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I’m going to start off by saying something controversial: I think that aiming for complete ‘inbox zero’ is a fool’s errand. If your only goal is to reach that golden number, you’ll spend more time worrying about and optimising your inbox than actually being productive. That said, having a clean and well-organised email inbox is an underrated tool in your productivity toolbox.

 

If you dread opening your email inbox, if you’re distracted by newsletters and long email chains you’ve been CC’d on, then sending and responding to emails can become a real-time suck. This post will teach you some tricks to keep your email inbox clean and distraction-free.

 

First things first

The first step to reaching ‘inbox zero’ (or at least ‘inbox manageable’) is to set aside time to set up the structure you’ll need to keep things flowing smoothly. Open up your calendar (go ahead, I’ll wait) and book one to two hours to wrangle the existing emails in your inbox and to build what you’ll need to keep it spick and span. Working with teams all over the world, I’ve found that the biggest hurdle that people face is getting started! Make the time and commit to it. It might seem like an extravagance to spend time ‘cleaning’ your inbox, but it will pay dividends in future efficiency and time-saving.
 

Step 1: Clean up

To begin with, we need to sweep away those old emails that have been gathering dust at the bottom of your inbox. To do that, decide which emails can be deleted, which might need to be archived and which need to be put into folders.

 

Emails you can delete include app updates that you never read, meeting reminders for a call you had 2 months ago, and anything else that you don’t need to refer to again. To speed up the process of deleting them, there are a couple of things that you can do.

 

 

Bulk delete emails

If you identify a particular newsletter or app update that you know you don’t need, use the search function in your inbox to find all of those emails in your inbox, select them all, then delete them! It’s a very satisfying feeling to watch 50-odd emails disappear in a couple of clicks, believe me. You may want to leave one of each email in your inbox (you’ll see why before we get on to step two 😉).

 

In Gmail, you can find and either delete or move emails using a filter. With a filter, you search for emails that meet a certain criteria and can then decide what to do with any emails that meet that criteria (e.g. delete them, file them, etc). You can learn more about using Filters in Gmail in this help guide.

 

If you use Outlook, you can also make space in your inbox by using the ‘Conversation Clean Up’ feature, which looks at long email chains and removes duplicated information. Check out this help guide from Microsoft for more information.

 

 

Archive for future reference

If you think an email may be useful for future reference, but it doesn’t fit within a certain project or client, you can archive it. Archiving will remove the email from your inbox but won’t delete it completely, so you can find it at a later date if needed.

 

How to archive emails:
  • Gmail: Select the emails you want to archive and click the “Archive” button.
  • Outlook: Right-click on the email, choose “Archive,” or manually move emails to an archive folder.

 

Create Folders to keep useful information organised

Archiving is useful, but if you know that you’ll want to refer back to information in the near future, or if you want to keep all emails around a certain topic in one place, folders are the way to go.

 

Folders are the filing system of your inbox, but surprisingly few people make use of them. Personally, I have folders for client emails (and subfolders for specific clients), invoices, partners and more. In Gmail, there are labels rather than folders, but you can remove the ‘Inbox’ label on an email to have the app only store an email under the relevant label, which works in the same way as a folder. If you’re not sure how to create folders in your inbox, here are some help guides from Microsoft and Gmail to get you started:

 

 

Don’t like? Unsubscribe

Remember those emails that we saved when you were deleting all the updates and newsletters that you don’t read? It’s time to take them and unsubscribe! Go through your inbox, find all of the newsletters and campaigns that aren’t useful for you and unsubscribe to all of them.

 

Step 2: Create rules to get you close to inbox zero

 

Setting Up Rules and Filters

Filters (Gmail) and rules (Outlook) are rules that tell your email provider what to do when you receive emails that match specific criteria. As an example, let’s say that you’re sent a monthly receipt once a month for a service that you use. You don’t need to look at the receipt, but you do need to keep it for tax purposes. You could set up a rule or filter that automatically marks any of those incoming receipts as read and adds them to your folder/label called ‘Receipts’.

  • Adding filters in Gmail: Click the gear icon, select “See all settings,” navigate to the “Filters and Blocked Addresses” tab, and create a new filter. Define your criteria and choose the actions for matching emails.
  • Adding rules in Outlook: Go to the “Home” tab, select “Rules,” and then “Manage Rules & Alerts.” Choose “New Rule” and follow the prompts to set your conditions and actions.

