An unorganized email inbox isn’t just a horrible sight. It can also ruin your productivity and efficiency at work. Not to mention the effect email overload can have on your mental state.
You and your colleagues probably joke about how your inbox is an absolute mess. About your complete lack of email organization skills. How it’s so bad that you haven’t even created a single email rule or filter in the six years you’ve been in the business.
Although often brushed off as “just part of working life”, a busy inbox isn’t harmless. Email inefficiency wastes time and money.
And the psychological effects, sometimes called “email fatigue” (similar to Zoom fatigue), can be detrimental. This intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one 2021 study finding that 38% of office workers said email fatigue could push them to quit their job.
We just spend too much time on emails. On average, employees spend 13 hours per week in their email inbox, a McKinsey Global Institute study found.
Some skilful email organization couldn’t just help bring that number down. It would also make the time spent inside our inbox much more productive (and zen). After all, who isn’t calmed down by a carefully colour-coded, neatly structured filing system?
How to organize your work email in 5 easy steps
Email inbox organization isn’t that difficult. You just need to follow a few simple steps. At least, that’s what most online articles about email organization have you believe.
The truth is, it won’t just take some time to first clear out your inbox (especially if you have tens of thousands of uncategorized emails). The real challenge is keeping it organized and structured.
But if you stick to these email organization best practices at work and regularly monitor your inbox situation you’ll notice that the infamous inbox zero, the goal of keeping your inbox empty (on zero), might just be possible after all…
1. Define a filing system with categories, folders, or labels
Although you might be tempted to start frantically deleting any unwanted emails, we recommend you start by defining a categorisation system first. What this system looks like depends on your specific role, but here are some tips on how to best organize it.
Take a moment to think about your team(s), responsibilities, clients, email newsletters you’re signed up for. Scroll through your inbox to help you determine the different types of emails you receive and how frequently you receive them. Based on this information, you can then categorise emails into different folders or labels (depending on the email provider you use).
For instance, if you want to know how to organize emails in Gmail, you have the option to create custom labels. Each label is a separate folder (shown in the left sidebar menu) and contains all the emails you assign to it. You can assign multiple labels to one email.
So, for example, you can create a label called “Team MarTech” for all the emails you receive from that team. You can further give every label its own colour for easier navigation (and to have a satisfyingly colour-coded inbox, of course).
Depending on your email provider, you can then further fine-tune your system using stars or arrows to indicate which messages have highest priority.
Once you get the hang of it you can try out different methods of organizing your inbox. For example, some people prefer a time-based method (in addition to their other labels). As soon as a new email comes in you assign it to a time-based label, depending on when the email needs to be dealt with. So you could have the following labels:
- This week
- This month
This method helps you prioritise your incoming emails and is a great way to create some structure in the chaos. As with any method, this won’t work for everyone. We advise you to try out different methods, pick the one that works best for you, and then further perfect it to fit your needs.
What’s important at this stage is that you decide on a basic filing system that can help you tidy up your inbox. Because if you create a filing system first it will make the other email organization strategies listed below both easier and more efficient.
2. Audit and declutter your inbox
Since you’re reading this article your inbox can probably do with some TLC. And whether it’s been six months or six years of email anarchy, organizing your inbox will require some time and dedication.
That’s why you might want to set a few hours aside for this task. If you ask us, this is a perfect task for a Friday afternoon after you’ve finished your other work for the week. Put on some energetic tunes, turn off any other tools and notifications, and sit down for this one.
This is often both the worst and the best part of decluttering your email (at least, if you love frantically deleting and categorising like we do).
Your goal is to go through every single email in your inbox and take one of three actions:
- Categorise according to your filing system (see above) if you still need this email
- Archive if you don’t need this email, but don’t want to permanently delete it in case you might still need it in the future
- Delete if you don’t need this email and you know for sure you never will
Note that archiving emails helps to declutter email and keep the actual inbox tidier. Most of these emails you probably won’t touch again in your life anyway. But archiving instead of deleting really helps ensure peace of mind and speed up the auditing process as it’s a less permanent (and therefore easier) decision to make.
