Team Productivity

11 Email Hacks to Master Your Inbox

Daniel Threlfall
January 15, 2015
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Ever seen this?

It's an empty inbox. There's nothing in there. Nothing.

It’s a rare animal, related to the unicorn, and rarely seen in the wild. Few people have actually witnessed this phenomenon in this decade.How do you achieve an email inbox of absolute zero? 

Email is basically a monster. It chews up our time, spits out our productivity, and devours every shred of sanity. It’s awful.

This list of email hacks combines the best of untraditional wisdom, email street smarts, and sheer genius to help you actually tame the monster with your own two email-typing hands.

I don’t claim some level of domination over the email monster. I actually kind of cheated to create the image above. But, hey, we’re all still learning how to do this email thing. Me included.

So, here are a few tactics that you can start doing today that will help you conquer email.

1. Pause your inbox.

(Gmail only).

Inbox Pause is a Gmail extension that keeps email from reaching your inbox, freeing your mind and spirit to soar to heights of productivity.

Here’s their blurb. I love it.

Meet INBOX PAUSE - the paradigm-shiftingest, game-changingest email innovation of 2012! For decades, your Inbox has been under the control of others, who have had the power to interrupt your flow and take over what you are doing. Control when messages appear in your Inbox and when they don't. With INBOX PAUSE, you can put new messages on hold, making it so they won't appear in your Inbox until you are ready for them.

It’s a basic idea, but it’s sick. And best of all. It actually works — freeing you to be awesome instead of being email’s bondservant.

“Hold on!” I can hear you saying. “But you’re not actually dealing with anything. You’re just delaying the inevitable.”

And that’s okay. When you consign email to its own time of the day, you actually do gain control. A paused inbox keeps you focused on important stuff, rather than getting distracted by the ever-pinging alerts of new email.

Head over to Inbox Pause to try it out.

2. Get to inbox zero at least once a week.

The best way to deal with email is to knock out everything in your inbox. Some productivity mavens tell you to do this every day. That’s obviously the best approach, so I toss them a thumbs-up.

Realistically, you’re going to be frustrated if you set a lofty goal like that. Aim for a weekly inbox zero. Sometimes, when you have to make it to your kid’s soccer game on Thursday evening, you’re going to have to leave a few messages languishing there. Fine.

As best as you can, nail it to zero once a week.

You will not believe how good it feels.

3. Don’t waste your time with folders.

Some of the control freaks among us are way to paranoid about organizing our email.

I’m talking about email folders, which are so early 2000s. Even if it messes with your penchant for organization, you can’t afford to waste time on putting each email in its own little folder.

Instead, you can automate this entire time-consuming folder thing. Most email applications allow you to set rules for certain emails that define what should happen to them, and where they should go.

I use this feature in Gmail. I click on a message in my inbox → More → Create filter.

Search results - - Volume 9 Inc Mail 2014-11-05 09-26-16

Based on these parameters, I can tell Gmail what I want to do with the message, including labeling it with a specific label (kind of like a folder or filter) that allows me to stay organized, while not wasting any time.

Search results - - Volume 9 Inc Mail 2014-11-05 09-28-09

If you don’t have a penchant for organization or patience for creating filters, don’t panic. When you’re done with an email, just archive it. Your email’s search feature is smart enough to allow you to find it again (if you really need to).

4. OHIO: Only hold it once.

If you open it, deal with it. Don’t keep opening old emails, wasting your time reading old information and not doing anything about it.

You should only open an email one time. That one time is the only time you should have to deal with that email.

This is more of a mindset than a hack, because you need to figure out “Okay, so what do I do with it?”

There are four possibilities.

  1. Deal with it. Reply and be done.
  2. Delegate it. Tell someone else to do it.
  3. Delete it. Click trash can. History. Happy dance.
  4. Defer it. Put it into your calendar as a to-do item for later in the day/week. Then archive the email so it’s not in your inbox anymore.

5. Spend one minute, on average, for each email you receive.

You’ve got to set time limits. Yesterday, I received 159 emails. (It was a slow day.)

If I spent just two minutes on each email, then I would be spending a total of 318 minutes or more than five hours just on email.

I can’t do that. Email is not my job. Yes, my job involves email, but I can’t let email swallow up my entire work day.

I’d like to spend no more than a fifth of my workday on email, which means that I need to get my time spent on email down to a minute or less.

