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Email Management 101: How to Keep a Clean Inbox

Having a cluttered inbox is the online equivalent of having a cluttered desk. While many people argue that the cluttered system works for them, important documents, information, meetings, tasks, and messages inevitably get lost, neglected, and damaged.

Clean inboxes, on the other hand, ensure that information, invitations, and correspondences are managed in a timely, professional manner. Proper email management also enables one to focus more easily on the task at hand without having to hunt for information or suffer from the distraction caused from a long list of un-addressed messages.

By adopting some simple and straightforward processes, you can have a splendidly clear inbox, save time, and respond more promptly and professionally to emails. All it takes is a little discipline.

What is your process?

The Ultimate Productivity Rule: Do It or Schedule It

To make one's email management presses productive, one need adopt just one simple habit: do it or schedule it.

When going through emails, every email (that cannot immediately be deleted or archived without further action) must be either:

  1. Immediately addressed an archived/deleted
  2. Given a specific time at which it will be addressed (schedule a calendar item) and archived/deleted

This means that, once opened, an email is not permitted to stay in an inbox. This rule also ensures that most emails are responded to promptly.

Scheduling Tasks Using Google Calendar

My calendar may look full, but that's because I turn all of my to-do items into specific events, and continue to schedule additional events for a task until it is finished.

My calendar may look full, but that's because I turn all of my to-do items into specific events, and continue to schedule additional events for a task until it is finished.

Short Response Samples

For problems you don't feel ready to address yet: Thank you for the email. Let me take some time to think about this and get back to you.

For invitations to which you are not yet ready to respond: Thank you very much for the invitation! I am not yet sure if I can attend. By when will you need an RSVP? I shall be sure to properly respond by that point.

Keep it Short

While it might seem impossible to go through every email in one's inbox and send an immediate response, this becomes easy when one realizes that long and/or conclusive responses are not required.

Should you not be able to give an immediate answer to an inquiry or invitation (but an immediate response is still needed), simply say you need more time to think, and schedule some time for addressing the issue (see samples to the right).

Many people have a habit of sending incredibly long email messages. This does not mean that an equally long response is necessary. If a detailed response to an email would be ideal, but one does not have time (either right away or in the near future) to compose a properly lengthly response, one may simply respond with:

Thank you so much for your message! I would love to write more in response, but am short on time. Perhaps we can meet up for coffee or chat on the phone to pick up where we left off. How would Tuesday at 2:30pm work for you?

This lets the sender know that the message was received and appreciated, and creates an opportunity to start a proper (but more time-efficient) conversation that does not cut into one's email management time.

Oh look! It's email time!

Oh look! It's email time!

Set Specific Times for Answering Emails

Multitasking can lower one's IQ by ten points and reduce productivity by 40%, hence keeping an eye on one's inbox while attempting to complete other tasks is not ideal. That said, many are expected to respond to messages in a very timely manner.

By setting aside specific times (perhaps once every hour, or twice every day) for email management, one can get the best of both worlds: the freedom to focus exclusively on the task at hand and an ability to manage one's inbox in a timely manner.

Create Good Labels for Your Email Archives

I have made nested labels for all my emails to make sure they're easy to find if I can't discover them using the search feature.

I have made nested labels for all my emails to make sure they're easy to find if I can't discover them using the search feature.

Proper Archiving & Deleting

Many are hesitant to remove emails from their inbox because they are concerned that they will not be able to find them again and need their content for reference. While early email software may have made it difficult to access archived messages, most modern email clients make it incredibly easy to find email messages either via search or labels.

To ensure that an archived email can be quickly found (even if one cannot remember names or words within the email), one should make proper use of labels and folders. Thankfully, gmail makes it incredibly easy to apply labels to email messages using keyboard shortcuts, so properly categorizing one's messages takes no time at all.

A proper archival system also requires editing. One should only archive messages that may be useful in the future. Most newsletters and automated emails can be deleted, while most personal messages and professional correspondences should be archived. It will be much easier to find archived messages (if one does not know which keywords to search) if one does not first have to weed through high volumes of useless trash.



