Were the modern-day worker Sysiphus, email would be their boulder — endlessly toiling to conquer it, reaching inbox zero momentarily only to see a new message come in. How cruel an existence it is.
You could spend your days cursing your fate as emails continue to roll in one after another, but it’s probably not the most useful course of action. Though you may not be able to “fix” email altogether, you can manage it more effectively to gain back precious time and reduce stress.
In this article, we offer a number of practical management tactics and tools you can use to better manage email and get control of your inbox.
Since someone can send a message at any time of day, that means email is constantly at risk of distracting you from other tasks you’re working on. Setting boundaries is one of the first and most important steps you can take to better manage your work email.
1. Set aside specific time blocks to address emails
If you’re like most people, you probably keep your email open at all times during the day. Though that can be necessary if you’re expecting a time-sensitive message, it’s generally just distracting and probably explains why the average worker checks their email 78 times a day.
Instead of letting it idle, you could set aside blocks of time during your day when you check and respond to emails and have it closed the rest of the time. For example, you could set one block when you first start work in the morning, one after lunch, and one at the end of the day.
Outside of deciding when you’ll check your email, you can also decide how long each block will be. Thirty minutes is usually sufficient for most people. To keep yourself honest, consider investing in a timer and setting it for each block of time. It’s useful to stop you from accidentally going over your time limit.
2. Turn off notifications
We all know the feeling of seeing the little number on the badge icon of our email app continually creep up. It’s a siren song calling us away from whatever we’re currently working on. Though it’s not looking at emails directly, it’s still something that can easily distract us.
The cure is pretty simple: Turn off notifications. Whether they’re badge notifications or something else, switch them all off. It’s also important to remember to turn off notifications on all your different devices and apps that may also be connected to your email.
3. Remove work email from personal devices
Another way many of us fall victim to answering email at all times of day is by making it accessible in multiple places. One of the biggest culprits is our mobile devices. Phones and tablets are usually within arm’s reach, making them particularly problematic if you’re trying to unplug.
If it’s an option, you can remove them from your devices completely and limit responding to emails to only when you’re in front of a computer. However, we realize that may not be practical for everyone all the time. In those cases, you could remove it on the weekends and while you’re on vacation and add it back during the work week.
Organize and automate
There’s a lot of manual work involved in managing email. It’s why the average worker spends around 28% of their time working on email in some capacity. Though there will probably always be some amount of time spent racking and stacking, there are a number of ways to reduce that manual work and be more efficient with your effort.
1. Utilize folders
Email folders are a great way to separate different kinds of emails to limit the sitting amount of messages in your inbox. Folders can also act as a way to prioritize different messages, too. Folders not only help you find what you need when you need it, but they also help you avoid those things when you don’t need them.
There are a number of different ways you can configure folders. You could do it by priority, by subject, or by department. Really, it just comes down to what’s best suited for your specific purposes. In many email clients, you’re even able to set rules to automatically move emails into folders, removing another task from your plate and saving more time.
You could also consider investing in something like Clean to help you get started creating folders. You can even set up rules to automate some of the sorting and deleting, making your life even easier.
2. Consider a shared inbox
If you’re regularly copying others on emails, forwarding messages to teammates, or working out of a group email address, a shared inbox could save you a lot of time and hassle. If you’re not familiar, a shared inbox is a tool that lets multiple people access an inbox for a single email address, each with their own unique login.
With a shared inbox solution like Help Scout, you’re able to use things like @mentions and internal notes to collaborate with other team members without needing to cc them or forward a message. Assignment capabilities also make getting messages to the right people quick and easy.
You’re also able to utilize workflows to automate a lot of tasks like assigning and closing out conversations to keep your inbox clean. You can also set up rules to notify you when a conversation has been sitting for a certain amount of time to remind you to follow up. Fewer manual tasks mean you can spend less time on email and more time on the things you want.
3. Create default responses
Depending on the type of role you’re in, it’s possible you have some semi-routine responses you send. For example, if you work in the finance department, you might regularly be asked what your company’s address is or how to file an expense. In those cases, having a prewritten response can save a lot of time.
Most email clients now let you create default responses you can recall fairly quickly for those cases. This article shows how to do it in Gmail. If not, you can also utilize keyboard shortcuts to get the job done. Browser extensions like TextExpander are great for people looking to use keyboard shortcuts to draft responses quickly.
Focus on the essentials
Did you know the standard worker gets around 120 emails per day? For most, just a fraction of those emails need responses, and even fewer need immediate ones. Even then, sorting through all the noise still takes an incredible amount of time. Here are some steps you can take to tame the inbox.
One of the best things you can do to make managing email easier is to just have less of it. Almost everyone has some email that regularly comes through their inbox that they never open. Maybe it’s a newsletter or an advertisement from a business they’ve purchased from in the past. Since attention is at a premium, there are usually some obstacles to unsubscribing, so we often simply delete. It’s the path of least resistance.
Luckily, there are tools that can help you identify and mass unsubscribe from emails you no longer want or need. Decluttering your inbox can help you focus on and prioritize important messages and also save you time from the routine task of going through and deleting messages you don’t need. Tools like Unroll.Me let you mass unsubscribe from email lists, making the task much easier.
Also, if you’re copied on an email chain that you’re no longer contributing to, politely ask to be removed. It's just more clutter in your inbox. You could even go as far as setting up guidelines for your team on when to copy someone on an email chain to help stop the issue before it ever starts.
2. Delete regularly
Most of us have emails in our inbox we keep telling ourselves we’ll respond to, but we never do. Similar to other scenarios we’ve talked about, those additional emails take up space in your inbox and require some amount of mental energy from you.
With a tool like SaneBox, you’re able to actually sort out emails that have been waiting in your inbox for a period of time you choose. For example, you could set it to filter emails that have been waiting for a response for over 30 days. You could run that report every couple of weeks, and anything you’re not compelled to respond to immediately, you can delete.
3. Turn it off altogether
Though you probably can’t stop email in perpetuity, you can pause it for an amount of time if you’re finding the distraction too great. With a tool like Boomerang, you’re able to pause emails for a set amount of time. You’re also able to set up an autoresponder to inform those sending you messages that your email is paused.
You can choose to set up regular pauses or do them as one-offs. The messages sent to you during the pause are still received; they just don’t show in your inbox until the pause period is over.
There probably won’t be a day when you’re done pushing the metaphorical email boulder, but you can make the task easier and less time-consuming. Instead of putting your energy toward trying to solve email, you can focus your effort on managing it more effectively.
Investing in tools and learning new tactics is a great start, but what matters most is making a commitment to use the resources you already have available. If you do, you might be surprised to find email isn’t quite the pain you thought.