How to Tame Your Inbox

Published: November 2, 2015

You wouldn’t keep your desk strewn with old receipts, purposeless pamphlets, outdated papers or finished assignments that can be discarded any day now - at least, you'll never find anyone who recommends that you do so. It's distracting from the tasks on which you should be focusing, and makes it more difficult to keep your attention on what is relevant. Clutter can induce a sort of anxiety that can make you feel like your to-do list is longer than it actually is, or that you’re forgetting to do something that you can’t remember.

Our inboxes are often furthest from our mind when we think about tidying up. However, it may do you good to move that task up to the front: it’s harrowing to have an inbox congested with emails that are no longer necessary or are valuable, but don't need to be immediately accessible. An inbox in disarray will result in your mind being too consumed with searching its contents and feeling the pressure of its non-existent to-do list, forming a hindrance to productivity.

The worry that comes along with a scattered, busy inbox is absolutely avoidable. An inbox that only contains new emails and ones that are most pertinent to what you immediately need is said to have achieved “Inbox Zero,” a concept that originated with productivity expert Merlin Mann. It’s not about removing visible clutter or making sure that you have nothing in front of you, but rather “it’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life,” states Mann. “That ‘zero?’ It’s not how many messages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”

Here are seven tips towards reaching mecca -- aka, Inbox Zero:

1. Delete and Unsubscribe from the Obviously Unnecessary

We all dream of a day in which our inboxes are free of unwanted spam. However, the daily flood of coupons for stores you’ve never heard of and news about events you’ll never want to attend reminds us every morning that we are not yet in that era.

Begin your journey to Inbox Zero by going through your inbox whenever you have a spare moment and deleting the spam messages that you know you’ll never need. Additionally, it’s extremely beneficial to go through and delete everything that isn’t important anymore, such as emails that don’t include any valuable information-- casual conversations, or reminders for assignments that have already been completed.

If you do want to go further in trying to reach the aforementioned Age of Guaranteed Email Relevancy, I suggest you try Unroll.me, which can effortlessly unsubscribe you and your inbox from unwanted email subscriptions with a simple click.

2. Create Folders Based on Priority and Interest

It’s understandable that you will have emails that are important and can’t just be discarded for the sake of having Inbox Zero. However, these emails need not just sit in your “New Mail” area: create folders for every assignment, project and job for which you receive messages. Immediately send all relevant email to the correct folder after receiving it.

Other helpful folders might be for “spending,” “travel,” or “events.” In these, you can send the promotional emails that you do want to keep to a place where they are safe, as well as digital receipts, reminders, and reservations.

Folders with a function are an instant way to blitz through a heavy-loaded inbox. Make it your goal to always organize as many new emails into their correct folders as possible, for the sake of your inbox’s organization.

3. Set Automatic Filters

I love setting automatic filters! These are available in most email clients and can send your emails to specified folders based on criteria that you set. This way, some emails never get into your inbox and instead go to their respective folders. One amazing product I've found to help with this is SaneBox. Sanebox automatically organizes your emails based on "training" you give it. Emails that aren't so important automatically go into your SaneLater folder. This alone makes it worthwhile to me, keeping these emails out of my inbox, but in an easy-to-access folder for when I'm ready to read them. But SaneBox has tons of other features like SaneNoReplies, which contains all the outgoing emails that haven't received a response yet so you can follow up.

4. Immediately Respond or Send to Response Folder

If you know that you can immediately respond to an email in less than two minutes, you should do so the moment that you finish reading it. If not, move that email to a folder labeled something similar to “Response Required.”

Make it a goal to check this folder at least twice a day-- perhaps once in the morning and again in the afternoon--and respond to as many of those emails as possible (or, preferably, all of them). Be sure to set aside a good amount of time to chip away at these responses.

5. Periodically Check Emails

Many have found that productivity increases when you set a designated time to check your email, instead of simply refreshing it casually throughout the day. If possible, try to check your inbox only once or twice a day, preferably at the beginning and end of the workday. If you find that most of your emails require more urgency than that, try checking them at the top of every hour or two.

By processing your email on a schedule, you’re guaranteeing yourself the downtime required to sift through all your incoming messages. You’ll feel less anxious at the notification of a new email, and will have already made it certain that you’ll be able to put the appropriate amount of time into reading and organizing your inbox.

6. Delegate

Delegating the checking/organizing your inbox to a Virtual Assistant is a great way to get your inbox organized without having to spend the time doing it yourself. Have your assistant set up folders like Action, Read Now, and Read Anytime. Then he/she can organize your emails into those folders at set times throughout the day.

7. Set an Inbox Goal

True Inbox Zero might not be a possibility, simply because a zero-messages inbox might be unrealistic for you. However, you should set a goal to have no more than a certain number of emails in your inbox at a time. Whether this is two, five or ten emails, it should be a low number that you never find yourself going over after clearing through new messages.

If you think that you’ll be capable of bringing your life down to Inbox Zero, I recommend trying Mailbox, an email client that allows you to sort your mail by when you want to receive it. When you hit Inbox Zero, Mailbox will send you a beautifully curated Zen image to celebrate having achieved the ultima thule of a digital lifestyle.