you'll never actually reach the goal of having zero emails in your inbox. so why aim for that? because, like any goal, it's not always about the destination but rather the journey. am i getting too philosophical? probably, so let's start from square one.
this post is long, but stick it out and i guarantee big changes in your inbox!
tips for managing your email inbox:
one | replying, response time and politeness
i have lots of techniques in this area but the main thing i would like to pass on to you is this - clean out your inbox every three days. and by "clean out" i mean "respond to emails." doing this every third day will guarantee that your inbox never grows to hundreds of emails. as a bonus - people will appreciate the moderately short response time! try to get your inbox down to less than ten emails. put aside thirty minutes and just bang right through it without getting distracted!
also, if you don't think you can respond to someone's email within a week because it requires more time and commitment than you can manage - send a quick response saying that you've received the message but will have to follow up a bit later.
finally, try not to fall into the habit of mimicking other's response times. i often find myself responding very quickly when i know the person i'm emailing always replies within minutes. it's fine to quickly send a note back (i prefer to operate this way) - as long as by doing so you aren't creating more work for yourself (by responding when you should be doing other things, or by responding and therefore speeding up a project you're not ready to work on just yet). and if the person who has emailed you is known for not replying to emails for days, weeks or even months - don't put off your response when you have the time to do it now. doing this will just cause you to procrastinate and the email will never get responded to!
two | flagging, important tabs and starring
i never used to use these tools until last year. i started to work at a job where i managed an email inbox, and not only did it receive tons and tons of emails each day, but other colleagues occasionally had access to it as well. so flagging emails as important was key. doing so meant that they needed to be dealt with and not deleted.
recently gmail introduced the "importance" tabs. clicking them teaches gmail that those are the types of emails you believe to be top priority. i use these tabs as task markers. if i mark the email as important that means it needs a reply or a task completed (i.e. collaborating on a guest post, a recent order in my etsy shop or an email from my mother asking me about my flights home this summer). emails not marked as important may not require a response at all, or can be left till i have lots of free time.
you can also star emails. i use this very sparringly. that way, when i click to view my starred emails - only the most important messages come up. this includes flight bookings, emails that include passwords or logins, and my current tax forms.
three | responding to emails on the go
i used to respond to as many emails as possible on my phone. but then i realized i was making spelling mistakes and other errors. so now i only respond to chatty friend emails and very pressing matters from my phone. use your down time on busses or in line ups to check your emails. be sure to delete junk, and those emails that don't require a response, and leave the others till you are at a desktop computer.
four | folders
all email programs let you have folders. use them!!! get as specific as you like but definitely file away 80% of your emails (the rest should be deleted). most servers allow you to have a lot of emails so don't feel like you have to delete everything. you never know when you'll need to pull up an old email for proof, reference or just a walk down memory lane. here's an example of folder themes i have created: finances (e-bills, money transfers etc), receipts, blog, web (all those website sign ups!), etsy shop, etsy transactions, work, home (landlord emails, rent discussions, craigslist listings), weddings (my own or planning for friends), and the arts. *colour code your folders. there is nothing dorky about doing this. assign colours that you associate with that topic (i have synaesthesia so i just assign whatever colour that word or topic is in my mind - but for you i would suggest green for "finances", orange for your "blog" folder if you use blogger, white/grey for "weddings" etc).
five | follow up folder
yes, this is a folder but this tip is so important it gets its own section! whether i'm filing at home or work, i always have a "follow-up" folder. it literally means that i must follow up on it. it's not so important that it needs to sit in my inbox as a constant reminder, but it's important enough that it cannot be forgotten, deleted or filed away completely. i recommend peeking inside your follow up folder once a week. make sure that there is nothing pressing, and file or delete the emails in which the task has already been taken care of. examples of emails in my follow up folder include: online orders that have yet to arrive at my home, tracking information, self bcc's on my resume being sent out, flight bookings, classes i am taking, upcoming appointments and information i am waiting on. if an email is in the follow up folder, it means you are waiting for something (event or a response) and the ball is in someone else's court.
six | use it like a to do list
it's a great idea to use your email inbox like a to do list. assume that if an email is in the main inbox - you still have something to do (if not it's filed, or it's in the follow up folder). when i do my three day inbox clean up, i "complete tasks" by responding to emails or finishing a project. this may be different for freelancers who have very long term projects. after the clean up, the emails that remain (remember: aim for less than ten!) mean that the task is too big to complete at that time.
