10 killer ways to tame your email inbox

Takeaway: 10 killer ways to tame your email inbox: Keep a tally of how many times you check your email every day for a week; keep all of your emails to five sentences or less (and make a note of it in your signature); don’t check for new email unless you have the time, energy, and attention to deal with whatever might come in; register for Unroll.me; quit organizing your email into folders; follow the “Yesterbox” technique; shut off email alerts; wait a bit before sending important messages; schedule sending emails in the future; and declare an email holiday.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes, 36s (but it’s skimmable).

10-killer-ways-tame-email-inbox_

If you’re average, chances are you spend more than one quarter of your time at work on email.

According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the average employee spends 2.6 hours every day on email—that’s equivalent to 28% of your work day, and this study was conducted in 2012; I wouldn’t be surprised if that number has gone up since.

But not only does email suck up a ton of your time; it also sucks up a ton of your attention. The other week I asked a few of my coaching clients to tally how many times a day they automatically checked for new email messages, and the average between them was a whopping 41 times. In other words, their attention was derailed from what they were supposed to focus on 41 times over the course of the day.

With email being such a huge productivity pain point, I’ve gathered together my 10 favorite email hacks that I know will help you tame your email inbox. Over the last few years I’ve encountered countless email hacks—some that have worked, and even more that haven’t. These are my 10 favourites of the bunch, and I use (and can vouch for) every single one of them.

1. Keep a tally of how many times you check your email every day for a week

When you keep a food diary and track everything you eat, studies show that you eat up to a third less.1

The same holds true with checking your email—when you keep a tally of how many times you check your email over the course of a day, you not only become more aware of the sheer number of times you check for new messages (and can work over time to decrease that number), but you also check for new messages a lot less. Some people recommend scheduling time where you check your email, but from my experience (and the experience of the people I have talked to), that hardly ever works. Keeping a tally of how often you check your email works the best, and working over time to decrease that number will allow you to save your time and attention for much higher-return tasks.

2. Keep all of your emails to five sentences or less, and make a note of it in your signature

One of my favorite email hacks is to keep every email message I send to five sentences or less, and make a note of it in my signature. If I need to send a longer response, I simply call the person I’m responding to, when I can.

To my surprise, most folks didn’t mind receiving emails from me after I started using this hack, especially since it took me way less time to respond to new messages. Naturally, your mileage may vary depending on where you work.

Everyone likes a person who gets to the point quickly, and keeping your messages to five sentences or less forces you to do just that. It’s also a great cue to invest in relationships with your friends and coworkers when you need to give a more detailed response, and it leads to a lot fewer misunderstandings.

3. Don’t check for new email unless you have the time, energy, and attention to deal with whatever might come in

The problem with checking for new email messages habitually is you often don’t have the time, energy, or attention to deal with what might come in, so you just waste your time when you do so.

I think this is also the reason you shouldn’t check your email first thing in the morning: when you wake up, you usually don’t have the energy or attention to deal with new email messages, so you just stress yourself out and let email take control over your day.

Before you check for new email messages, ask yourself whether you have the time, energy, and focus to deal with what might come in, and only check for new messages if you do.

4. Register for Unroll.me with your Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook.com account

When you register for Unroll.me with your Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook.com account, the service rolls up all of your subscription emails into one convenient, daily email, and it’s totally free.

The service also lets you quickly view everything you’re subscribed to, so you can unsubscribe from any mailing lists you regularly receive with just one click. Unroll.me is one of my favorite services out there, and I highly recommend it.

5. Quit organizing your email into folders

A recent study conducted by IBM asked the question: what takes less time, searching through your inbox to find a buried email, or organizing your email into folders?

It turns out that searching through your inbox is way faster. On average, it took participants 66.07s to search for an email, and 72.87s to find an email in a folder—but these times don’t take into account the time a user spent sorting their email in the first place!

Even if you have a complex email organizational system, chances are searching through your inbox is way faster than sorting your email.

6. Follow the “Yesterbox” technique

The “yesterbox” email technique is simple: rather than aiming to totally clear out your email inbox at the end of each day, you simply answer yesterday’s email today (and today’s email tomorrow). Every message gets a one day delay unless it’s so urgent that you absolutely have to deal with it right away, and yesterday’s email simply becomes your to-do list for today. The technique also lets you see at a glance how much work and email you’ll have to tackle tomorrow.

The technique may not work with your work email, but I use the technique to stay on top of my personal email. It’s a great way to regain control over your inbox and not be pulled around by whatever emails you happen to receive throughout the day.

7. Shut off email alerts

Email alerts don’t cost you a ton of time, but they cost you a lot in attention—every time you receive one, the alert hijacks your attention away from what you’re working on.

When you shut off email alerts, you can bring a lot more attention to what you’re working on in the moment, and dedicate more of yourself to whatever you’re working on without your attention being hijacked when your aunt sends you kitten pictures.

8. Wait a bit before sending important messages

I think it’s worth waiting as long as would be socially responsible before sending important email messages.

This tactic may sound obvious, but when you wait before responding to important messages, you’ll not only save yourself from sending a ton of emails back and forth with someone, you’ll also give your mind time to collect and form thoughts so you can make what you say more complete, valuable, and creative.

9. Schedule sending emails in the future 

There are several email plugins that will allow you to type up a response to an email now, but delay sending the message until a later date and time that you specify.

These plugins not only give you a way to wait before sending important messages, but also help you manage other people’s expectations (like that you don’t respond to email right away, or outside of business hours). Here are my favorite send-later plugins for Gmail, Apple Mail, Outlook, and Android.

