1. Don’t use email organization to procrastinate
If you’re like me, you love tasks that feel like work–but really aren’t.
I used to feel overwhelmed by new and big projects and would do anything I could to avoid them.
I needed to feel like I was working, but just couldn’t make myself attend to my first-priority tasks. I invested hours in unnecessary long-term strategy, spreadsheet design/coding, and low-priority communications.
This advice may sound like heresy, but the best way to stop procrastinating is simply to take a break.
Play a video game. Go for a walk or a ride. Do some yoga. Watch a video. Go online shopping (maybe for gifts).
All of these activities are more productive than pretending to work. Better yet, they create emotional energy instead of burning it on needless faux-work tasks.
Not everything is black and white, but this should be: work when you work and play when you play. Don’t spend your time fiddling with low-urgency emails when you have an important one to address. Accept that you’ll never get everything done and prioritize your emails (see tip #5).
2. To organize your inbox, stop obsessing
If you compulsively check your email, forget everything I just said. You don’t need to make email a priority; you need to hold yourself back.
Not every email deserves a response–and many don’t need to be read at all (see #6).
Take control of your time and let go of your “must check email…” guilt. Tell the important people in your work, family, and social lives to text you if they have urgent information to share.
Only answer emails when it suits your schedule. It can help to block out a part of your day specifically for emails, and then to ignore your inbox for the rest of the day.
3. Create separate email accounts for each part of your life
For most of us, three email accounts will suffice. (Don’t create fun but needless faux-work by setting up dozens of email accounts and sub-folders).
Work email account
Protect this account from distractions at all costs. Don’t share it with friends and family. Don’t subscribe to career-related newsletters and bulk emails via this account (use your social account, instead).
When you open your work email account, you should see only email directly addressed to you. Keep this one lean, mean, and targeted to your high-priority work (see #5).
Family and friends email account
Give your closest friends and family members access to a special account just for them. You don’t want to be distracted by family drama and upcoming social events when you’re in the zone and working fast.
Give this email address to your children’s schools/caretakers for updates and notifications–they have your phone number for emergencies, right?
Social/bulk email account
Protect your other accounts from “read-but-don’t-respond” items by creating a bulk account for everything else.
Give this address out to career/parenting gurus, newsletters, subscriptions, ebook downloads, etc. Make sure all notifications from social media sites go to this address (or just turn them off).
4. Only check one account at a time
Check your work emails at work. Check your personal emails after work (or on breaks).
Let your family and friends know they need to send text messages if they want immediate responses. Check your bulk email account when you’re looking for something to read at night–or on your commute.
Your focus is your greatest asset. Don’t let anything distract you from your peak productivity hours.
Experts say we spend only 5% of our work time in the valuable flow state that creates our best work and hottest ideas.
Remember, it doesn’t do any good to maintain separate email accounts if alerts pop up in your browser, on your desktop, and on your phone. Take a little time to tame these temptations–a little digging through your settings and preferences can create a lot of mental peace and quiet.
5) Prioritize within email accounts
You may be asking yourself, “But how do I get to my email? I have a work-only account, and it’s always flooded!”
All emails are not created equal. Triage your inbox by sorting messages into folders–quickly!
I almost didn’t add this point, because I’m the kind of person who can waste time creating endless and elegant nested folder systems. However, a simple system of flags/stars can help you weed out distractions.
Hit the flag icon at the top of the screen. For example, you could choose green flags for “not now, but by the end of the day” emails and blue flags for “read-only.” Archive these messages, which will be saved in a special “flagged” area for easy access.
Use “special stars” to manage emails by clicking the blank star to the right of the sender’s name. Keep clicking – Google will offer up each of the various special stars you’ve assigned to categories.
6) The email organizing tip to rule them all: unsubscribe
This one is the easiest for some folks and the hardest for others.
Hopefully, you haven’t subscribed to any email lists with your work/family email addresses. If you have, transfer them over to your social/bulk account (or just delete them).
When looking through your social/bulk inbox for something to read, don’t just pass by the uninteresting stuff. Delete them from your life.
Take a moment to unsubscribe and move on with your life. If a content provider doesn’t maintain your interest and make you feel excited to read their articles, just cut the cord.
Unsubscribing can also be time-consuming, so remember that prevention is better than any cure–don’t subscribe unless you know you want it in your inbox.
If you collect minutiae like blog subscriptions, event calendars, coupons, and promotions, remember you can Google all of these things whenever you want. Don’t be a hoarder–unsubscribe, clear your inbox, and clear your mind!
