Can I Really Tame My Email Inbox?

emailEmail has become overwhelming!

We’re all busier than ever these days, and email overwhelm is becoming more and more of a common problem. I hear everyone complaining about the tyranny of email. There seem to be so many promotional emails, they can’t find the important ones that really need their attention.

If that sounds like you, don’t be discouraged. You can tame your inbox. You have to implement a plan and then be disciplined enough to stick to it, but once you do, you’ll not only tame your inbox but regain some of your sanity.

Create a system

The first step to taming your inbox is to create a system. Start by deciding when and for how long you’ll check email, and remember virtually every productivity guru says NOT to check email until you’ve done at least one important item on your To Do list FIRST. But depending on your own daily habits, your plan could be checking email 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes in the afternoon and then another 30 minutes in the evening. Or maybe you only want to deal with it twice a day – morning and evening. It’s entirely up to you and what you feel comfortable with. Will you check email on the weekends, or will anything that comes in after a certain time—say 5pm Friday—be dealt with first thing Monday morning?

Now that you have decided on a plan that fits you and your needs, it’s time to start the weeding out campaign. This part of the process can be done over time as different emails come in, because if you’re like me, you’re probably subscribed to so many different things, you can’t even remember them all.

Weed down: 

  • Unsubscribe – I’ve started unsubscribing from newsletters I rarely read, and I’m trying to be more discriminating when I sign up for new ones. I’m not suggesting to never sign up for any mailing lists ever again, because it’s a good way to stay current with ideas and trends in your industry. But be very picky about what you sign up for. If you’re interested in following someone’s blog or want to know what they have to say, consider using an RSS feed reader (such as Feedly) instead of getting a notice by email. This way you can be in the know at your own convenience, without being inundated with more emails.
  • Discard – If there are old emails sitting around collecting virtual inbox dust, it’s time to discard them. Use your email’s search function to find all of similar emails that you can delete as a batch. There’s no reason emails from 1999 should still be sitting in the inbox taking up space. Or if you’ve responded and handled an email, discard it.

Once you have done some weeding down, it’s time to establish a protocol for handling email.

Establish a protocol

  • Discard if possible – As mentioned above, when you’re done with an email, discard it. If it’s something important such as a client testimonial, copy it to a document and save that on your computer so it doesn’t have to stay in the inbox. I use Evernote for this kind of thing.
  • Unsubscribe if possible – Any time an email comes through from a retail store, a guru you follow, etc. think whether or not you really want to stay on their mailing list. If you don’t ever read the emails, it’s time to just unsubscribe. Unsubscribing isn’t a bad thing, and honestly, the sender really doesn’t want you on their list if you’re  not reading their emails!
  • Take action ASAP (respond, delegate, boomerang, or discard) – During the set time you’re working on email, do something with emails ASAP. You’re either going to respond, discard it, or file it (if you use Gmail they have labels you can easily create, and this helps clear out the inbox but saves important emails at the same time).
  • Use Boomerang or a similar program to kick back reminders – If you need to remind yourself about an email so you can do something with it at a later time, Boomerang (for Gmail) is a great resource.
  • Don’t train people to expect an immediate response – In this day and age everyone wants things NOW, including email responses. So if you have your email open (or see a notification come through on your phone) and respond immediately, people are going to start expecting that from you all the time. It’s up to you to decide what response time is suitable. Some people believe within 24 hours is fine (except on weekends – they won’t respond until Monday). Others believe within 12 hours. And then others respond within a few hours. Again, it’s up to you to figure out what works best for you and stick to it.

Leo Babauta, in Zen To Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System, has some great tips on handling email.

Can someone else check your email for you?

Managing your email is also something that can be outsourced to a Virtual Assistant. The first time I heard about this, it felt very uncomfortable, but I’m hearing more and more people giving this a try. Sure, it takes some time up front to train an assistant on how to handle it, but in the long run, if you’re truly inundated with emails, it’ll save you time (and sanity) not having to deal with it on a daily basis. A well-trained assistant can go through your Inbox and only send you the ones you absolutely need to handle yourself. Pat Flynn has an interesting podcast episode on how he did this:

As you can see there is hope for escaping the tyranny of email. With a plan and a little discipline, your inbox doesn’t have to take over your life, stress you out, and make you cringe every time you log in.

Have you developed some helpful strategies for conquering your email? Please share in the comments below.