How many unread emails are in your inbox right now? More than 10? More than 100—or maybe more than 10,000? You’re not alone.
Email can be a time-sucking black hole for even the most organized, productive workers—especially when it seems like responding to one message only triggers an onslaught of a dozen more. But how can you break the cycle and finally maintain that elusive goal: inbox zero?
“One-size-fits-email email strategies don’t work,” says productivity coach Carson Tate. “You should pick and choose which systems fit, based on how you think and work.” To get you started, here’s a bonanza of hacks, apps, and systems for you to try on for size.
Keep reading for expert tips for wrangling your inbox.
The problem: If you tend to switch over to the email tab in your browser with every incoming-mail notification, consider this: “It takes an average of four minutes to recover from an interruption,” says productivity expert Marsha Egan. That means a little bit of your day’s productivity dies every time you succumb to a distracting ding. Instead, set up guardrails so you’re not getting notified every time you get a new email. And if you’re a constant clicker, set a timer and aim to only check your email every hour.
The tools: Batched Inbox hides incoming emails in a separate folder until pre-designated times each day (say, 10 a.m. or 2 p.m.—or more often if you’re not ready to scale back your always-on obsession that far just yet). Inbox When Ready is a free Chrome extension that allows you to temporarily hide your inbox with the click of a button, so you can handle all of your email-related tasks without getting distracted the second a new message lands.
Kill the clutter
The problem: Glance at your unread mail, and you’ll probably find dozens of newsletters, retail promo, and subscriptions you have zero intention of reading. So stop them from landing in your inbox in the first place! If you have to sort through 20 messages instead of 200, you’re less likely to feel frazzled—or miss an important message.
The tools: One tried-and-true method is to search for the term “unsubscribe” in your email. This will extract all messages that contain it; and if you use Gmail, the word will be highlighted in yellow when you open the offending email for a quick and painless opt-out. You can also check out Unroll.Me, which scans your inbox and allows you to unsubscribe to newsletters you’ll never read en masse. One caveat: The app has sold user data in the past, so choosing to use it might result in more unwanted newsletters down the line.
Finally, use Calendly to curb those pesky back-and-forth emails about scheduling a meeting or finding time to grab lunch. It syncs with your calendar, allowing friends and coworkers to book an open time without ever having to email you back. Inbox win!
Work the system
The problem: For analytical, linear thinkers, reaching inbox zero by casting emails to their appropriately named folders can be a total game changer, says Tate. But this method most likely won’t work for visual or creative types. “For those thinkers, an email in a folder is truly out of sight, out of mind,” she says.
More visual learners might do better setting up filters and systems within their email—say, assigning colors to your BFF and boss so you can see at a glance what’s important and flagging emails that need an immediate response. The actual system you pick is less important than whether you use it, Tate says. So if you’re struggling to stay on top of your label-heavy, color-coded flagapalooza, it might not mean you’re failing—but your system is. Simply rethink your email-deleting game plan and give it another go.
The Tools: It’s time to get super snuggly with your email’s settings. Gmail, for instance, can be customized about a million different ways without the help of third-party apps. But there are also skins and browser extensions worth exploring. Sortd allows you to organize your Gmail inbox into a flexible set of lists. So instead of one massive heap of email, you can quickly drag and drop emails into To Do, To Read, Needs Follow-Up, etc. And Boomerang is great for people who hesitate to file emails (for fear of forgetting them forever) but don’t want to live with a clogged inbox. The app temporarily filters messages out of your main folder but returns them at a time and date you specify, making it a wonderfully simple reminder system.
Since apps can truly be a #bossbabe’s best friend, here are 8 more to streamline your day. And this is the time your productivity peaks, according to science.