Productivity Tips: 9 Tools to Tame Your Inbox

Productivity Tips: 9 Tools to Tame Your Inbox

inbox buttonWe spend an enormous amount of time managing our inboxes – 28% of our time each week, actually. That’s according to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute. They estimate that 13 hours of our time each week is spent reading, organizing, and responding to emails. And that’s just for work.

Email costs us more than time, too. According to Tom Pisello, aka The ROI Guy, email overload costs organizations about $5,000 per user in lost productivity each year.

How many emails?

The high costs and long hours spent with email aren’t surprising when you consider how many emails we manage. According to the Radicati Group, the average office worker receives about 78 emails per day. They send about 37 a day. That’s one of the lower estimates, too. Marsha Egan, author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of Email Excellence, says the average worker receives 100 to 200 emails per day.

Maybe Radicati was just counting emails sent and received during office hours. Because we’re not just managing our inboxes at the office. Thanks tomobile devices and a shifting work culture, most of us are pretty much on call all the time. According to a study from Good Technology:

  • 40% of us are still sending, reading, and responding to work emails after 10pm.
  • 50% of us check work email while we’re still in bed
  • 69%of us will not go to sleep without checking our work email
  • 57% of us check work emails on family outings
  • 38% of us routinely check work emails while at the dinner table

Does any of this behavior sound familiar? Now you know you’re not alone. But what can you do about it? Let’s look at some strategies to help you tame your inbox and take back your day — and your life.

Email is essential

PI_2014-12-30_tech-work_01Here’s the thing: We can’t do our jobs without email. Access to email is essential to modern-day workers. It’s even more essential than Internet access. That’s according to a December 2014 Pew Research Center survey, in which 61% of workers said email is “very important” to doing their jobs. Interestingly enough, only 54% named the Internet as “very important” to their jobs.

Email and productivity

Pew’s research also revealed another unexpected piece of information. Despite all the problems with email in the workplace – the stress from an overflowing inbox, the spam, and the agony of threaded discussions – workers reported that email still contributes to their productivity. Pew reports “Just 7% of working online adults feel their productivity has dropped because of the Internet, email, and cell phones, while 46% feel more productive.”

Are we kidding ourselves, or is this accurate?

Maybe it depends on how we compare our productivity. Despite all the drawbacks of email, what if we had to go back to telephones, printed memos and snail mail? How late would we have to work to maintain our current output using those tools? Would we ever get home at all?

Better inbox management could save up to eight hours per week

While the McKinsey statistic about spending 28% of our time on email was a bit depressing, there was one shining light in the study. They also say that we could free up seven to eight hours each week if we managed our email better.

According to that McKinsey Global Institute report, “Improved communication and collaboration through social technologies could raise the productivity of interaction workers by 20 to 25 percent.”

They even made a chart to illustrate this:

McKinseyEmailProductivityReport

I don’t know about you, but I want my eight hours back. I want my free day!

So I listed my own best tricks for managing email, plus other tactics I’ve seen people use over the years. I found and tested a few tools, and even delved into some inbox management philosophy. It’s all laid out in the list below.

Pick and choose from this list as you see fit. We all do our work in a slightly different way, even if we’re doing the same job. So there’s no way one person’s email management system will work exactly the same for anyone else. But the elements are here for you to reduce how much time you spend managing your inbox. With some practice, maybe you could free up an entire day each week. For most of us, even a few free hours would help.

1. Get down to zero

Let’s start with some inbox theory. Have you ever heard of “inbox zero”? It’s an email management concept developed by Google where you process your email down to an empty inbox every day. It’s one of those ideas so radical that they stay with you – like the four-hour workweek. Watch Google’s presentation about inbox zero to learn more.

This is our goal. An empty inbox, with every email responded to, filed, deleted, archived or scheduled to be dealt with at a later time. I’m not entirely sure it’s realistic to achieve inbox zero every day, but to see an empty inbox even once a week would be a major win.

2. Check email less often (if you can)

Several office productivity experts recommend checking email only three times per day. Often they’ll add that no one has ever complained because they didn’t respond fast enough. I think the idea of this is great, but I have never worked in an office where it would work. Maybe it’s tip better suited to executives or senior staff.

If you do work in an office where you can check your email three times a day and not get fired (or not get moved onto the slacker list, the precursor to getting fired), try the three-times-a-day rule.

Maybe you can even modify this trick so you check your email once every two hours, or so. Unless you’ve got a boss or a co-worker who types out an email, clicks send, and then starts walking over to your desk to get your answer to their email, you could probably pull off checking your email only once an hour.

3. Minimize the clutter

There’s a trick professional organizers use that directly applies to email. Before they figure out where everything should go in a closet or a garage, they reduce the volume of stuff to manage.

In your inbox, that means unsubscribing from every email list you can. You can start by unsubscribing from five to 10 unnecessary lists every day. Or you can use a tool.

