Developing habits to get your inbox under control

If your inbox is starting to feel like a never-ending to-do list, it’s time to take action. These simple but effective tips can help you get a handle on your email and start enjoying a less cluttered inbox.

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The problem of an unruly inbox

Spending a lot of time managing your inbox is a widespread problem. It's not surprising that an overwhelming inbox can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety.

As a manager, you may feel like you're constantly playing catch-up, and important tasks can fall through the cracks. An inbox in disarray can also make it difficult to find important information when you need it.

Habits to help you take control

Fortunately, there are some changes you can make to help get your inbox under control. By developing some new email habits, you can take back your inbox and start enjoying a less cluttered space. Here are tips to get you started:

1. Set aside time each day to process your email

Don't let your inbox control your day. Set aside a specific time to check and respond to emails, and stick to it. This can help you avoid the constant interruptions that can lead to a cluttered inbox.

2. Aim to only pay attention to the e-mail once

When you do sit down to check your email, try to deal with each message only once. Respond to it, file it away, or delete it. This will help you avoid getting bogged down in an ever-growing list of messages. Only keep a small list of emails that you need to take action on.

3. Unsubscribe from unnecessary emails

One of the quickest ways to reduce email clutter is to unsubscribe from emails you don't need. If you're constantly deleting promotional emails or newsletters, take a moment to unsubscribe from those lists. This can help you declutter your inbox and avoid future email overload.

4. Organize your inbox with folders

An efficient way to manage your email is to create folders for different types of messages. For example, you might have a folder for action items, another for reference materials, and another for messages that require follow-up. This can help you quickly find the email you're looking for and keep your inbox more organized.

5. Use filters and rules

Another way to organize your inbox is to set up filters and rules. This can help automate some of the email management tasks, such as sorting messages into different folders. This can free up your time to focus on more important tasks.

6. Delete unnecessary email

One of the best ways to keep your inbox under control is to regularly delete unnecessary email. This includes messages that are no longer relevant, messages you don't need to keep for reference, and messages that are taking up too much space. By decluttering your inbox on a regular basis, you can help keep it more organized and manageable.

7. Use a tool to help you manage your email

There are a number of different tools and services that can help you manage your email more effectively, such as SaneBox and Boomerang. These tools can help you automate some of the email management tasks, such as sorting messages into different folders.

Dealing with email overload

Email overload can be particularly challenging during busy seasons at work or after returning from a holiday. Managing a flood of messages efficiently can make a significant difference in your stress levels and productivity. Here are some additional strategies to help you navigate high email volume periods.

1. Set clear expectations

Before a busy period or holiday, communicate with colleagues and clients about your availability and response times. Set clear expectations for when they can expect to hear from you. This proactive approach can help reduce the urgency of incoming emails.

2. Use filters and labels

Create temporary email filters and labels specific to the high volume period. This allows you to sort and prioritize emails more effectively. For instance, you can filter messages from specific senders or with certain keywords.

3. Auto-reply message

Set up an out-of-office auto-reply message that informs senders of your limited availability and provides alternative points of contact for urgent matters. Be sure to include the date you'll return to regular email correspondence.

4. Priority inbox

If your email client supports it, enable the priority inbox feature. This automatically categorizes emails as important or less important, helping you focus on critical messages first.

5. Triage quickly

During high volume periods, use a quick triage approach. Scan emails briefly and categorize them into "respond immediately," "defer response," or "archive" categories. This allows you to handle the most urgent matters promptly.

6. Delegate responsibly

If possible, delegate tasks or responsibilities to team members during your absence or busy period. This ensures that critical tasks are addressed even when you're unavailable.

Effective methods and techniques

There are tried and proven techniques to help you manage your inbox. Below you can find two techniques that are worth considering.

1. Two-Minute Rule

When you open an email, assess whether you can respond to it, file it, or take necessary action within two minutes or less. If the answer is yes, do it immediately. This Two-Minute Rule is simple yet effective rule ensures that quick tasks don't linger in your inbox, contributing to clutter and stress.

2. Inbox Zero Method

Inbox Zero is an email management approach that advocates for maintaining an empty or near-empty email inbox. The goal is to process, organize, and respond to emails efficiently, ensuring that your inbox is always under control.

Maintaining email boundaries

Maintaining boundaries around email communication is crucial for preserving work-life balance, managing stress, and ensuring that your inbox doesn't become a source of constant distraction. Here's how to establish and maintain effective email boundaries.

1. Define your response time

Be clear with yourself and your colleagues about your expected response time for emails. Set realistic expectations based on your workload, role, and personal preferences. Communicate these response time guidelines openly with your team.

2. Use out-of-office messages strategically

When you're unavailable due to vacations, holidays, or focused work periods, use out-of-office (OOO) messages effectively. Include details about your absence dates and an alternative contact person for urgent matters. Set clear expectations for when senders can expect a response.

3. Create a buffer

Build a buffer into your response time. For instance, if you aim to respond within 24 hours, communicate that you typically respond within 48 hours. This provides you with some breathing room and prevents undue stress.

4. Avoid late-night and weekend emails

Refrain from sending work-related emails during late hours or weekends unless it's genuinely necessary. This helps maintain a healthy work-life balance for you and your colleagues.

5. Encourage alternatives

Encourage colleagues to use alternative communication channels for urgent matters. Phone calls, instant messaging, or project management tools may be more suitable for immediate attention.

6. Communicate boundary changes

If you decide to adjust your email boundaries, communicate these changes to your team or colleagues. Explain the reasons behind the adjustments to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Setting and maintaining boundaries around email communication is essential for your overall productivity and well-being. By being intentional about how you manage your inbox and communicate expectations, you can strike a balance between staying responsive and preventing email from taking over your life.

Things to take-away

  • Managing an overflowing inbox can lead to stress and anxiety. It can result in feeling constantly behind on tasks and difficulty finding important information.
  • By setting aside time each day to process your email, only paying attention to each message once, and unsubscribing from unnecessary emails, you can declutter your inbox and make it more manageable.
  • Additionally, using tools to help you manage your email can automate some of the email management tasks, making it even easier to keep your inbox under control.
  • When dealing with an email overload, it's important to communicate your availability and response times before busy periods or vacations and quickly triage emails by categorizing them into response categories.
  • Next to learning new email habits, it's worth exploring the Two-Minute Rule and the Inbox Zero techniques.
  • Maintaining email boundaries are needed to have a healthy work-life balance.

About me

Hi, I’m Lilian. I’m currently the head of a design team in a digital agency in Amsterdam and love to write about leadership and share tips based on my experience over the past couple of years.

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