5 Ways To Survive Your Inbox

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I love email. I hate email.

Most people probably have a similar love/hate relationship with email as they grapple daily with their inbox. In fact, I hate email… I just hate not getting email more. And, that’s the dilemma that most professionals face when it comes to their inbox. It’s gotten worse over time. Now, it’s not just emails. We get messages from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and beyond. Most of us are managing multiple inboxes across multiple platforms and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better or easier to manage. My inbox has become a never-ending game of Tetris, where emails continue to flow in and stack up to the breaking point. Many professionals have declared email bankruptcy (where they simply delete every single email from their inbox with the hopes that if the contents were truly critical, the sender will reach out them or call as a follow-up).

Most of us rely on email for critical business communications and email bankruptcy is not a legitimate option, so let’s look at five ways to master the inbox.

  1. Create folders. Some of the newer Web-based email clients do not have folders (like Gmail), but they do have “tags” (words you can use to associate multiple messages to), either way creating tags or folders are critical to getting organized. My general strategy is to create a folder for every client or project. On top of that, I create folders for each member of our team at Twist Image (in case it’s a conversation related to an individual instead of a specific project). I also have folders for HR, business development, interesting news items that may wind up becoming content fodder for my newspaper columns, Blog post, or an idea for a book. I also track trends using my inbox. If something interesting happens with Facebook, I email the link to myself and file it under Facebook in my trends folder. Using sub-folders is another way to keep your emails organized.
  2. Create rules. I set-up a lot of email alerts from places like Google Alerts or when somebody new is following me on Twitter or requesting to connect on Facebook or LinkedIn. With a couple of simple clicks on the “rules” button, you can have emails sent from a specific email address or emails that have a similar piece of content in the body of the message to redirect automatically to a pre-defined folder. This avoids inbox clutter and clog-ups. This tactic works great if you subscribe to a lot of e-newsletters as well.
  3. Get it done. In 2001, David Allen wrote the groundbreaking business book, Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. While I’m not a sworn devotee of Allen and his techniques (I’ve managed to develop my own coping mechanisms over time), one gem of productivity insight is culled from this masterful tome: if you can get it done in 60 seconds or less, do it right away. Emails that don’t require more than a few sentences to respond to get done as soon as possible and then get filed in their specific folders (or deleted). The longer emails are attended to in-between meetings, but I will set aside one hour – every day – to deal with the emails that require more writing/thinking. Lastly, I don’t beat myself up if every email doesn’t get responded to on the same day that it was received. The non-critical messages get dealt with in due process, but I do respond to every email that requires a response.
  4. Create a hierarchy of response. During the day, clients or potential new business get responded to first, then staff, then requests for media or writing, and then family and friends (unless it’s an obvious emergency). It doesn’t matter if that rule gets broken from time to time, but it’s the spirit of: clients first, team second and everything else after that, which allows me to look at my inbox with a different perspective. Create a hierarchy of who gets responded to and in what order.
  5. Tell people – in your emails – how to work better with you. Most people have no idea how to use email. They respond to everyone on an email with a bunch of people who were only cc’d and they’ll do things like send back an email that says, “ok,” as if that adds any value to the chain of communication. You can set the ground rules by putting some insights into your signature file. I’ve seen people with signature files that not only have their contact information, but say things like, “please only respond back to me, the other people who are listed on this email are just there to be kept in the loop,” or, “there’s no need to respond to back me, I just wanted you to see this so that you are kept in the loop.” A little clarity on how you like to interact via email will help keep your inbox clutter down to a dull roar and it will also teach other people new ways that they can use their email with more efficacy.

Most people are in email hell.

It’s on their smartphones and it’s on their screens for most of their waking moments. Many people look at their email before going to the bathroom as their first act of the day and many people look at their email right before they close their eyes for the night. Some may see this as an indictment on our society’s inability to find a peaceful balance in our work-centric lives. Ultimately, the only way to really survive your inbox is to make a personal promise that you are going to better manage your technology, instead of letting your technology manage you. 

What are your best strategies for overcoming your inbox?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. This is a great list, Mitch. I just came across an interview with Tim Ferris yesterday that discusses this same topic. In his book, 4-Hour Work Week, he suggests you create an autoresponder that says something along the lines of, “I will be checking email two times per day in an attempt to be more effective. Thank you.”