UnrollMe

Unroll.me is just the thing. It does an elegant job of listing every single email list you’re on, then gives you the ability to unsubscribe to each one with one click. It can be a real wake-up call to see how many lists you’re on. I was subscribed to 714 email lists.

Unroll.me is somewhat free. You can use it so long as you’re willing to “pay” them with a like or a tweet. If you can use it to unsubscribe from even 20% of the email lists you’re subscribed to, you’ll be on your way to freeing up some time.

4. Automatically archive some messages

email ettiquetteWhether you use Gmail or Outlook or any other email client, there’s a way to identify and archive emails from a specific sender. You can add an option to save emails into a folder you specify, too. This can be helpful for email subscriptions you can’t yet unsubscribe from, but that you don’t want clogging up your inbox.

Use this technique with caution if you’re auto-archiving emails from people. Don’t abuse it. I had a client a few years back who auto-archived all my emails and only reviewed them once a week. It saved him some time, but twice he missed emails from me that he really did need to respond to immediately. Also, when I found out how he was “managing” me, it soured my opinion of him. Auto-archiving peoples’ email probably is an effective way to save time, but you can create some serious ill-will with it.

If you modified this technique to review the archived emails at the end of each day, you could probably use this without too much damage. It would keep your inbox clean. You’ll still risk the chance of a blow up if someone needs an immediate reply about an urgent matter. Of course, if your inbox is clogged with thousands of unprocessed emails, that might also cause you to miss an urgent message.

5. Automate what you can

I realize this is only a blog post about managing your email, but it is not overstating things to say that the two tools I’m about to tell you about just might change your life.

Zapier and IFTTT are two low-priced automation tools that give you the ability to do things most of us thought could only be possible with a team of software developers. If you’ve got a free hour (after you’ve cleaned up your inbox), it might be worth your time to play around with either of these gems.

Here are just a few of the things Zapier can do for you automatically:

  • Save certain emails to Evernote for you
  • Archive attachments from every email you send or receive in Gmail
  • Send you a weekly email reminder to do something

And IFTTT can:

  • Send you an email if a certain stock drops below a certain price
  • Turn a lost phone’s ringer on via email
  • Let you CC yourself on every form confirmation email sent from your website, then archive those forms to a folder in your inbox
  • Automatically create a reminder for you to take care of something if you star an email in Gmail

Okay, so maybe they won’t change your life like when you got married, had kids, or won the lottery, but trust me, they’ll change your life nonetheless.

6. Defer emails until a later date

SaneBox, Right Inbox and many other email management tools let you mark an email, then schedule a later time to deal with it. If you’re on a deadline and must have a manageable inbox, this can be a lifesaver.

Want to send out the same email every day, week, or month?

Right Inbox, Zapier and several other email inbox management tools let you send reminder emails, or any other kind of email, to a list of people at specific, scheduled times.

Want a reminder if someone has not replied to your email within a specific time frame?

SaneBox and other tools have a feature where you can create a follow-up reminder if someone has not replied to you. You can also send reminders to yourself.

7. Schedule when to send an email

Do you work late? Depending on your company culture, it’s either cool or not cool to be sending emails at 2 a.m. Right Inbox will let you schedule your emails to be sent whenever you want, so if you’re burning the midnight oil, no one has to be the wiser. You can schedule up to ten emails per month on the free plan. After that, it’s $5.95 a month.

RightInbox

8. Create a “read later” folder

So much of what comes into our inboxes is reading materials: reports, studies and other documents. Having a reading folder, or even a couple of reading folders, can help with this. There are also tools like Pocket that are made to easily capture reading material.

Feedly is another classic example of this, and another way to reduce inbox glut. If you’ve been subscribing to dozens of blogs because you want to stay on top of new content, consider switching to their RSS feeds. Then use Feedly or another RSS tool as a way to stay on top of what they publish. You’ll still have access to all their posts, but you won’t have to sort through your inbox to find them.

9. Use Inbox by Gmail

It might not be as completely revolutionary as some have made it out to be, but Inbox by Gmail does have one excellent feature: It will show new emails from important people on your cell phone in a similar format to how you see new text messages on your phone. You won’t have to check your inbox – you’ll see the new email and the first sentence or so of the reply without even turning on your phone.

You can also set Inbox by Gmail to chime or make whatever noise you want when you get a new email from someone. The app is quite smart at figuring out which emails deserve this special attention. If you trust it enough, it might help reduce how often you pick up your phone during dinner.

So there you have it – a whole day of your life back. If you’ve got an email management tip that’s not included here, please let us know about it in the comments.

Want even more ways to increase your productivity? Check out our on-demand demo to learn how Act-On can help you simplify the chaos and automate the tasks that take up your time.Act-On Software On-Demand Demo


About

Nathan is an award-winning freelance content marketing producer (words, video, audio, strategy). He also was an award-winning newspaper reporter. He has an MBA and a BA in Editorial Journalism. He is a past director of SEMpdx's digital marketing conference. He has two great kids, likes to sail, ride his road bike, and make beer.