7) Use a group calendar
Are you still thinking, “But what about all these event emails?”
Depending on your lifestyle, you might be inundated with event emails (and endless group replies) for work meetings, play dates, and social events. If so, confront the issue at the source, not the receiving end.
Be firm with your colleagues, friends, and family members. Use Google Calendar to keep track of all your events and delete event invitation emails as soon as you have them in your calendar.
8) Separate your hardware, too
Unless you’re specifically on-call during certain hours, unplug from work by removing your work email from your phone.
Give yourself time away from the daily deluge to ruminate on your best ideas and enjoy your free time.
You need social time and daydreaming time to hit your brain’s “reset button”; when you return to your computer, you’ll be fresh and ready to respond to messages with savvy and grace.
Conversely, take your personal and bulk accounts off of your work computer. Use your phone to touch base with friends and family on your breaks.
With a complete separation between your email accounts (and devices), you won’t be tempted to answer personal emails at work.
With fewer distractions and faux-work opportunities, you may find yourself less compelled to check your emails every 10 minutes. Take a breath, get a sip of coffee, and dive into your top-priority work with aplomb!
9) Be skeptical
What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
You may waste time and energy trying to decide what work to do. This falls into the category of faux-work I described in tip #1.
Many professionals use the Eisenhower Matrix to quickly prioritize tasks and decisions. When comparing various emails (and trying to decide what to deal with first), ask yourself:
- Is it urgent?
- Is it important?
Be careful. Many people create a false sense of urgency in email headers. If someone is claiming urgency but doesn’t back it up with facts, set this email aside for later study (or don’t).
The goal of email triage is to identify those emails that you know are urgent–not those with the most dramatic titles.
Likewise, people want to feel important, so they plead strong cases for their pet projects. When reading emails, you have to take a broader view and make the hard decisions.
Put clients first, bosses second, and coworkers third.
Prioritize your close family over distant relations. Give your best friends a listening ear, but don’t spend your time replying to irrelevant messages from random acquaintances.
10) Wizard-level email organizing using the Eisenhower Matrix
Armed with your skepticism, use the Eisenhower Matrix to separate your emails into four categories:
Urgent and important
Attend to these issues right away, but after you sort the rest of the day’s emails. (There could always be an even more urgent and important email further down the list.)
Urgent and non-important
Delegate. Forward these emails to someone else on your team. These issues may not be worth your time and attention but could be opportunities for people at lower levels in your organization to show their worth. Give someone a chance to manage a small issue and earn your trust.
Non-urgent and important
Flag (or star) these messages. You don’t want to forget them, but they don’t need immediate attention. Make a habit of reviewing and addressing these issues by the end of the day (or another appropriate daily milestone).
Non-urgent and non-important
Delete these messages. Let the senders know not to clog up your inbox with things they can attend to themselves–or just ignore.
11) Email management, final round
After prioritizing and categorizing your computer/phone, you’ll have a small set of emails remaining in your inbox. (You should have deleted, flagged/starred, and delegated/forwarded all the others.)
Take a look at this list. Instead of addressing the first one that came to your attention, you (hopefully) took the time to get the whole picture.
You set aside all but the most urgent/important messages. At this point, you can actually read the emails in your inbox.
Scan each email for just 30 seconds. Get more information about the issue.
Then, move on–before you get too absorbed. Skim all relevant emails before replying to them.
Finally (unless something is literally on fire), attend to those emails you can address the quickest. You’ll feel better checking a few simple responses off your list than composing a 20-minute response to a difficult issue.
All of these issues are urgent, right?
So just deal with the easiest ones first, gain some confidence, and tackle the hardest ones last.
Just be sure to take care of them all before your scheduled email time runs out for the day.
12) Last resort email organizing tips: Get to inbox zero with the nuclear option
If you’ve fallen so far behind that there’s literally no hope, you may have to declare email bankruptcy.
Archive all your messages (yes, all of them). Send a message to all of your family members, friends, and coworkers saying you’re starting anew.
Tell them to resend any emails that require responses–and hope for the best. Promise you’ll never, never let this happen again.
With your inbox completely clean and a fresh new commitment to others in your pocket, use the techniques in this article to stay the course.
Use the slight sting of shame that comes with email bankruptcy to your advantage. Tell everyone you meet about how great this technique worked for you–and how proud you are to reach inbox zero every day.