  2. I’m a big supporter of David Allen’s GTD, and it really does help. I’ve found that it decreases my stress level because no longer I have to memorize everything that “needs to be done”. Once it goes on the list, it doesn’t have to require memorization.
    As well, the folder structure is key to organization. If the email requires action, or could be used as reference sometime down the road, it should be stored in the appropriate folder (I have at least 50) and potentially go on the list of “things requiring action”. If not, use that delete key religiously!

  3. I’m a huge fan of AwayFind. It’s a tool that allows you to flag emails with keywords like “Urgent” in the subject line, or from a particular person (clients, for example), and then you get a text notification on your smart phone when you receive those kinds of emails. There’s also a smart phone app.
    I find the best way to liberate myself from my email is to shut off my notifications. I check my email when I want to check it, not when some little light flashes or my phone beeps. And I don’t worry about missing something because my phone will tell me when there’s something urgent I need to deal with.

  4. If I can respond quickly, then I do it then. If it requires more detailed review or follow-up action, it gets a star (google) or flag (outlook). Un-star items as they get done. If it’s more than a paragraph of typing (I’m slow), then I pick up the phone.
    BTW- Six Pixels was my manual for getting out of the social medial dark ages. Thanks for the book.

  5. Thank you for this list, Mitch. I like your suggestion about teaching people how to work with you, and saying “a reply is not needed” or “please don’t respond to all.” I used to manage a group that would email me EVERYTHING. We eventually established a system where, unless the item was urgent, I got a daily report at the end of the day, instead of a million emails throughout the day.
    My current email system is based on a million folders and subfolders (all organized by topic and/or date), a bunch of rules and an Inbox that serves as my task list. Everything is always marked as read, and things stay in my inbox until they are completed. There are never more than a dozen or so things in my Inbox at any given time. I only keep the email with the actual task request or project details in my Inbox. Supporting emails are filed in the appropriate folder.
    (I have OCD, and so perhaps I’m a little extreme when it comes to email organization, but my system has always worked for me!)

  6. Remember the old-school inbox, with paper? I try to use the same two rule: sort twice a day for priority, and try not to handle any piece of mail twice. (If it’s junk now, it will still be junk later – be ruthless).

  7. Mitch, ever since I took your social media marketing course a few years ago I retained another trick you taught : unsubscribe from every newsletter you’re on and subcribe to their RSS through a reader. That way your inbox is only for actionable items whereas your reader is for reading. Thanks for that Mitch, it saves me a ton of time.

  8. My inbox gets out of hand pretty quickly – especially as deadlines loom. One of my tricks to quickly clear it out if it’s up over 200 (that’s only a week) is to use the search function. I’ll plug in a name and then I’ll get all of from the same person. I’ll slide the last in a series into a folder (if it’s worth keeping ) and delete the rest.

  9. Awesome tips. In Outlook I assign every email that needs follow up (of more than 30 seconds) with a “follow-up flag”. This adds them to my task list on the right hand side window. I then assign every task with a red, amber or green color. The red of course signifying high priority. Everyday I try to get through my red’s.
    Most importantly however, I’ve gone backwards and switched my emails from push to pull. This puts me in control of when I want to check my emails, rather than being interrupted.
    Finally , for gmail you may want to try out :http://www.emailga.me/ . Takes the concept of gamification and applies it to email. Interesting.

  10. Hi Mitch. One day I would like to see standardized codes after your name at the bottom of emails. For example, two that come to mind would be /RR and /RNN which stand for Response Requested, and Response Not Necessary.
    See youmin Montreal

  11. Great post. I love, love Gmail and pretty much Google everything. My life would definitely be hell sans folders and the ability to send emails directly to the proper folders.
    Tip No. 5 is quite interesting. “please only respond back to me, the other people who are listed on this email are just there to be kept in the loop,” will definitely become an integral part of my email conversation.

  12. I would be happy with only 200 a day 🙂 Good tips in this post and I’m glad I’m already incorporating a number of them!

  13. I never thought I could do it, but I started checking email only twice a day (as per Tim Ferris’ book). I’ve never been more productive! Some time between 10-11am and again between 3-4pm. It’s liberating! I also use Gmail Priority Inbox which helps filter non essential stuff.

