If you’re like many people today, you’re busy—but despite that, you may not always feel very productive. There are plenty of seemingly unproductive tasks that eat up a valuable amount of time, and managing your email inbox is high up on that list.
From wading through irrelevant incoming messages, reading emails, responding to the important ones and keeping track of the emails you need to keep, a lot goes into managing the modern email inbox - let alone watching the amount of email notifications. And a lot of it feels more like busy work than value-adding productivity, especially if you aspire for inbox zero.
Thankfully, there are ways to ensure that email management takes up less of your valuable time—without setting your inbox on fire and running in the other direction.
Let’s dig in.
There are a lot of benefits to finding a way to better manage your email. Chief among them is this: Reaching email efficiency frees you up to focus on more important things. You can spend less time climbing the mountain of unread emails and more time on growing your startup. You can spend less time unsubscribing from irrelevant newsletters and more quality time with your family.
On top of that, there are some other key benefits of efficient inbox management:
Overall, getting control of your inbox means you can turn email back into a tool that streamlines communication and makes your life easier. Remember when that was true?
While improving your email management may sound great, we know that many people out there are looking at an Everest of unread emails and a complicated web of neglected folders and labels, created with the best of intentions.
In other words, we know that taking control of your inbox can feel very out of reach.
But it isn’t. Taking back control of your emails really comes down to setting aside the time and intention to do it, and it starts with following the 4 steps below.
Scaling a backlog of unread or unaddressed emails is a lot like playing Tetris. As you figure out where each piece fits, more pieces keep raining down into your inbox. So the first step in taking back control of your email is to stop (or at least slow) that incoming rainfall—so you can focus on what’s already in your inbox.
Most of us wind up on promotional email lists and newsletter campaigns that we never read and never glean any value from. But unsubscribing from each one can quickly eat up a lot of time and energy.
Instead, we recommend using a tool like Unroll.me—which enables you to connect your email account and see a full list of all your email subscriptions. With one click, you decide whether to keep the subscription or unsubscribe forever. You can manage all of your subscriptions in less than 5 minutes.
Once you’ve slowed the flow of new emails you have to deal with, it’s time to set up a system of folders and/or labels that makes sense for you. There are several ways to approach this, but it all comes down to choosing the organizational method that works best for you.
Step 2 involves the most thought and trial-and-error of all the steps here. So Step 3 is all about ensuring that work continues to simplify your life.
We all know that it’s one thing to create a hierarchy of email folders and labels—but it’s quite another to actually stick to that organizational strategy and use them regularly. In Step 3, you can use your email provider (Gmail, Outlook, etc.) to create filters and rules that automate that process for you.
For example, if you sort emails into business and personal folders, you can create a rule for emails from certain senders to go automatically to one folder or the other. So emails from your work domain go straight into the business folder, and emails from your spouse go directly to the personal folder.
In the spirit of making your newly controlled inbox easier to maintain for the long-term, step 4 is to build up a stack of tools and software that automate or otherwise streamline your email management.
For example, you can use a tool like Boomerang to send emails out of your inbox, only to return just when you need them again. You can use a tool like Sortd to help you turn emails into a workable to-do list.
The important part here is to find the tools that help you manage your inbox in a way that works for you. Some articles recommend that you don’t treat your inbox as a to-do list—but if that’s what works for you, you can find tools to help you do it better.
If that sounds like too much work, a Delegated virtual assistant can manage this entire process for you.
See how it works.
Once you’ve taken back control over your email inbox, it still takes some discipline and planning to maintain that control for the long-term. With that in mind, here are our top email management tips for better ongoing email and inbox management.
Whether you choose to manage emails daily or weekly, put actual time on your calendar and stick to it. That’s the only way to keep up with a busy inbox.
During this time, we recommend using a 3-pronged approach (as described by productivity expert JR Raphael for Fast Company) to your emails:
Delegated virtual assistants can make this judgment for you and send only the urgent messages your way.
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In short, you should observe the 5-minute rule: If an email will take less than 5 minutes to handle, do it right away.
Nothing drives more stress around email than the expectation of quick response times, at all hours of the day, 7 days a week. Cutting out that stressor means setting clear expectations and boundaries around your relationship to your inbox—and communicating those expectations to the people you regularly interact with via email.
The more time you invest in setting yourself up for email success, the better off you’ll be down the road. That includes creating the organizational hierarchy we talked about before (namely, email folders and labels), but it also includes things like:
Most email service providers (ESPs) have native features that can help with all of those things. Otherwise, you can use a tool like MixMax.
A Delegated VA can use these templates to handle many email responses for you.
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There’s been a lot of talk about reaching “inbox zero” of late. The mythical state where there are exactly zero emails sitting in your inbox. While that may sound pretty good, it shouldn’t be your primary goal, in and of itself. Instead, you should aim for inbox zen—which means your inbox is in whatever state allows you to be most productive and least stressed.
Whether you’re sending out product announcement emails or just corresponding with your team, one of the quickest ways to limit time spent on email management is to reel in your writing. Most emails don’t require a ton of writing and by spending longer on this than you need to, you’re passing along poor email management, too.
