Taming the Inbox: How to Manage Your Email

Email is a big thing.  I used to really hate my inbox.  It was always overflowing and it was always overwhelming.  I personally take all the emails from my website, and that can still get overwhelming.  But I've put a system in place now that keeps my inboxes (both personal and business) not only under control, but generally quite empty!

Be Aggressive

You want to be aggressive with your email overall.  I'll get more into being aggressive with email processing shortly, but for now I want to talk about sheer volume.

You probably get a lot of email every day.  Email from family and customers/visitors is probably important, but chances are a lot of the rest of it is newsletters, sales emails, and other promotional stuff.  Some of that you may genuinely want and read (hey, I hope you read the Milkshake when it hits your inbox frothing with creamy internet marketing goodness!).  But most of you it probably don't read.

First, filter.  If you have a marketer that you like to check up on every once in awhile, but you don't want emails in your inbox every day, you can filter it so that person's emails go right into a folder or label and are archived… you never see them.  If you have a product that you get email updates for, but you don't care for the creator's affiliate emails between updates, have them filtered into a folder and check the folder every once in awhile to see if there's an update.

Second, unsubscribe.  If you don't read it and have no reason to check on it, just unsubscribe.  Your marketer will be happy to have you off of their list — you're not going to buy and you cost them money as a lead in their system.  And your inbox doesn't need the clutter.  If you've gone through several emails without reading any of them, unsubscribe.

Handling the Inbox

The process that I use to process my inbox is from Michael Linenberger's Master Your Now system.  It's the only task/email management system that has really worked for me — and it works really well.  You can get a free introduction to it by clicking here for a free ebook.

I'll give you an overview of the system that's working for me now:

First, this system is also task-based.  You need to keep your task list manageable, and there will be another post for that, but do know that this email processing system uses tasks.  There are different options for this, depending on what operating systems you use, but I use both Outlook and Toodledo, which is a free web-based task service that also has robust support for iOS.

Step One:  Limit the time you spend in your inbox.  Pick a few times a day to check.  I tend to check at lunchtime for urgent things, then again at the end of the workday to actually process.

Step Two: Scan through and delete things you're not going to look at.  This is  a great time to click that “unsubscribe” link.

Step Three:  Begin reading your other emails.  I generally go from the top of my inbox down (most recent down to oldest), but if I've ignored it for a few days I may start with the oldest.

Is the email just a newsletter you read and are done with?  Archive it or delete it.  All done!

Is the email something you need to take action on?  This is where your task list comes in handy.

If you can take the action quickly on the email, go ahead and do that.  Generally, you want to do anything that will take 2 minutes or less.

If it will take more than 2 minutes you need to move it to an action item.  The goal is to clean your inbox, so you want to make note of the new task then archive the email.  Outlook and Toodledo both make this easy.  With Outlook you can move drag and drop the email as a new task item.  With Toodledo you can forward the email to Toodledo and it gets added as a task on your list!

Be sure you change the email title to an actionable step.  For instance, if you get in a newsletter that has an action step you want to take, don't leave the task the name of the email.  Change it to an action.  For example, change “The Milkshake” to “Implement This Traffic Generation Tip on Site A.”

What if the email requires a reply?  You can flag it for reply — make a commitment to sit down and reply within 8-24 hours.  If the email requires action and a response, you can make a note of that in the task title.  Then pull up the email from your archive when you've done the task.

[box] In Outlook you can left-click the email and drag it onto the task. This lets you create a task with attachment. When you're done the task, double-click the attachment and it opens the email for you to reply to. You can use attachments with Toodledoo's subscription service, but I haven't tested the feature to see if you can do this with Toodledo.[/box]

Keep repeating the above steps until your inbox is totally clean.  If you've left  emails inside flagged to be replied to, be sure that you actually have a time when you come back and reply to them.  This is my biggest challenge, personally.  I don't have a lot of time, but I try to view my personal emails as building my relationship with my site visitors (most of my personal emails are from visitors to my site)… therefore they build loyalty and my brand.  Take the time to give answers.

All Clean?

OK!  Is your inbox clean?  I hope so!  But if your inbox started with hundreds of messages in it, it might not be so easily cleaned.  This processing system is ideal for once you've gotten things under control… but if it's out of control, here's what you can do:

Go through and determine anything that can simply be archived.  Do that.  As newsletters and things come back in in future days, unsubscribe!

Go through and pull tasks out of every actionable email; archive them (more on handling tasks coming soon).

Sit down and answer 3-5 emails that need to be answered.  Take a break to write an article, eat lunch, go for a walk, or do something else, then come back and answer 3-5 more.  Repeat this a few times (I'd try to get at least 15 replies done today).  Do the same tomorrow until you've gotten all of your “need replies” processed.

This system really works — and it keeps your inbox empty — as long as you actually do it.  You must be consistent with it.  Be agressive with unsubscribes.  I find that I've ended up on a bunch of mailing lists and need to go through a round of unsubscribes every couple of months… I keep only the cream of the crop 🙂

A Note About Folders/Labels

I don't think that using folders and labels is really needed anymore.  Most email clients have powerful search capabilities now and it's easy to find what you need (both Outlook and Gmail are superb… even iOS is fair at it).  But if you have special categories or use labels/folders to have some emails automatically filtered, these are good features to use.  Overall, use folders/labels for automated sorting.  Just archive when you sort manually.[/box]

Remember, even if you don't have Outlook, you can use Toodledo for free – they're web-based with iOS (iPhone and iPad), Android, and Blackberry support.  It's a great service that can help you get your life under control!

Do you have a workflow for processing your inbox?

Photo by khrawlings


I'm a wife and mother who loves working online. This is my little home on the web. I run Milk and Mud to share what I'm discovering as I run my own business and explore personal development.

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