 

Use Zapier to automate additional tasks

You may have regular emails that require action on your part. Perhaps you need to take figures from in the email and add them to a spreadsheet, or you get emailed an invoice and need to save the file attached to the email into a folder that the rest of your team uses. That’s where Zapier comes in. You can use Zapier to automate the transfer of data from your emails to other apps. Using the invoice example, you can set up a Zap that:

  1. Triggers when you receive a new email with an attachment.
  2. Checks to see if the rest of the email details are correct (that it’s an invoice).
  3. Saves the document to Google Drive/Dropbox/Sharepoint.
If you need to extract data from the text of an email, you can try using Email Parser by Zapier, but will likely get better results by using either the AI by Zapier or OpenAI Zapier integrations, as they’re better equipped to interpret the information in the email body.
Gif showing a gmail inbox and the process of adding a label.
 

Step 3: an inbox zero mindset

Remember that a true ‘Inbox zero’ is almost impossible to achieve, but adopting the mindset of inbox zero can help you stay on top of your emails.

 

Establish a routine

Many of us check our emails either at random times of the day, or when we get an email notification. Instead, set a dedicated time that you will deal with any emails in your inbox. This could be between one and three times a day, depending on how many emails you receive and how time-sensitive they are. Block the time in your calendar so you remember to do it, don’t spend any other time in your inbox, and don’t let anything distract you when you are handling your emails.

 

If you’re worried that you’ll miss something important, you can use Zapier to set up a Slack/Teams/text alert when you get an important email.

 

Handling emails

In a series of blog posts (and this Google tech talk) Merlin Mann describes the 5 techniques of his ‘inbox zero’ methodology:
  • Delete: If the email isn’t relevant or is no longer necessary, delete or achieve it.
  • Respond: If the email can be answered quickly and easily, respond immediately.
  • Delegate: If you need someone else to answer the email, delegate it to that person immediately.
  • Defer: If the email requires a longer response, or you know that you’ll need to gather more information first, schedule time on your calendar to handle it later.
  • Do: If the email can be handled quickly and easily, do it immediately.
Ultimately, these rules boil down to keeping the time in your inbox as quick and painless as possible. If you can deal with something immediately, do. If not, delegate or schedule dedicated time to come back to it later.

 

If Mann’s 5 rules don’t gel with you, you can find your own way of deciding how to organise your emails, according to what needs to be done with them. For example, for the Defer category, Solvaa founder Kelly Goss has labels (folders) based on the action required: Action, Reading/Watching and Waiting. This allows her to stay on top of emails that require action and which are waiting for a response from someone else.

 

There’s no one way to manage your emails, and it may take some trial and error to find a system that works for you but it’s worth the time to figure it out. Knowing where to look for information and what needs your attention will help you find your inbox zen.

 

A regular tune-up

If you really want to keep things spick and span, make a recurring event in your calendar to clean up your inbox. Set aside around 30 minutes once a month to give your inbox a tune-up.

 

During these sessions:
  1. Go through any emails in your inbox and make sure that they’re all filed, archived or deleted as appropriate.
  2. Check your subscriptions, is there anything you need to unsubscribe from.
  3. Decide if you need any new rules/filters to keep things organised.

Summary

Keeping your inbox organised makes it easier for you to handle emails in an efficient and professional way. It’s the digital equivalent of ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’, reducing distractions and unnecessary mental clutter.

 

Take time to clear out your inbox, and set up rules, filters and automations. Set a regular time to work on your emails and regularly review your filters. This allows you to become an email master without sacrificing the work that waits for you outside of your inbox.

Solvaa is a process and automation consultancy specialising in improving sales, operations and financial administration workflows. We help you to simplify and streamline existing processes, integrate your business tools to make data transfer more efficient and automate manual tasks to increase productivity. We are Zapier Certified Experts, Pipedrive Certified Partners, SmartSuite Certified Partners and Xero Certified Advisors. 

Contact us today to discuss how Solvaa can help you simplify, improve and automate all aspects of your business to save you time, reduce costs and keep you agile as you grow.

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