Instead, try to limit emails to 3-5 lines. You may be surprised to find that you rarely need more than that anyway.
When you’re handling business and personal emails from the same inbox, it can make it harder to create an organizational hierarchy that really works well for both types of emails. Where possible, splitting business and personal matters into separate email addresses and inboxes can make it easier to create a system that works for each.
In addition to blocking time for regular email management, we recommend keeping up with a deep email cleaning. You can do this monthly, quarterly, every 6 months—whatever works best for you. The idea is that, even with a clear hierarchy in place, emails can build up. So it’s best to go through folders regularly and archive any emails you no longer need to keep.
Viewing your email inbox as a sort of to-do list can quickly lead to a few issues with email organization, including these:
The safest bet is to stop using your inbox as a to-do list altogether. Instead, you can maintain a separate task or project management process. We recommend using a tool like Trello or Asana to organize your big projects and to-dos. With each, you can still use your email as a springboard for tasks, but they ultimately live (and are prioritized) outside of your inbox.
A virtual assistant from Delegated.com can help integrate email to-dos into your preferred task or project management process.
See how it works.
If you don’t want to cut the cord completely, you can use a tool like Sortd to help turn your inbox into an actual to-do list that you control and prioritize.
Email management issues are endemic to modern life. And regardless of email client, there's tools built to help with the barrage of incoming mail. The positive side of that is that countless tools and software have been developed with the primary goal of making email management less difficult and time-consuming.
Below are 7 tools we recommend to help you recapture and maintain control over your inbox.
Boomerang works as an add-on to both Gmail and Outlook and helps to declutter your inbox. With the extension, you can “boomerang” email threads so they disappear from your inbox and you can set a specific date or time frame for when they return.
Mixmax is one of the most robust email management tools we’ve come across. You can use it to create email templates and canned responses, to more easily schedule meetings via email, to schedule email sending, and more.
Hiver is designed to make it easier and faster to manage and collaborate on shared inboxes, with features to help you assign and delegate emails, track progress, and share notes across the team.
Unroll.me is the fastest and easiest way to declutter your inbox en masse. When you connect your email account to Unroll.me, the tool lists out all of the email subscriptions clogging up your inbox. From there, it takes one click to unsubscribe from each.
Sortd is designed for those who want to use their email for task management—but they want a better way to do that. With Sortd, you can create custom lists and easily transform emails into tasks.
SaneBox is a more robust version of many of the native features of email service providers like Gmail and Outlook. The software uses AI to more intelligently automate email management tasks like sorting and decluttering your inbox, snoozing emails that aren’t urgent, reminding you to follow up, and more.
Zapier isn’t an email-specific tool, but their API software enables you to connect nearly any app you use as part of your day-to-day. So you can create automated workflows (called Zaps) to do things like automatically upload email attachments to Google Drive or turn emails into new Trello cards.
With the tools and advice above, anyone can take back control of their inbox and streamline their email management process. But the reality is, maintaining control of your email still takes regular investment of time and effort. Emails keep rolling in and demanding to be addressed.
Instead of maintaining all of that yourself, you could outsource regular email management to a virtual assistant (VA)—so you only have to deal with the really important things.
When you work with a Delegated VA, you specify all the details like:
Plus, as your dedicated VA gains more experience working with you, they’ll get better and better at determining how to handle individual messages and defer to your email management preferences and habits. Some of the things they can handle include:
In other words, you can finally get your head out of your inbox and focus on more productive tasks and projects.
There are a few concerns we often hear from people who are new to having a virtual assistant in their inbox. We know that it can feel a little weird at first—but based on our experience, the benefits of time and energy saved quickly overtake that concern.
If you’re still unsure, here are a few of the questions we hear a lot that may help:
How does all this work?
Simply put, your Delegated VA will live in your inbox. They’ll manage incoming emails anyway you indicate—and they’ll get more adept at handling things the same way you would as they gain experience working with you. You can learn more about the process and how it works here.
How will my VA know which emails are important?
To start, your VA will base this judgment on the information you give them. You can highlight certain subject lines, keywords, or important senders (colleagues, your spouse, etc.) as high-priority, and you can designate things like shipping and order confirmation emails as lower priority.
How will my VA communicate with me?
Your Delegated VA can communicate with you in any way you choose. If you’d like to be notified of messages that need your input via Slack or text message, they can do that. If you’d like to have important emails flagged for when you next log into your email, they can do that, too.
Can I set limits on the emails my VA reads?
Absolutely. You can tell your Delegated VA not to bother reading or categorizing emails from a particular sender (i.e. your spouse or your doctor) or emails with a particular subject line. The bottom line is that your Delegated VA is there to make your life easier—and that includes maintaining any boundaries you prefer.
To wrap things up, email management is something everyone has the power to do themselves. You can build the structures needed to organize your inbox and exercise the discipline to regularly keep up with your email management.
That said, if you’re really at your wit’s end with email, you can easily turn the keys over to a virtual assistant who can manage everything for you. That way, you can stay out of your inbox and spend more time on what matters to you.