Is there a bigger hell out there than staring down an inbox with 10,000+ unread messages in it? That might sound excessive, but, believe me, I've been there. Seeing so many messages requiring your attention - even if it's just to delete the message or unsubscribe from a list - makes it feel almost impossible to begin paring down the mess and getting down to business.
But the thing is, an overstuffed inbox isn't just a personal frustration. Email chaos can lead to wasted productivity, as well as damage to your company's reputation and - ultimately - its bottom line.
Sound over-dramatic? Think about it for a second... Miss one important email amidst the thousands, and that's a lost sale. It's an unhappy client whose issues go unresolved. It's a missed meeting, a timeline that's mishandled or a misunderstanding that results from teammates dropping the ball.
As a business owner, you can't afford to let email overload put your company at risk. But what's the answer? Every professional seems to struggle with an out-of-control inbox - so how can you succeed where others have failed?
Some productivity experts will suggest that your aim should be "Inbox Zero" - a state where your email inbox is kept free from message clutter. If that works for you, that's great.
In my experience, though, having such an extreme goal causes email management to become more of a preoccupation than a productivity technique. Instead of something that helps you keep on top of your inbox messages, trying to maintain Inbox Zero becomes an all-consuming focus that pulls your concentration away from other tasks to deal with every new email that winds up in your account.
So if Inbox Zero is out of the picture, what's your next move? If you want to take control of your inbox without losing your mind in the process, I recommend a combination of email productivity hacks and tools.
Hacking Your Inbox with Productivity Practices
You've got two tools in your arsenal: processes and software. So which one should you start with?
In my experience, tools will only get you so far. If your email habits are weak, no number of tools is going to help get you out of the mess your inbox has created. Think about it like a leaky boat. If you're out on the water, a scoop - in this case, your tool - will help you move water out of the boat, but taking the time to actually plug the hole will allow you to get ahead.
Any of the following hacks will help you get ahead of inbox clutter - allowing the tools we'll discuss later in this article to make a bigger difference:
Go old school
Email messages beget more email messages. If you send something out, you can expect at least one response back - maybe more if you're sending to multiple parties.
The solution? Don't send the message in the first place.
Instead of kicking a new email chain into action, pick up the phone or walk over to the person's desk. This tactic is especially helpful if it's likely that your initial message will prompt further emails. For example, suppose you're using email to set up a group meeting. Your first message might ask recipients for the dates that'll work for them, but once a date is chosen, another round of messages is required to choose the time and location.
Skip the hassle and get the answers you need immediately - without the added inbox mess.
Remove email from your work processes
Often times, we use email as a task management system - sending messages back and forth with updates on a project's status, its anticipated delivery date or any issues that are encountered in the process.
Not only are these excessive messages tedious, they aren't necessary. A project management system can provide the same centralized reporting requirement as your inbox, but with the addition of tools that'll make task management even easier. One task management tool that is getting quite a bit of attention is Flow, which was designed and developed by Metalab the company behind the design of the much hyped team communication tool, Slack. Give it a try today and you'll take a major chunk out of your inbound email flow.
Become your inbox's bouncer
Once you're done with this article, I never want you to think of your email inbox as some "anything goes" free-for-all anymore. Instead, I want you to think of it as the hottest club in town. You're the bouncer. It's your job to be sure only the highest priority VIPs make it inside.
What does that mean in practice? For one, it means being incredibly careful about the newsletters you subscribe to. I know how tempting subscription offers can be, but ask yourself if the time required to delete the follow-up messages you're sure to receive, as well as the time it'll take you to figure out how to unsubscribe.
If you really can't give up your subscription habit, create a separate email account for your newsletters. Directing your subscriptions to a separate account will prevent these messages from getting in the way of your important business messages, giving you the option to review their offers at your leisure.
Adopt good email habits
Plenty of content has already been written about appropriate email management habits, including things like blocking off chunks of time to respond to multiple messages all at once or only checking your email a few times a day (thanks, Tim Ferriss!).
So instead of regurgitating the same old information here again, check out the following articles if you need help with your daily email management practices:
Train others to accept your quick responses
There are some email messages that, unfortunately, you'll never be able to rid yourself of entirely. But just because they're necessary doesn't mean that you have to give them more of your time than they need.
If you've ever received an email from Neil Patel, you'll notice that he ends every message with the following statement in his footer:
Don't be afraid to protect your time by using something similar in your own messages. Word the statement however you feel most comfortable, but do let readers know that your time is valuable, and that long-winded, extensive messages won't be forthcoming from your account.
Go nuclear with inbox bankruptcy
Finally, if your inbox really is beyond repair, don't be afraid to admit it and move on. You don't have to spend days archiving and deleting those 10,000+ messages in your inbox. You can wipe the slate clean by declaring inbox bankruptcy and starting clean with a new account.
All you have to do is create a new account and notify your most important contacts of the switch. Your old messages will stay in your account where you can access them whenever you need to. The only other thing you need to do is to guard your new account religiously to prevent yourself from winding up in the same mess you began with.
Email Inbox Tools to Maintain Your Account
Now that your email management habits are under control, the tools below will help you maintain your inbox:
Obviously, these aren't the only tools out there to help you manage your email problem, just as the tips and tricks described above aren't the only way to train yourself to keep unnecessary messages to a minimum.
That said, if you're feeling trapped by a flood of incoming and outgoing emails, these recommendations will help get you back on dry land and avoid the productivity, personal and professional losses that can stem from missed messages.
Give them a try today. Or, if you have other suggestions that you feel deserve a place on this list, leave a comment below with your favorite email management tools or processes.