Have you ever avoided checking your email because you didn’t want to know what was inside? And then when you finally did check it, you wish you hadn’t waited so long because now it’s going to take you twice as long to get through them all?
Well, what if I told you it didn’t have to be that way?
Below are some tips that I use to keep my inbox under control. I personally have a “no scroll” policy so my inbox always looks clean and I avoid adding additional stress to my life.
If that sounds like a vacation to you then keep reading to find out what practical steps I take to keep it that way.
1) Unsubscribe from Email Lists.
You know that suggestion people give for getting rid of clothes? That if you haven’t worn it in the last year than get rid of it? Well your inbox can be treated similarly. (Yes my closet it also neatly organized and color coordinated… don’t hate me!)
It’s easy to get caught up in signing up for this and that and before you know it you have so many emails coming into your inbox each day that you don’t even have time to read them all. You have good intentions and the information seems interesting, but in the end it gets deleted.
Instead of spending your time deleting, simply unsubscribe. It will stop you from spending those precious few seconds everyday looking, scanning, and deleting which only succeeds in spending brain energy that you could have used elsewhere. And chances are if you haven’t read their newsletter for the last month (or even the last 2 weeks) you won’t ever read it.
Take away: Don’t be afraid to unsubscribe. It’s like that box of stuff that you’ve been moving from place to place and you don’t even know why you still have it. It may be hard to get rid of it at first, but when you do it feels OH SO GOOD!
2) Use Folders, Tagging and Color Coding Options
Every email that comes through my inbox immediately gets tagged or filed away. I use Gmail, but almost all email providers have the capability to create folders and tags and to even color code them (SAY WHAT?! Yea, It’s like the best ice cream on a hot day that you’ve ever had).
That purchase on amazon? The receipt email gets filed away into my Receipts folder and the shipment tracking email stays in my inbox, tagged as Receipts, so I can easily access it until my package arrives. Once it gets to me, the tracking email gets deleted.
My internet, utility or other bill that comes through gets tagged as To Do which I’ve also colored coded to be red so it’s noticeable. Once the bill has been paid I move it to the appropriate folder (mine is called business) so I can keep record of it. (You can also delete it since you can access past statements in your account. You do you on this one.)
That flight I booked? The confirmation email gets moved to my travel folder. The reminder email that the flight is coming up gets to stay in my inbox and tagged as travel.
The email from my mom about family Christmas plans? Tagged as family and stays in my inbox until Christmas because I’ll likely have to reference it multiple times over the next month. If it’s not something I will need to reference than it would get moved to a folder after reading.
See how helpful tagging can be? It helps your mind quickly separate which category an emails fall into which in turn can help you focus on what you need at that moment.
Keep in mind that if you’ve moved an email after replying and the person responds, it will show back up in your inbox! You can also use the search function in your email to search for a specific email if you can’t remember what folder you put it in.
Take Away: The key to creating folders is to make them specific enough that you know where an email should go and how to find it in the future. And use colored tags to compartmentalize your emails.
3) Create an “Actions” Folder
There are two separate methods that you can use so pick which one you think would work best for you.
Everything in my inbox needs action or will need to be referenced in the very near future. So this is essentially my “actions” folder.
I also have a folder that I’ve named “Holding.” This is everything that I want to get through in the next 2-3 days, but being in my inbox is dividing my attention so I’ve moved it to be “on hold” for now until I’m ready to address it.
If you’re an out of sight, out of mind kind person this one may not work for you. In which case, see the alternative method.
Create a separate “Actions” folder. Everything that comes in that needs your attention that day gets moved to this folder. Then when you’re ready, go to this folder and attend to everything that you’ve moved here.
This will help keep you focused as you work through only what is in the folder. By moving it into this folder you’ve identified that it’s important and requires your attention today.
Take Away: Both methods have similar outcomes which is to keep you focused on what is most important right now and put on hold what can wait.
4) Set Aside Specific Times to Check Email
I admit I’m not great at this. My email is usually up BUT there is some research on the negative effects of constantly being on email.
Researchers at UC Irvine and the U.S. Army studied the effects of email access focusing on the heart rate and ability to focus.* They studied participants for multiple days in their normal environment and then a period of 5 days with no email. Each participant used a heart rate monitor and the researchers found that limiting email access dramatically reduced stress levels in each participant.
Additionally those without access to email switched windows an average of 18 times per hour, while those with access to email did so an average of 37 times per hour.
It’s unlikely that removing email completely from your life is something you can do. But a strategy you could try is to set aside specific times a day to check your email. For example, you decide to dedicate 45 minute time slots at 8:30am, 12:30pm and 4pm to only check email. You can even put it in your calendar as part of your schedule for each day so you get reminders.
Instead of checking email as you get notified you take control of your inbox by deciding when you have time to check it. Depending on your job this method may not completely work, but it’s important to be aware of the effects email has on you and be mindful enough to lessen those negative effects.
Take Away: Email is distracting so doing it in batches will increase your productivity and lower your stress levels.
*You can read the full study online.
5) Change Your Inbox Preferences
It may be helpful to change your email preference settings so that you don’t get a notification every time an email comes through. There may even be extreme preference settings all the way from zero notifications to blinking tabs and sounds. Stay a minimalist so that you don’t get as distracted while you are working on other tasks.
If you don’t have the ability to change your preferences, another simple method is to keep your email in a separate window and minimize it while you are working on something that needs your full attention. This way it’s quickly accessible, but not in your face. (BOOM! Take that email.)
Take Away: Just because you’ve always done it that way, doesn’t mean you have to.
Bonus Tip: Try an Inbox Organizing Service
There are a lot of options out there like Sanebox, Unroll.Me, Unlistr, etc. If you feel you need some extra help with your inbox management, you may want to consider a service like this. As some are free and some require a monthly fee, do some research on which one may work best for your specific pressure points.
Take Away: If you need additional help, it’s out there. 🙂
You don’t have to implement all of these strategies. Just pick one and go from there! Once you feel comfortable with it, then try another strategy. The goal is to feel less stressed and keep your inbox under control so pick what works for you!
Share in the comments your favorite strategies for keeping your inbox under control.