6. Schedule time to meet with your email.

You won’t be able to tame your email, unless you schedule time to do it.

That was such an obvious sentence that I hesitated for 30 seconds before writing it.  I’m not trying to insult your intelligence. I’m just saying that email takes time, and if you don’t make time to get it done, then it won’t get done.

I recommend once in the morning, once around the middle of the day, and once at the end of the day. Here’s a possible schedule:

  • 9am Spend thirty minutes
  • 1pm Spend 15 minutes
  • 4pm Spend thirty minutes.

If you can stick to a schedule like that, you’ll be able to handle email promptly, while at the same time keeping it from devouring your entire day. Plus, it will keep your email time to just over an hour, which is way better than the average.

Remember, if you do this, you’ve got to guard this as email management time only. You may be tempted to scurry off to some project that email reminded about. Don’t do it. Stick to email.

7. Turn a single email into a calendar item.

You’ll receive some emails that you should put into your calendar, rather than let them sit in your inbox.

The emails I’m talking about are those that require an hour or more to deal with.

Hey, Daniel, could you get a report ready that shows BestCorp’s link profile, compared with their top four competitors. Thanks! See you Monday!

I see this email, and I gasp in horror. I can’t handle this in one minute, let alone an hour! This is a full-fledged project!

Either it will remain molding in my inbox, or I can handle it and get it out of the inbox. No, I don’t have time to do it right now.

I choose to handle it and get it out of my inbox.

I pop over to Google Calendar, carve out a two-hour spot on Thursday afternoon, call it “Best Corp Competitive Link Profile,” and paste a link to the email in the calendar memo.

Bam. Done. I get the email out of my inbox, and I’ve nailed the task to which I’ve been assigned.

8. Set expectations.

Here’s the crazy thing about email. It’s not just your own email inbox that you have to deal with. You have to deal with other people’s expectations, too.

How do you do that?

By telling them. There’s an easy way to do this. Just put it in your email signature:

Thanks for the email. I’m dealing with my email at specified times throughout the day, so if your issue is urgent, please call me.

9. Find a non-email way to deal with aspects of life.

Email is such a powerful tool, that we’ve allowed it to become a multi tool. It’s our document storage, to-do list, conversation place, and reminders.

That’s why we have such email bloat. We’re using email for purpose that it’s not intended to fulfill, and we’re suffering the consequences. Email is for email. Don’t turn it into a casserole.

Here are three ways to eliminate email bloat.

  • Use an app like Teux Duex or Evernote to handle your task list and reminders. If you must use email, then set up a calendar reminder to email you your to-do list in a single and organized way.
  • Hold a morning meeting in your office to cut down on the email chatter. Most of the work emails that take up your time and deprive you of your sanity probably come from your coworkers, many of whom may be sitting just a few meters away from you. Instead of using email for in-office conversations, try holding a quick scrum to deal with anything that would otherwise stuff up your inbox emails throughout the day.
  • Set boundaries (again). You know how you deal best with email and communication. Therefore, set rules that will help you both defeat the email bête noire, while at the same time enhancing your communication. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you don’t want a piece of email clutter that could be handled by a quick phone call. Make this clear to your colleagues. You can even create an automatic email signature stating as such: “If you just have a quick question or comment, I’d very much appreciate a phone call instead! Here’s my mobile number: 123-456-7890.” People will get the message.

10. Boomerang it.

(Gmail only)

Gmail users, take heed. There’s a thing called Boomerang that makes your email leave your inbox, then come back only when you’re ready for it.

I’m such a fan that I actually paid the company money to use it with unlimited power. (I get zero kickback for mentioning them. They probably don’t even know I exist.)

For a while, I used the free version, which I recommend.

It’s a technique for dealing with email on your own terms, and amping up your email productivity.

Oh, and you can also schedule emails to send at 5:30am, to make it look like you get stuff done early in the morning. Win.

11. Stop checking your email.

Every time we get a new email, we get a little endorphin burst. We like it. We want it again. So we push the lever, like a lab rat addicted to sugar water.

And when work is over, and we’re eating dinner with the family, we push the lever again.

And then before we go to bed. Again. Push lever. See new email. Be happy.

But it doesn’t work that way. This constant checking of email actually erodes our mental sharpness, making it less likely that we will be able to deal with email effectively.

You are in charge of email, not the other way around. So, go ahead and say “no” to the email monster, put it in its place, and live your life.

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