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A busy business owner’s guide to taming an out of control email inbox

Secretly, my ultimate goal is an empty inbox. I create folders and subfolders and diligently file emails away as soon as possible, or delete anything I no longer need. The thought of my inbox growing massive in number kind of scares me - an irrational fear that if it grows beyond a certain amount, it’s too late to be saved, and I’d just have to give up and let it run wild. Some might call it OCD, I just like to call it ‘organised’.

Sorting through and dealing with emails can become a time-consuming and unproductive task. While ‘Inbox Zero’ may seem like an unattainable goal, a clean and manageable inbox is within everyone’s grasp. Here are my 10 tips for taming an out of control inbox:


1. Filter

Set up filters on your inbox so it automatically separates your emails out into different categories. For example, in addition to your main inbox, you can have an inbox for emails relating to your social media accounts and also for email subscriptions. That way, when you open up your account, you only have to deal with important emails directed to you personally, and you can save checking up on the latest deals from your favourite stores for your lunch break.

2. Deal with emails immediately

Don’t check an email and then tell yourself that you’ll deal with it later, because chances are, it will keep getting pushed to the bottom of the to-do pile and then be simply forgotten. If you don’t have time to give your email appropriate attention at the time, then don’t open it. This includes checking email before bed, or while you’re driving in the car - just don’t!

If there’s something that needs a bit more thought or input from other sources, then ‘flag’ it and set a reminder deadline in your calendar for when it needs to be dealt with .

3. Dedicate email time

With point two in mind, choose when you check in. Dedicate some time at certain points during the day to work through your emails. Checking your email on and off throughout the day can become disruptive and unproductive. An email might pop up that distracts you from the task you were currently working on, or you might get caught up in a email train that really doesn’t need your attention.

If you’re anything like me, I deal with people from a wide range of time zones, so I’ll often open up my inbox in the morning to emails that have come through overnight. I like to clear out these emails first thing in the morning to deal with things that need immediate attention and hopefully catch the recipient before the end of their day on the other side of the world.

4. Create folders

You already know I’m a fan of folders! They make it A LOT easier to find conversations, contacts and documents if you need to. It also means you can keep your inbox clear of clutter without having to delete anything. Create folders and subfolders for different tasks, projects, clients or subjects.

5. Create templates

Reduce response time by creating some canned replies that you can use as a template for responding to enquiries, these are particularly helpful if you regularly send links or attachments to recipients. Check out our post, 10 tricks you didn't know to improve your use of Gmail to see how you can create canned responses in Gmail, as well as 9 other awesome Gmail hacks.

6. Create rules

An email provider such as Gmail or Outlook will allow you to create customised rules. These rules automatically filter emails to appropriate folders so they don’t clutter up your inbox.

For example, if you don’t have a separate personal email account, then I recommend setting up rules for certain email addresses (ie. your friends, sports teammates, family) so that their emails are filtered straight into your ‘personal’ folder. This will help prevent you from being distracted during the day by non-work related correspondence. You’ll still be able to see when a new email appears there.

7. Unsubscribe

We enter our email addresses in so many places these days that it’s hard to even keep track of what we’ve signed up for. Unsubscribe to emails that you find yourself frequently moving straight to the trash, or if possible, at least check your preferences so you’re receiving one email a week rather than every day. There are also several online tools you can use to do a bulk ‘unsubscribe’ to things you’ve signed up for, rather than going through the tedious process of unsubscribing individually.

8. Use communication tools rather than email

Email shouldn’t be your default for communicating. While it can sometimes be helpful to have an email trail, using a project collaboration tool will also help manage this. Use project management tools for coordinating your team and external stakeholders. You’ll still be able to search through the history of your communication, as well as attach documents and emails if necessary. Emails can also be easily be misinterpreted. So only use email to communicate facts, not emotions.

I work in an office where we don’t have desk phones - this is great because it reduces noise and disruption, but also means we can’t just dial up the person we need to speak to. Instead we use desktop software such as Skype and Google Hangouts to communicate, which are just as effective, and stops all those unnecessary short and conversational emails from overloading your inbox.

9. Turn off notifications

Don’t allow yourself to be a slave to the email notification! Turn off notifications on your smartphone or tablet - especially after hours. Having access to emails on handheld devices has created a culture where we are expected to be on our emails all the time. Instead, set the expectation that you are not available around the clock, and don’t expect that your employees will be either. If something is that urgent, pick up the phone.

10. Track your time

Ask your team to track their unbillable time so that it captures how long they’ve spent on client emails. By being accountable for their time, they’ll be encouraged to become more efficient with the way they communicate and will help highlight how you can further streamline your operations.

Want to dive a little deeper? The team at HubSpot have created the ultimate guide to achieving inbox zero, which takes an indepth look at how you can best manage your inbox depending on the type of emailer you are. 

Have you managed to achieve ‘inbox zero’? What other tips do you have for managing an unruly inbox?

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Monica Shepherd
Monica is a marketing copywriter for WorkflowMax, creating content for the website, blogs and ebooks. Having run a copywriting business helping a wide range of businesses create stand-out marketing and website content, she has a thorough understanding of the challenges business owners face. By sharing this insight at WorkflowMax she can continue to follow her passion for helping small businesses punch above their weight.

Monica Shepherd