Maintaining Discipline

Even the most organized individual can end up with a cluttered inbox from time to time. It would be impossible to always have zero messages in one's inbox by the end of the day, and it might be discouraging to slip when one becomes to busy to properly manage one's account, but this is never an excuse to give up.

No matter how stuffed an inbox has become, no matter how many times one falls back to poor email management habits, one should still strive for an empty inbox. The more regularly one can achieve this state, the easier it will be to maintain it.

The work required is well worth the reward!

This is what an empty inbox looks like. Pretty awesome, huh?

This is what an empty inbox looks like. Pretty awesome, huh?


mts1098 on July 21, 2012:

I always knew you were organized and this shows how well you manage your time...I will sometimes add a signature indicating my availability to respond...I think it is important to acknowledge all forms of communication as you stated here...thanks for the tips and perspective...Now what about the Sent folder :)

Shasta Matova from USA on July 20, 2012:

This is very helpful. My inbox is full of newsletters I haven't had the time to read. Thanks for showing us what an empty inbox looks like - I don't think I've ever seen one! I will take the time to create more folders and delete more messages.

SantaCruz from Santa Cruz, CA on July 19, 2012:

Simone, I have 16,322 emails in one account. Thanks to you, they are now ALL in folders.

I like your specific blurbs for quick yet thoughtful emails. Thanks :-).

Anamika S Jain from Mumbai - Maharashtra, India on July 19, 2012:

Simone, You are no doubt an expert on getting organized. I could definitely use this! While most of us make sure that there is no clutter in the house, we forget the clutter we accumulate because of our online activities. Good Hub, voted up and liked.

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on July 19, 2012:

I use two separate email ids for my personal and professional contacts. However, I admit this is bothersome. I try to manage my inbox by moving my emails to other folders.

Thanks for sharing useful tips.

Liv Carradine from Los Angeles, CA on July 19, 2012:

You're not supposed to abandon your old email for a new one? Just kidding. I love the sweep feature in hotmail because it lets you delete all emails from a particular sender at the same time. I wish Yahoo would catch up with this already.

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on July 19, 2012:

Wow, awesome! I love learning how to manage things and that includes email. I have been doing the scheduling and archiving my emails. I will look into the google calendar. Thanks for this Simone!

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on July 19, 2012:

Oh my goodness! This is my worst problem right've inspired me to get with it and clean it up. I was not checking emails for a few days due to personal stuff...and when I did finally it was depressing! Lol. So many, many of them! It's now a daunting all day task. Ugh!

Thank you - I grudgingly know that if I just get it cleaned up I can manage from there. It just gets insurmountable.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on July 18, 2012:

This is an excellent hub with an important warning for those of us whose email seems to arrive in floods! I've found that incoming emails can quickly become online clutter. They tend to stack up if you don't tackle them immediately. Then you're stuck with checking through them, archiving those you need to keep and deleting the remaining mass. It's much better to do this daily, isn't it?

Mohan Kumar from UK on July 18, 2012:

I receive over a five hundred work related e-mails a week if not more from various sources. (not spam). I'm as guilty in mawdling, not archiving or putting them in a folder as often as I should. Your hub is a fantastic reminder to get organised. There are so many useful tips here Simone- well done! voted up and across!

Yvonne Spence from UK on July 18, 2012:

This is a hub I am going to bookmark and go over again. After a couple of weeks away I have over 700 emails in my inbox and definitely could use some tips on how to deal with them. I’ve already unsubscribed to some newsletters since I deleted them without opening and do so every month. (Not HP's I hasten to add!)

Thanks for a very useful hub.

Haunty from Hungary on July 18, 2012:

Wow! You certainly keep busy. No wonder things get done around here. A lot of creative work, too. I don't know if you are just bragging by showing us your schedule or you really run this place like that. hahah

Btw, you're an inbox-maintaining maniac!

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