10. Declare an email holiday

When an old coworker of mine needed to hunker down and get something important done, she would set up an email auto-responder (with her phone number in it for emergencies), and then work on what she needed to get done for an entire day or two.

When she disconnected for an entire day or two, the world didn’t stop turning, and she was able to get a lot more done. Taking a break for a day or two from email gives your mind a much-needed rest, allows you to focus on bigger and better things, and chances are it will provide you with even more energy when you reconnect.

 


  1. Source: http://ayearofproductivity.com/4-tested-ways-third-less-at-your-next-meal/ 

  • Bruce

    Chris, these are excellent observations as usual. I have used Unroll in the past with great success (eliminated over 90 subscriptions that were no longer relevant).

    I absolutely agree that I prefer to use search over folders. However, what if your email service (e.g. Microsoft Outlook in a corporate setting) has poor search capability? In that context, the only way I can think to manage is to use folders.

    • Thanks Bruce! Totally get you about being stuck on Outlook at work—at pretty much every job I’ve worked I’ve been stuck on painfully out of date versions of Outlook.. What version are you running? From what I remember, searching got drastically better starting in Outlook 2010.

      • Bruce

        Chris, I have Outlook 2010 and still find it lacking compared to Gmail. The added effort of sorting into folders combined with small email storage quotas (~500MB) makes it a less than awe inspiring solution. I hope that Google email becomes more popular in the corporate world.

  • Ellen Symons

    Great tips, Chris. I’ve been using Unroll.me since you mentioned it, and I’m going to try this Yesterbox technique now too. I’ve also been using the Bullet Journal method – bulletjournal.com – and that’s going very well for me.

    • Thanks Ellen! Hope you’ve been well!

      I gave Bullet Journal a shot, but for some reason it didn’t stick with me.. guess I prefer managing my tasks and calendar digitally :-)

  • Helen Günther

    Cris, what do you mean with “…and make a note of it in my signature…”? Please, do you have an example? Tks

    • Hi Helen, here’s the current text I use at the bottom of my emails (after I sign my name) :-)


      (for your benefit & mine I keep every email I send to 5 sentences or smaller)

  • Great tips, very on point. Thank you.

  • Great tips here!

    • Thanks for reading my friend!

      • Your welcome, thank you for always publishing great content!

  • Andrew

    And here I have been organising my emails into folders. I even have a heap of rules set up trying to keep things organised.

  • Lauren

    Hi Chris, on your point 1 – I’ve been trying to check emails just 3 times a day. Once at 9am, once at 1pm and finally at 4:30pm. I spend approximately 15 minutes answering emails at these times. So far it’s been great and means I’m only spending 45 minutes a day on emails instead of the 2+ hours I was spending prior to this.

  • Terrence

    I tried Unroll.me a while back but it never achieved what I really wanted. It only blocked some of my newsletters and I was really hoping that it would completely unsubscribe me from everything, rather than just “cloaking” them emails.

  • Jaime

    Doesn’t Yesterbox just put off work for the future? Most productive experts I read seem to recommend doing everything possible today rather than putting it off until tomorrow. I love the other tips though!

  • Peter Nichols

    Point 3 is so simple but it took an image and someone to tell me for me to get it! Thanks so much Chris, time to start taking control of my mailbox!

  • Sharon

    As far as alerts go, also remember to close your Gmail window! I used to keep mine open all the time waiting for that little (1) to display next to the title. It was a constant distraction!

  • Tomas

    Great post. If I had to summarize? “Set expectations of everyone you deal with so they know you won’t drop everything to deal with them – they need to be organized!”

  • Matthew K

    Email holidays! I went to New Zealand last year and spent a week in the backcountry without any phone reception. It was a huge energy recharge for me and my clients were completely cool with it!

  • These are some really great ideas. Email doesn’t take away too much of my day, but it used to. I just started to really pay attention to it and pare down email from places that I didn’t want to receive anymore. I mean, I just started unsubscribing from everything (almost). Now I get about a third of the emails. Not only that, but they’re more important so I feel like I can focus on more things that matter.

  • Cassandra Brown

    Since reading this blog I added the p.s “Please know I am on a productivity mission – therefore I aim for your benefit and mine to keep emails short – ideally 5 lines or fewer. Feedback/Requests for clarification welcome!” to my mails. It has made a huge difference. People are now used to me being brief, and the p.s even encourages me to be brief. It’s been really successful :-)

  • Pingback: Spring Clean Your Life: 11 Ideas to Freshen Up Your Mind, Body and Routines | The Health Sessions()

  • Pingback: Tackle Your Email | Status Reporting Made Simple by UpdateZen()

  • Chris,
    I found your site through a search I do for articles on Email Overload.
    Agree with all your key points, especially the ones about eliminating the use of folders and relying on the power of your Email client’s Search feature, reducing the size of your messages, and turning off alerts. I am also a big proponent of only checking your Email at periodic points during the day as opposed to constantly (although you can set up a few rules for truly important messages to bypass this approach). By using the Pomodoro Technique, you can really ‘power through’ your Emails in a much more effective and efficient manner. I have many of your suggestions, as well as a few other ideas and approaches to help reduce Email Overload on my site (www.EmailOverloadSolutions.com). Please feel free to check it out if you have a chance. It’s just a personal area of interest for me and I am trying to assemble some of the best practices and available resources to help people with this challenge.
    Keep up the great content!
    Best Regards,
    Dr. Michael Einstein

Pin It on Pinterest

Emails suck. My newsletter doesn't.

After you sign up, I'll send you a few brand new productivity posts every Monday morning.

Join 200,000 monthly readers and never miss a single thing!

You can unsubscribe at any time, and I won't do anything slimy with your email. There are no catches.