Quickly Manage Your Email While Staying Sane (without any fancy tools or third-party apps)

I got my first email address in 1999. Hotmail, if you’re curious. Our teacher sat us down in a computer lab and walked us through step-by-step how to sign up for an email address. I remember trying to pick the perfect name, and I remember sending emails back and forth to my friends in those early days. And, if we’re being honest, pretty much nothing significant has changed about email since then.

Now, I’m not against email. I still prefer it over most messaging apps for work, and it’s a helpful way to get important things in writing without paper. Unfortunately, though, most people don’t have discernment or boundaries when it comes to email so they end up overwhelmed or with tens of thousands of unread messages in their inbox and no way out. (I’m convinced there’s a correlation between the 10k+ people and the people who keep all their browser tabs open, but that’s research for another day!)

On the other hand, we have the “inbox 0” people. I aspire to this, but at the moment I have 4 email addresses I need to manage daily, so inbox 0 is not realistic if I want to end work at a reasonable time. For most of us if we could achieve “inbox one page” we’d be golden.

There are thousands of people who have all sorts of systems for managing email, and this is where I rebel against systems. In this case, systems overcomplicate something that should be quite simple. I take a more minimalism approach to email and aim for prevention rather than management. The goal here is to do actual work or enjoy leisure time, not to spend hours each day in your inbox moving things around or doing busy work. The other goal is to have it work for you from your phone as well as desktop, so you don’t have two systems for two different places.

Let’s keep it short(er) today and I’ll share my tips for keeping your inbox manageable. Really it comes down to 4 very simple things.

1. Eliminate

Stop getting so much email in the first place. Be ruthless! I can guarantee you are subscribed to more lists than you need to be. I can also guarantee that if you read all those emails you wouldn’t have time left for anything else in your life. You’re likely subscribed because of FOMO, or sometimes because of guilt. Unsubscribe to anything that isn’t relevant to you RIGHT NOW or that you don’t read (and enjoy) on a regular basis. Everything else is distracting you from doing the real work. I’m subscribed to about 4 or 5 lists that I find enjoyable to read and thought-provoking, and I’ve ditched the rest. Trust that you’ll find them again when you’re ready to re-subscribe.

Another way to eliminate email is to be more thorough and thoughtful in your responses, or by having a conversation with someone in real time instead of having email back-and-forth.

2. Archive

Stop sorting your email into folders; it takes too much time. Your options are archive or delete. Anything can be searched for after the fact. I don’t believe in auto-sending email to specific folders either because that hides the fact that you’re getting too much email in the first place. Be honest with yourself — are you really going into those folders to read those emails? Revisit tip one.

Archiving or deleting is also way easier on your phone than trying to sort into folders. If you check an email on your phone, you just won’t sort it when you’re done. You probably will archive or delete, though.

3. Focus

Only check email when you plan on actioning the things in your inbox. If you aren’t going to action it, don’t open it. This is the trap of checking email on your phone, because if an email requires action from you but you’re out and about, you won’t do it and you’ll lose track of it.

My way around this is to mark it “unread” if you do open it and don’t action it. I recognize that sometimes you see an email and can’t resist reading it — I do that, too. But if you mark it unread then you’re more likely not to miss it when you’re ready to action it later.

Some people set times to work on email throughout the day. Personally I don’t do this and I fit it in around my other things like calls, but periodically I’ll sit down for an hour or more and just clear out what’s left in there. Typically that’s when my inbox gets to be longer than a page and it starts to stress me out.

4. Redistribute

Have a place where you keep action items so you don’t have to use email as a task management system. It wasn’t designed for that! Most project management systems allow you to forward emails to them to create a task. I personally use my Action Journal to jot down to-dos, then I ditch the email.

For a long time I was printing receipts so my inbox was getting pretty clogged, but now I print them to PDF and save them, which is way faster and I’m more inclined to do it on a regular basis.

That’s pretty much my entire system. I have a few other guidelines that might be helpful:

· You don’t have to respond instantly to email. Set expectations with your clients so they know when to expect a response from you.

· If you currently have way too many emails in your inbox, just archive them all. Start fresh. You can go back and search them easily if you need to. Don’t hire a VA to spend hours sorting through them for you!

· For most of you, your job isn’t answering email. Prioritize the income-generating activities and delivering client results, then you can get to email when your brain isn’t at peak freshness.

Let me know how you do! And when it doubt, go back to step one.

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