Your email inbox is like your desk at work: keep it clean.
If it's excessively messy, people will notice and eventually it will take a toll on your career. No corporate professional today can excel, or even get by, at their job without proper email management.
Yet, so many people struggle with it. You'll find 1,080,000,000 search results on Google if you search "I need help with email management." The good news is you're not alone in feeling overwhelmed at managing your inbox. The bad news is there are, apparently, a billion different ways to do it.
Below, you'll find eight hacks to better email management along with real life examples of how to implement them. With 425 million users, Gmail makes for a good case study, but you may apply the same concepts to other email services.
I am the founder and CEO of a VC-backed technology upstart, EquityZen, which allows private investors access to proven pre-IPO investments. While I'd bet Elon Musk's inbox gets hit harder than does mine, I work at the intersection of technology and finance, two sectors notorious for their dependence on email communication.
1) Choose the Right Tools
This one is crucial. No one tool is perfect, so use a combination of tools.
Much of your email is likely consumed over mobile or tablet devices. Pick an email client that can keep up. I use Mailbox (now owned by Dropbox). Recently, Mailbox came out with a desktop application for OS X, which syncs with your Mailbox across all devices where you use it.
When on the run, use Mailbox on your smartphone. If you live in a city with underground public transportation, you'll likely appreciate the added benefit: Mailbox lets you chip away at your inbox even without Internet service and keeps track of your activity until you resurface and reconnect.
When at your desk, use Gmail.com; its search functionality is unparalleled. In addition, if you have a Mac, use Mailbox for OS X for email scheduling, in addition to using Gmail's web client.
I tie in my work and personal email accounts with Mailbox, and can tick through them all at once, or one at a time depending on whether or not I'm working.
2) Schedule Emails
Mailbox allows you to schedule emails (bat away irrelevant ones to reappear later) with a simple swipe. Alternatives include Gmail plug-in Boomerang or Google Inbox, but using Mailbox has the added benefit of being agnostic to the underlying email service.
Ask yourself for every email, "am I going to answer this in the next five minutes?" If the answer is no, set aside a block of time daily or weekly and schedule the email to reappear in your inbox at that time.
3) Use Lists (or "Labels")
Lists (Mailbox), labels (Gmail), and folders (Outlook), all serve the same purpose: to organize your emails. Some rely on Gmail's search functionality to avoid using lists and labels. While the search feature can help you snipe down any email you're seeking in a matter of seconds, you're leaving chips on the table.
For repeat emails whose content you tend to consume in bulk (like receiving a trickle of resumes and ticking through them a few at a time), swipe left all the way to add emails to a "resumes" list. You can access it via Mailbox at any time, or via Gmail by searching for "[mailbox]-resumes". Since you don't plan on reading the resumes one at a time, it's out of your inbox and neatly stacked in the resumes pile.
4) Cut Through the Noise: Use Filters
Do you ever get daily digests? Social media notifications? Weekly newsletters? Enough said. Set up filters to direct those emails to separate lists and review them in bulk a few times a day.
5) Don't Delete, Unsubscribe
A corollary to using filters is to avoid being a pack rat for truly useless things. If you've deleted the same email from that e-commerce site five times in a row, what are the chances you'll want it the sixth time?
A good way to find emails from which you should unsubscribe is to search for the word "unsubscribe" among deleted emails.
With nearly unlimited storage, there is little reason to delete emails: archive if you'll ever need it again or unsubscribe if you delete the same type of email repeatedly.
Getting rid of emails from your inbox that aren't useful right this moment is crucial. If you intend to deal with them later, use Lists. If they are informative and no response is required, Archive them. You can always find them again using search. An inbox that's slightly cluttered gets messy very quickly (see: broken window theory).
7) Learn Keyboard Shortcuts
Press 'e' to Archive, 'Shift'+'3' to delete, 'gi' to go to inbox. Learn other common Gmail shortcuts to save yourself seconds per email. In Gmail.com, go to Settings and turn "keyboard shortcuts on."
8) Read Top Down, Write Bottom Up
Consume emails by thread in reverse chronological order.
Respond to them in chronological order.
This nuanced hack takes advantage of the fact that some folks respond to emails immediately, sometimes triggering an email "tennis match," eating up that hour you set aside to tackle your whole inbox, and leaving you feeling behind. If you respond to emails in chronological order, you're less likely to get caught up in back-and-forth emails, and more likely to stay on track.
Email is for communication, not task management. Many folks use email inboxes as to-do lists. In his essay, Ambitious, Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham outlines some of the most daunting challenges ahead of the modern day entrepreneur; second on his list is "fixing" email as to-do lists. I suggest moving email "tasks" to a task-management system like Asana, Trello, or Post-It notes.
Remember, mastering email management takes an investment. Humans are creatures of habit, so make this transition to better email management with an open mind. Forming these habits will take some time, but once the muscle memory is established, good email management will be automatic.
Have other tips you use to manage email? Share them in the comments below.