Last week on YouTube I shared a video about how to cut down on your social media consumption (video embedded below). Today, to complement that, I want to talk about how to declutter your email inbox by streamlining your processes and reducing the amount of time you're spending there. I’m including 7 practical tips, including a free service that will do some of the work for you.
Remember the good ol’ days when you’d open your inbox and be delighted to see a new message? It was the digital equivalent of receiving a hand-written note — relatively rare and deeply appreciated. It meant somebody loved you. It was a personal experience.
Then big companies and brands began to hop on the bandwagon, and now checking emails is a chore. Instead of a lovely message from a friend, our inboxes are populated by newsletters, spam, notifications, ads, and reminders, as well as a billion work emails we don’t really need to read.
So here are several different ways to declutter your email inbox so you can spend a lot less time in there:
1. Unsubscribe from newsletters you no longer like
The quickest way is to use a service like Unroll. me. This lists all the newsletters you’re currently receiving so you can scan them and unsubscribe from any you’re no longer interested in. The ones that survive the cull are “rolled up” into a single daily digest so that, instead of receiving several separate emails, they all arrive in one.
In short, this service can eliminate a significant amount of inbox clutter in one fell swoop.
If, for some reason, that doesn’t float your boat, do a search in your inbox for the word “unsubscribe”. Mailing lists are required to have an ‘unsubscribe’ option in each email so this is a quick way to weed them all out. Go through each one, decide whether or not you genuinely want to continue receiving news from them, immediately unsubscribe from any you don’t, and then keep on top of each one as it comes in. As soon as you receive a new email from a subscription service, think about whether it’s adding any value to your life anymore. If not, unsubscribe on the spot.
Remember that a lot of content is usually readily available on blogs, social media accounts, etc. anyway, so that may make the decision to unsubscribe a little easier for you.
2. Stop sending so many
A lot of the emails we receive are replies to ones we’ve sent, so stop sending emails unless they’re absolutely necessary.
You can also avoid a lot of back and forth by being very clear on what you want from the outset. If you’re requesting a meeting, include the times you're available and ask them to choose which slot suits them. That saves a huge amount of to-ing and fro-ing, trying to sync schedules. You could also share your calendar with them or use a service like Calendly to let them choose a time.
Try to include all relevant information in each email, and only send it to the people who need to see it. This will eliminate a lot of follow-up questions, or queries from others on whether they need to play a part.
Clearly stating what you want and when you want it, and that you only need replies if an issue arises, will eliminate a lot of “OK” and “I’ll get back to you” type emails.
3. Use folders
I’ve used these to streamline my inbox, and it’s made a huge difference. How you do this will depend on what service you’re using, but it should be pretty straightforward. Label your folders according to how you’ll use them. Much like those on your computer, they'll be used to segregate and store emails that require different actions.
The folders you choose are totally up to you. I have a folder where all my online bills go, one for my bank statements, one from local shops and supermarkets with their weekly offers, one for receipts and invoices, etc.
You could also set up:
- a “reference” folder for emails that don’t require action but contain information you may need to refer back to;
- a “to be actioned” folder for emails that require you to perform some task or that require a reply that will take longer than a minute or two to type out; and/or
- an “urgent & important” folder for all the emails that require your utmost attention or contain very important information you’ll need to complete a current project.
Don’t create so many folders that it will become confusing, but think about the types of emails you receive and look back through your most recent ones to see what kinds of categories they fall into. Set a few up now; you can add and delete as time goes on.
4. Use filters
These have been invaluable to me. If you’re not familiar with them, they may seem a little tricky to set up at first but, once you’ve done it, you’ll realise how simple and effective they are. Essentially, they’re a way of automating your inbox. You can set up a filter that, for example, tells your provider that any email from a certain address or containing certain keywords (eg. sale, discount, etc.) should automatically go to a certain folder, be immediately deleted, etc.
I have filters so that anything with the words “RayBan”, “Oakley”, “Michael Kors”, etc. in the subject line are immediately deleted. I can’t tell you how freeing it is not to have to deal with that junk every day.
As with folders, this will be an evolving system that you can tweak as time goes on. When a new email comes in, decide if there’s something you’d like to happen in future every time you receive that type of email, whether it be deleting it, archiving it, moving it to a specific folder, etc. If so, set up your filter and away you go. I hardly have anything land in my inbox anymore because it all gets filtered to an appropriate folder. That way I know that anything that DOES land in my inbox is generally worthy of my attention.
5. Set up default replies
Ever find yourself typing out the same message over and over again? Depending on your email service provider, you may be able to have several “canned” replies that you can just pull up, thus saving you a significant amount of time. Sometimes you may need to tweak or edit some of the details, but it will still save you time overall.
This is exactly what companies use to save time when you contact them. They have a standard set of replies that they roll out, only changing a few small details so it’s slightly more personalised. Other than that, everyone else is getting the same, “Thank you for your email. We’re working on this and will get back to you soon” response.
(In Gmail, you'll find this in labs: Settings -> Labs -> Canned Responses -> Enable)
6. Set specific times to check email
It’s generally not a great idea to check email first thing in the morning, particularly work emails, because you’re just opening yourself up to a whole pile of requests and demands before you’ve even had a chance to start on your to-do list for the day. You don’t need the stress first thing in the morning.
So set specific times of day that are solely for checking emails — maybe an hour in the late morning and another hour in the late afternoon, depending on how many you receive.
While I’m not a proponent of “inbox zero” (clearing your inbox completely every single day), it is important to stay on top of it, particularly if you receive a lot. Set your timer and race against the clock to get as many replied to as possible in your allotted time.
Having set times is also a great tip for cutting back on social media usage. If you struggle with spending too much time scrolling, this video has plenty of other tips to help you curb your addiction:
7. Have a process
Don’t just open your inbox and immediately get lost in the first email you see. Scan through them all to see if any can be immediately deleted, remembering to unsubscribe or filter if certain ones are going to continue to arrive in future.
Then go through the ones that will only require a quick reply. (You’ll generally know from the subject line and the person sending it which ones these will be.) If the reply takes less than two minutes, and it’s genuinely necessary to reply, type it out and send it off. Remember to use your canned responses to help you get through these quicker.
Then jump into the more meaty emails.
- If they need to be filed, add them to the appropriate folder.
- If they require you to do some action, add that to your to-do list immediately.
- If they mention an important date or deadline, add it to your calendar immediately.
- If they require a response that you can give straight away, go for it.
- If they require a response that will require a little more time or research on your part, file them in a “to be actioned” folder so you know to come back to them.
And, unless you need to keep them for some particular reason (in which case, they should probably go in a folder), get into the habit of deleting emails when you’re done with them.
And there you have it. Follow these tips to declutter your email inbox and you’ll soon be a whizz. As with social media, email should be seen as a tool that improves our lives. We should never be a slave to it, so take a long hard look at the types of emails that you’re both sending and receiving and decide if they’re necessary. If they’re not, take steps to eliminate them once and for all.
Reply, file, filter, or delete — these are the cornerstones of any great email system.
You may also be interested in: