Win Back Control Over Your Email Inbox With These 13 Tricks

Adobe Stock / denisismagilov

Stressed woman

Adobe Stock / denisismagilov

Email — we love it, and we can’t stand it. 

Email is an amazing tool that helps us get so much done, but it’s also overwhelming to deal with. Moreover, nothing — not the Slack app, text messaging, or iphones — has removed us of the responsibility or burden of having to deal with an overflowing mailbox. Since most of us have no choice, here are 13 things you should consider doing about your email’s inbox folder to improve your productivity at work:

1. Respond right away to any email message that takes you less than two minutes to deal with.

According to Getting Things Done (“GTD”) methodology (and yes, that’s an actual thing and there’s a whole book written about it), if something takes you less than two minutes, you should do it immediately. Otherwise, it should go on your to-do list. The full methodology is too complex to go into, but the basic idea here is that it takes mental energy and time to categorize things and prioritize them on your to-do list. So, there’s no point in adding something if you can simply just deal with it immediately (even if it’s not particularly important).

2. Write emails that take less than two minutes.

It follows that if you respond to something in two minutes regardless of its importance, you shouldn’t generally respond in a lengthy way. But this goes for responses as well as initial email messages. Drop the formalities, unnecessary introductions and endings in correspondance with friends, family and even close colleagues. And they will get used to what at first blush may appear to be a terse and abrupt style. You can always explain that you write everything on your iphone if that helps you smooth over the initial shock.

3. Religiously unsubscribe to newsletters and updates, or move those emails to filtered/spam inboxes.

Clutter takes time to deal with, and you have enough other emails filling your Microsoft Outlook inbox folder. That's why it's important to do the occasional clean-out of the junk emails and spam that you’re simply skipping past. You can even create a rule of thumb for yourself if you’re a bit of a delete-adverse packrat. It’s similar to the rule about throwing out a piece of clothing from your clothing — if you can’t remember the last time you wore it, throw it out. Same goes for email lists. If you can’t remember the last time you read it, delete it!

4. Check your email folder only at pre-selected times (or when you’re in line for coffee).

Resist the temptation to sit in front of your email account at work and watch alerts come in. Research shows that dopamine goes up in response to seeing a new text message or email come in, which creates a compulsive urge to check it. Resist, and you will actually be controlling the way you spend your time — rather than letting your email account do it for you.

5. Even if you have to check email first thing in the morning, don’t respond until your pre-set time.

If you’re simply checking for emergencies (because you’re a doctor, PR crisis manager, or simply someone with a demanding boss), then fine. But don’t just start clicking away and responding to emails without thinking about what you really want to accomplish in the morning, and whether that email time is eating into those priorities. Be conscious of your email behavior and know that typically most matters can wait a few hours.

6. Create folders for emails based on sender or topic.

This is as straightforward as it sounds, and it will help reduce the number of email temptations you have that lead you to read and respond at times that aren’t best suited to you. In other words, use your folder settings to your advantage!

7. Respond to lengthy emails that will require a long response by asking to talk to the sender.

Many times people send longer emails than they need to. However, in those situations where a long email is actually merited, you can discourage future unnecessarily lengthy emails or forestalling the time to write an appropriately nuanced, detailed response by simply asking to talk to the reader. Even better, just send out a calendar invite for a 15-minute call — with the subject matter noting it’s in response to their email.

8. Respond to requests for calls by asking the sender to email you their questions.

Sometimes requests for calls can eat up time, and email is better because you can control when you answer. This can be a great strategy where you don’t know the person well and don’t want to risk being rude on the phone if the person is taking up too much of your time.

9. Sort emails by subject line rather than in reverse chronological order.

The default settings in our inbox are just that: default. That doesn’t mean it’s well suited to productivity or your goals. Change them accordingly if you need to.

10. Immediately assign a priority flag/code to emails if you are not going to respond immediately.

To-do lists shouldn’t be random, and neither should the way you respond to email messages. Prioritization is important to productivity.

11. Respond to all emails you receive at one pre-set time during the day or night.

Someone we admire takes his least productive time (i.e. nights) and responds to emails from the day then. It takes a lot of self-discipline to ignore emails for a full day, but if your reasoning is similar to his — which is that emails are the least important thing in his day and therefore should get his least best time in terms of energy — then it can be a very smart move.

12. Don’t respond to anything you’re CC:ed on if there are more than X number of recipients of the note.

This may sound obvious, but if you don’t need to reply (which is in all likely the case, if you’re simply CC:ed among 10+ people), then don’t reply. In the best case scenario, responding only crowds someone else’s mail inbox. In the worst case scenario, you’re only inviting yet more unwanted email messages to deal with.

13. Never (or almost never) click “Reply-All."

If you need further explanation for why, then see list item #12. Nobody likes getting more incoming email than is strictly necessary! (Even if they've been armed with great tips about winning back control over their email.)

Do you have any strategies for dealing with an avalanche of email? If so, share your advice and opinions with other women in our community.

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