defense #6: Practice General Sorting and Searching
Although creating a folder structure gives you a great starting point for intuitive organization, don’t ignore built-in search tools completely. My brain type likes an extremely detailed hierarchy that drills down five or six layers deep, but this is hard to create and expensive to maintain. I learned the hard way that these nested folders were rarely used, and I ultimately flattened them all out into a single layer of only perhaps a dozen main categories. I can easily find anything I want with a basic keyword search, and only rarely do I have to confine that search to a specific folder. Strike a comfortable balance between organizing and searching; don’t be afraid to experiment a little to find what works for you.
Defense #7: Set Aside Dedicated Time
To stay on top of email organization, whether you have a giant backlog or you’re just maintaining a pristine, shiny inbox, even 5 minutes a day can make a big difference. Some of us have routines where email just “happens” during the normal course of the day, but others require a scheduled block of time on our calendars. (In truth, having a few dedicated times for email is better than checking and processing constantly.)
Personally, I’ve structured my day so that I have 10 minutes in the morning to clean out anything in my inbox and pre-sorted subfolders and review my spam folder for false positives. There are usually about 15-20 messages that have come in during the night. They are almost always notifications or promotions that I can glance at for three seconds or less and immediately delete or move to an archive folder. Rarely, a more important message arrives, and if it wasn’t already in my main inbox, I’ll move it there to deal with during a more work-oriented part of the day.
This once-per-day email routine ensures that mail can’t spiral out of control. I almost never have more than two or three messages in my inbox that actually require additional action.
Bonus Defense: Clean Email
I’ve had excellent results helping people clean up a huge quantity of emails in a shockingly brief time using Clean Email, a web-based tool that connects to your account and organizes all of your emails into easy-to-review bundles based on things like sender, message age, category, labels, and so on. It also makes unsubscribing from hundreds of newsletters a painless process, even when the newsletter content itself doesn’t make it easy.
It’s the easier of two similar apps that I’ve used for this purpose. It might not work for everyone, but check it out to see if it looks promising for you. They previously focused only on Gmail, but have since added support for all standard email providers. It’s reasonably priced, and it has a free trial period.
Do One Thing
Identify one of the seven struggles listed above which applies to your own email use, and take 10 minutes to implement at least the first step of a solution to that problem.
When you live on a smartphone or sit at a computer all day, email is one of the easier areas to make progress in if you’re willing to focus for only a few minutes a day. Don’t let the size of a digital mess discourage you. “Inbox zero” is just as achievable for you as it is for me.