  14. Sure do agree.. both love and hate email. I think you really have to have discipline and set aside a certain amount of time each day – and that’s it (same goes for social media time). Don’t think it is realistic for that to be only once per day, but maybe a maximum amount of time divided at certain periods. There are some who have given up email altogether – but how many of us would do that?

  15. One of the best e-mail strategies is knowing when to have a conversation instead. Great list.

  16. I forget who said this: “READ” your email instead of “checking” your email.
    “Read,” to me, means: read it and decide on my next step. (Process it, per David Allen.)
    “Check” means — nothing. Implies no action.
    So I *try* for reading just a few times a day – a few times, so I can focus and read – moving each email to a next step.

  17. Tip #5 is my favorite. Those reply-to-all emails saying “thanks” or “ok” are the worst! The best way to deal with email is to not get it in the first place, and setting those expectations with others is incredibly valuable. Thank you!

  18. I’m not there yet, but I’m starting to feel sometimes that the real issue is that we have so much email in the first place. Maybe we’re asking the wrong question or trying to solve the wrong problem.
    I can only speak for myself but I think I fool myself into thinking so much email and organization of it is critical when the real issue — if I could step back from my life for even a minute — is that if we let our work lives be conned into thinking there is no other way. If I have so much to do that I have to write out lists of things, maybe, just maybe, the problem is that I have TOO MUCH TO DO. The problem is not that I have too much email. It’s the cart before the horse.
    Sorry, I rambled and strayed, but email volume is insane. I long for the far-away day when I had an email in the early 1990s before I knew anyone else who had one. 🙂

  19. This article came at a perfect time for me. (I actually cut it out and put it in front of my monitor as I worked.)
    I am overhauling my work process to get more organized, more focused – and more productive.
    You provide some great advice, particularly the Trends folder and setting ground rules e.g. when there is no need for response.
    Perfecting my system is an ongoing process. So far, a folders/subfolders structure works best for me. Along with rules and Smart Mailboxes (Unread and Flagged).
    I plan to hold on trying MailTags as Apple’s iCloud debut next fall may include email enhanced features and functions.
    My contribution on how to avoid an overcrowded mailbox: Avoid over-subscribing. And don’t put off weeding out stale subscriptions. You will take a lot of weight off very quickly, physically and mentally.
    So Mitch, thanks for the help. I applaud you, as these types of “get back to the basics” blog posts are real gems.

  20. I don’t believe in the complication of multiple folders. I have Inbox, Sent, Done (ok, so my Done is by year, just to keep them manageable sizes). Anything that’s reference -> Evernote.
    Interesting stuff on Twitter or Facebook – send it to Instapaper, then read Instapaper on my iPad whenever I get 10 minutes dead time. Anything I “Like” in Instapaper gets automatically added to Evernote.

  21. Great info! You mentioned to “Create a hierarchy of response”. Is there a way to do this in my inbox so my most important emails stay at the top? I’ve tried flagging emails but they still get lost. Thanks!

  22. In my case, the company I work for has a way of ignoring you if they did not have en email of ANY meeting or agreement. They will flat out deny any knowledge of the agreement if it’s not in writing.
    Therefore I need to email everything about everything and demand acknowledgements back like the “ok” email example above.
    If I don’t work like this, I’m either ignored or perceived to be not working on anything!

  23. I have set a rule that makes sure a copy of every mail goes to a “reference” folder. Then I can quickly scan emails and delete without worrying over them. I am to keep my ” inbox zero” this way.

  24. I apply a similar tactic. I have Gmail check my work mail account and filter it into its own label. So that way if I accidentally delete an email on my PC or phone (all synced via IMAP), a quick Gmail search, and I can get that email back.

  25. The best way I’ve found to control my email is to turn off new mail notification. A rule or 3 to help alert me if something really is urgent makes this work. Then I can focus on the task at hand, and not be constantly interrupted, and I answer email on my timeline and not everyone else’s.

  26. MItch – thanks for the reminders – I am also a believer in immediate organization. Route these incoming emails into folders, tag with a label (we call category) and setup standard replies that you can edit. Especially important to route all notifications into other folders – keep your important folders clear of clutter! I am going to incorporate your suggestion #5 into our reminders – see http://www.ifmodules.com. I like adding this information into the email instead of always using an auto responder – those need to be sparingly used!

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