4 steps to master your inbox

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One morning in 2013, my boss came into my office asking for an update on some correspondence I’d been having with an important client.

Taken by surprise and unprepared for the request, I rummaged through my Inbox as quickly as I could while he waited by my desk, but I couldn’t find anything. At least not while he waited.

Over the next hour or so I continued to search through the 5,000-plus emails that were sitting in my Inbox, before finally forwarding him an email with the subject line “Sorry for the wait” and the requested correspondence in tow.

As someone who takes pride in my productivity and output at work, I felt embarrassed. And, I’m pretty sure that for at least a moment, my boss was somewhat disappointed and perhaps even questioning my performance (or so my insecurities told me).

Worried that this may be but the first of many instances in which poor email management might bring me unstuck, I did something about it.

It took some time and perseverance but with a bit of research, planning, dedicated ‘Inbox’ time and a few new rules I got my Inbox down to a more manageable number, kept it there and became more productive.

Here’s how I did it and how you can do it too.

1. Clean up non-essentials

In my last job I wore many hats. I was part of a senior management group, led a team of 5 who managed relationships with around 700 clients and worked in project teams with people from different areas of the organisation.

Needless to say, I was CC’d in on more emails than I could count and spending large portions of my day opening and reading emails that were non-essential. That’s no way to be productive.

Here’s how I fixed it and how you can too:

  • Create a new folder, name it ‘CC Inbox’.
  • Filter your Inbox to find all the emails you’re CC’d in on. Drag and drop all of these emails into your newly created ‘CC Inbox’ folder.
  • Create a rule that directs all new emails that you’re CC’d into straight to your ‘CC Inbox’ folder.
  • For convenience, drag your ‘CC Inbox’ folder to the top of your navigation pane and drop it under your Inbox . This will allow you to easily keep tabs on how many CC emails are coming in.
  • Check your ‘CC Inbox’ folder just once or twice a day and when preparing for important meetings, just to make sure you’re up to date.
  • It might happen that your boss includes some tasking for you in an email you’re CC’d you into. If this happens and you miss it, let him or her know that you don’t see CC emails in your Inbox and in any case generally only scan them to keep up to date. Then, get onto the task you missed as quickly as you can. Tasking people who are CC’d into an email is poor email etiquette so once you pull them up it’s not likely they’ll do it again.

2. Clean out your subscriptions


I love breaking up my day with short reads, blogs and news. I have always prided myself on being across the issues that exist in the sector where I work.

To save time searching for my favourite reads and sector related updates, I would subscribe at the source to get email updates whenever something relevant was available. The trouble is, daily subscription emails can fill your Inbox quickly, and crowd-out the emails that are essential to your job.

Here’s how I fixed it and how you can too:

  • Create a new folder, name it ‘Subscriptions’.
  • Filter your Inbox to find all emails that have ‘unsubscribe’ somewhere in the email content. This should find most of your subscriptions. Drag and drop all of these emails into your new ’Subscriptions’ folder.
  • Sort through your new ’Subscriptions’ folder and unsubscribe from any subscriptions and updates you don’t need anymore. Be ruthless. I’m guessing you probably don’t even read about 80% of what comes in so try cancelling any subscriptions you haven’t read in the past month (like I said, ruthless).
  • For the subscriptions you want to keep, create a rule for each individual sender that directs all new emails from that source into your ‘Subscriptions’ folder.
  • For convenience, drag your ‘Subscriptions’ folder to the top of your navigation pane and drop it under your Inbox or ‘CC Inbox’ folder.

3. Stop using your Inbox as a to-do list

I used my Inbox as a to-do list in two ways. Firstly, I flagged important ‘tasking’ emails as they came in, signalling that I should pay attention to them later.

Secondly, while at home in the evenings and on weekends, I’d email my work account from my personal email account with lists and reminders for the next day or the next week.

This process did not make me more productive. Instead, I lost track of tasking emails as they dropped further and further down my Inbox; and my Inbox filled up with way too many emails from myself.

Here’s how I changed my ways, and how you can too:

Stop Flagging

  • Rather than flagging important emails for follow up, create special priority folders that require different types of attention or action.
  • Name them accordingly and be diligent about making sure you’re moving emails between folders at different stages of task completion or as needed.
  • Once a task is completed, delete or file/archive the email accordingly.

Make Better To-Do’s

  • If you don’t already, start taking a notebook with you everywhere and use it to take notes in meetings, make lists and record tasks and ideas. Just make sure you’re always using the same note book, or this exercise becomes useless.
  • Use the Bullet Journal System to keep tasks, lists and ideas organised and accessible in your notebook. I’ve been using this system for a couple of years now and I can tell you it works.
  • If you’re not a fan of notebooks and would rather use your phone or tablet to keep organised, there are plenty of apps out there, it’s just a matter of finding the one that’s right for you. This should get you started.
  • Rather than emailing yourself to-do lists from home, spend some time every evening before you go home from the office making a to-do list for the next day or next week. Even if you end up spending an extra 10 minutes at work in the evening getting this done, this one move will cut down email traffic, make you more organised, and give you a clearer head and better peace of mind at home where you should be spending time with loved ones — not thinking about work.

4. Find new ways to communicate

As an introvert, I have to admit that for me email is a very attractive mode of communication. But, it’s not the most effective or efficient. So, to slow the flow of unnecessary emails leaving and arriving in my Inbox, I used and tested a range of new a different techniques.

Try these:

  • Talk more. Pick up the phone, set up Skype or Go To Meeting, have coffee or lunch with people more often. Encourage your team to do the same. Set some rules with your team about what email should be used for.
  • Try instant messaging. I gave HipChat a good go, and it would have worked out perfectly for my team, but unfortunately my organisation’s IT infrastructure didn’t allow us to use it to its full potential. If not for that it would have been a winner. I hear Slack is also a great way to move conversations away from email.

With these rules and strategies in place I was able to reduce email traffic and keep the number of emails in my Inbox down to a manageable level. Best of all, I became much more productive at work and thought about work less when I was at home.

This article originally appeared on Medium. Ryan Wiggins is a consultant & content creator. You can follow him on Twitter or sign up for regular updates here.