3. Unsubscribe from almost everything
You can do this as part of the previous step or as a separate step to further tidy your inbox. Either way, unsubscribing from anything that you don’t need is a crucial step in getting closer to inbox zero.
As you dig through your inbox you’ll probably come across company newsletters you never knew you signed up for. Or maybe you originally signed up for a one-off promotional code and never bothered to unsubscribe afterwards.
Unsubscribing from anything that’s not useful to you is a great way to declutter your email and it makes your future email organization a lot easier. It’s even good for the environment, too!
Do you want to keep a subscription? No problem. But to keep things tidy consider adding a rule or filter to automatically categorise these emails moving forward.
4. Use the 4D method for email organization
By now, your email inbox should be a much calmer, emptier, and more organized place. Now doesn’t that feel great!
But we’re not done yet.
During your big clean up, you probably still kept some unanswered emails marked as unread since you really have to reply to them but didn’t get to it yet. And even if you did reach inbox zero you still need to have a system to keep it that way.
That’s why it’s important that you establish some ground rules for how you organize any new incoming emails moving forward.
Although there are several strategies that you can use here, we found the following principle particularly effective.
It’s called the 4D method of email organization. With every new email you receive you immediately take one of the following four actions:
- Delete it if you don’t need it, e.g. a promotional email. If you’re too scared to delete it then archive it instead.
- Delegate it if someone is simply better suited to handle it or if you can reasonably decide to delegate it to someone else in your organization.
- Do it right away if immediate action is required or if the action doesn’t take too long. As a general rule, under two minutes means you should do it straight away. If you need more time and it’s not urgent, move to the next step.
- Defer it if none of the above apply. In this case, add it as a task to your to-do list or snooze the email so you’re reminded at a later stage.
Following this method improves the efficiency in which you tackle the endless stream of incoming emails. By having a clearly defined, limited number of choices you are more likely to make decisions more quickly.
To further increase efficiency and productivity in how you organize your inbox (and the rest of your workload) we also advise you to limit access to your emails.
5. Check your inbox at set times
A study conducted at the University of California found that, on average, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain focus after an interruption. So every time you’re interrupted by an incoming email (or your obsessive compulsion to check your inbox every 10 minutes) you lose your focus.
Just try and imagine the minutes (or hours) of focus time you lose every day because of this. And limiting the frequency with which you check your email can also improve your general well-being.
A University of British Columbia study found that people who limited checking their email to three times a day experienced significantly lower daily stress levels than participants who were allowed to check their email as often as they liked.
So should we all just check our inboxes three times a day? Maybe not. For some jobs this works, but if you’re in a client-facing role you might need to check more regularly. But you can still structure and limit your email-checking time.
Note that it’s not just important to pick a time when you will check your email, but that you also decide for how long. This way you don’t risk falling into an inbox rabithole.
The easiest way to do this is by dividing your time in clear blocks of X minutes at a time. During a block you only focus on a task of your choice. A popular version of working in such blocks is the Pomodoro technique, where you structure your time in 25 minute blocks, but you can choose any number of minutes that best fits into your work routine.
For example, this is what your morning could look like when using 30-minute work blocks:
|09:00 – 09:30
|Write daily report
|09:30 – 10:00
|Check and respond to emails
|10:00 – 10:15
|10:15 – 10:45
|10:45 – 11:15
|Meeting with the team
|11:15 – 11:45
|Check and respond to emails
Note that during these blocks your goal is to focus on a specific task while cutting down any interruptions, which means no multitasking. Turn off your email notifications, mute Slack, turn off your phone. Anything you can to reduce interruptions to a minimum.
Boost your productivity with these email organization strategies
Inbox organization isn’t just about satisfying your compulsive tendencies. It’s about working more efficiently and getting more work done in less time. That’s why email organization isn’t just about how you file and colour-code your emails, it’s also about how you use your time effectively.
So even if your role consists largely of answering emails we still advise you to give yourself time away from the inbox. It allows you to get more stuff done outside of your inbox, and it’ll have a positive impact on your well-being as well.
And when you do spend time in your inbox, make sure you spend it productively. Want to become even better at optimising your inbox? Then have a look at these 10 email hacks to increase productivity and efficiency.