If you often find yourself sifting through an overstuffed inbox of work memos, sale offers from J. Crew, messages from mom, and spam mail, you have felt the creeping existential despair that email has brought to all of us.
But it is possible to reduce the number of emails in your inbox—and, along with it, increase your time to pick up a hobby or devote to charity—to make your work day more productive. Here are five ways to use your email more efficiently and effectively.
Opt to archive
It is indeed possible to reach the epitome of email zen—the ever-elusive inbox zero—without deleting every email from your boss or boyfriend.
The first thing you have to do to control your inbox is think differently about what your inbox is supposed to do.
Most of us use the inbox to hold every email we receive so that we can find it later. But that storage comes at a mental cost: every time we look at our inboxes, we feel overwhelmed by all of those demands for action.
Since every email is a request to do something — to reply, to schedule a meeting, to get started on a project — use it as it was meant to be used: as a “to-do” list. That means your inbox should only hold emails that are currently, that day, “live.”
The rest of the emails? Send them to the archive.
All email providers have an “archive” option. It is the secret to professional inner piece, because an archive does what you’re currently using your inbox to do: hoard all of your emails so that they are searchable. Archived emails are sent to a folder called “All Mail”—which gets old messages out of your main inbox, but still easily retrievable.
That leaves your actual inbox free and clear and ready to hold only messages that are currently active.
Use fewer filters
Filters are supposed to de-clutter your inbox. They seem like a good idea at first: a folder for research reports, another for friends, another for that Game of Thrones discussion group. But filters can create more work. How often do you actually check them? If you have more than two or three filters, you could spend all day clicking around — and wasting valuable time — to see new emails as they come through.
When you overuse filters—as many of us tend to do—they lose their value. Try limiting yourself to just three or fewers filters, which should gather only emails that will never be urgent — urgent is for your inbox — and that you can look at later: “newsletters,” for instance, or “sale offers” or “industry statistics.” When creating a filter, be specific: “miscellaneous” means nothing and you’ll never look at it again. Don’t create email graveyards.
If you don’t even want to police your inbox that much, apps can help. SaneBox is so much more effective than those super-stuffed “junk” and “miscellaneous” filters you’re probably using. The app will instantly filter out unimportant emails and promotions, and will allow you to hit snooze on an email so you don’t have to think about the message until later.
Turn your email into a to-do list
Sometimes even archiving everything leaves a few emails that aren’t urgent now — it could be a project due in two days — but you don’t want to forget. For that, Gmail has a great feature: it can make the email into an item for your Gmail’s to-do list, Gmail Tasks.
Gmail allows you to add any email to tasks simply by clicking “add to tasks.” So, you won’t forget to respond to your co-worker’s question or answer your friend about tomorrow’s dinner plans.
If you click on “tasks,” in the “Mail Drop Down” menu, your to-do list—which also syncs to your gCal—will sit on the bottom right hand corner of your inbox.
When it’s done, you can cross it off. (Google Tasks also has an app so you can check your tasks while mobile). Here’s what it all looks like:
Email has a way of screwing up our sense of timing. Because it is instant, each message seems to require an immediate response —which is neither possible nor desirable, unless you can convince your boss that your entire job is answering email for 8 hours a day.
The popular Boomerang app lets you set an email to bounce back into your inbox when you have the time to respond — say, at 5 pm or in your midafternoon break. The app also allows you to schedule emails—so you can send all your memos about morning meetings at the end of the day and have them show up in your colleagues’ inboxes the next day.
Step away from the computer
It might be hard to detach yourself from your computer—especially as the emails pile up—but take a break from your Gmail account every once in a while. Try AwayFind to help keep you in the loop while you’re away from your laptop, without bothering you with spam emails and messages about 40% off sales. The app will only send you push notifications on emails from important people or with important topics. The app will also give you insight into how quickly you respond to certain people to help you determine which emails are more important.
Now you have all the tools you need to make your email a less harrowing part of your existence. Do you have your own clever email tips? We’ll read them in the comments below.