i also think it's a great idea to email yourself "to do's." at any given time i have at least three-five emails from myself. often they include images i need to file, ideas for new products or links i would like to check out. most of the time the info in these emails gets transferred during a clean up later to my "evernote" program.
seven | cc and bcc
i wasn't going to include these, but it has come to my attention lately that not everyone understands how to use "cc" and "bcc." that's cool - maybe no one ever taught you! or maybe you are younger and don't know about their history. using cc and bcc correctly will minimize the amount of emails you have to send. and possibly the amount of emails you receive from people who are like "what? i didn't know about this! why didn't you tell me about this?" also, i'm a dork and like to bcc myself so that i can imagine what it's like for someone else to read my email (i.e. proposals, project ideas or resume intros)
"cc" stands for carbon copy. as with most tech words, it's based on real life objects. because i work in art galleries, i use real carbon copy paper on a daily basis. when you write someone a receipt, an invoice or just something you need multiple copies of, you use carbon copy. you write on the top sheet (usually white) and the ink transfers through to the bottom sheets (yellow, and sometimes a pink one as well). so, when you email someone, by putting another email in the cc field, you are sending the message to that person as well. doing so suggests that the email is meant for the first person, but the cc'd person should be aware of the information. often-times people with admin assistants will send emails to colleagues or clients and cc their assistant. this way the assistant knows where the boss will be or to book an appointment for them.
"bcc" is a blind carbon copy. when you place an email address within this field - the other people you are sending it to cannot see the bcc'd email. it's kind of a nasty but brilliant invention. you may include someone else in the bcc so that there is proof you sent the email. or maybe you just want someone to be aware of certain information without the recipient knowing. never assume that you are the only person an email is sent to. a less naughty reason for bcc is group emails. if you are emailing to multiple people, it's not fair to share their addresses so publicly. when sending to five or more people, always put their emails in the bcc box. you can just put your own email in the main address field.
eight | contact list
okay, i'm totally guilty of slacking on this one. most email programs now are intuitive and if you start typing a person's name or email - the rest of it will pop up. but it's smarter to complete your contact list by going to your email address book and inserting a person's first and last name, or alternate emails. this is really helpful because sometimes you can think of someone's first or last name but not their email. but since not everyone has their full name connected to their email - nothing will come up. for example - i can start typing in "sarah..." but if sarah is private and doesn't attach her name to her email account, then nothing will come up. i need to remember that her email is "wink293@..." but emails are so unique it's not that simple to remember everyone's! (like cell phone numbers...nobody memorizes them anymore because you can dial someone by clicking their name!) i'm going to get my contact list done properly any day now and i suggest you do as well :)
nine | threads & titling
gmail has (what i believe to be) an annoying habit of creating email threads. this means that if i send out an email to multiple people - instead of getting separate responses in return - they will all come back attached to the original email. this means i can't file the responses in different folders. the whole email chunk can only be filed once.
or, if i am having a conversation with my best friend, we may send seventeen emails back and forth throughout the day (real scenario!). but only two of those emails contain ideas or links about her wedding. so of course i want to file away those emails but only the two, not the whole seventeen because i would have to scavenge through all seventeen later if i want to find those links/ideas!
here's the solution - when you realize you have discussed something of importance that you want to file, change the subject title. this will separate the emails.
another really important reason to title your emails correctly was discussed recently on jeremy and kathleen. if you use accurate and specific subjects, you'll be able to find the email much easier at a later date! see kathleen's post for more information on this (she has some inbox tips at the bottom of her email as well. i disagree with the "mark as unread" tip however, because when i look at my iphone, i like to know when i really have a new email, not just a fake unread email that needs responding. i think flagging works better).
ten | edit edit edit
this isn't directly related to managing your inbox but in a way it is. if you take the time to re-read your emails before you send them out, not only will it save you embarrassment over spelling mistakes, but it will help to avoid confusion and emails from people who need clarification. i've definitely received some emails where all i can do is respond and say "what are you talking about? what's the overall point or message here?" because when there are so many grammatical errors, run-on sentences and missing data it means you need more information - creating more work and less time for everyone!
bonus tip | don't stress
in this post on scathingly brilliant, kate talks about obessively over analyzing sent emails. i often find myself doing a quick read over in the sent folder (it's too late what's the point??) or bcc'ing myself. but don't re-read or obsess over the emails you send to the point where you begin to develop or ulcer...or worse, start to hate email! because in the end - although it's how we communicate now - it's still a very casual method (and truly, it's only a step above texting), so relax!