Seven ways to tame inbox clutter

Last In First Out. Reverse chronological order. Archiving everything and starting with a blank slate.

When it comes to taming email clutter and achieving the elusive inbox zero, I’ve tried every trick in the book. I’ve combed through countless articles, downloaded multiple apps, and installed plugins like Boomerang and

Despite all these suggestions and strategies, I can’t shake that underlying sense of inbox dread: messages I’ve been meaning to reply to, email introductions I promised I’d make, newsletters I vowed I’d read retroactively. No matter how on top of things I am, it feels like I’m constantly on a mission to tackle my inbox.

By no means have I devised the perfect strategy for dealing with email, but from one productivity fiend to another, here are the seven key pieces of advice I find myself turning to time and time again.

1. Respond promptly…

In their book How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg share some essential rules for emailing, and I find myself referencing them repeatedly. One of my favorite takeaways: “There are people who can be relied upon to respond promptly to emails, and those who can’t. Strive to be one of the former. Most of the best—and busiest—people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone.”

Schmidt and Rosenberg are on to something: busyness is a choice. We’ve come to wear the word “busyness” like a badge of honor, when in fact it’s more of a trap. I often ask myself, If some of the busiest people I know can carve out the time to send a quick response, what’s my excuse?

2. …but don’t be a slave to email. Aim for a 24-hour turnaround.

Replying promptly to every single email is ideal—but also ambitious. Email is about setting expectations and establishing boundaries for when you can and cannot be reached. That’s where the 24-hour rule comes into play.

Generally speaking, if you answer an email within one day of receipt, you’re still being courteous, but you avoid sending premature responses and give the situation a chance to sort itself out. As 99U advises, “Recognize when the pressure to reply is real and required for things to get done, and when it is all in your head to ‘appear’ responsive. Your career will be made on your ability to get things done, not your ability to answer emails immediately.”

“If you can’t respond to an email within 48 hours, at least respond with a quick, ‘I’ll get to this soon,’” suggests The Daily Muse. Which leads us to my third personal goal:

3. Always add value.

Before replying to an email, question your motives. Are you responding just for the sake of responding? Are you trying to prove that you’re paying attention? That you’re putting in extra time beyond traditional work hours? “If so,” writes time management coach Elizabeth Saunders on 99U, “you’re typically wasting time that could be spent producing something of value and only encouraging people to respond.”

Saunders, like many productivity experts, suggests we stop sending emails that simply say “thanks,” but I’d argue that a quick acknowledgement of receipt and understanding is valuable, both as a courtesy and as a way to close the loop on an action item.

4. Prioritize replies.

Speaking of value, it’s important to give yourself permission to delete messages that don’t require a response (yes, even though Schmidt and Rosenberg encourage replying to everyone promptly).

I’m always tempted to reply to unnecessary emails first—it’s satisfying to feel like I’ve checked one more thing off my list—so I have to train myself to focus and make sure I’m prioritizing the important and/or urgent responses.

5. If not now, when?

When you open a new message, decide right away what to do with it. Some people live by the “OHIO” (Only Handle It Once) technique, meaning “I’ll get back to this another time” is not allowed. I’m okay with responding later if need be, but I do my best to follow the one-minute rule that Gretchen Rubin touts in The Happiness Project: if the task at hand can be completed in one minute or less, just do it so that it’s out of the way. It’s better to spend 30 seconds drafting an immediate response than three minutes digging for the original email later on.

6. Label liberally.

I’m a sucker for color-coding, but even from an objective standpoint, I think of labels as a lifesaver. Gmail search is effective, too, but as a visual learner, it helps me to see things organized by color in my inbox. Set up automatic filters to save yourself time, whether that means having all daily newsletters skip your inbox and get marked as ”read,” or assigning your boss her own color so her emails stand out at a glance.

7. Be a router. 

Until I read Eric Schmidt’s rules for defeating inbox dread, I never thought of myself as a router, but it’s a great analogy. At his suggestion, I try to make an effort to comb through my inbox at the end of each day and ask myself, What should I have forwarded, but didn’t? and What else would others find useful?

(Caution with this tip: you don’t want to inundate other people’s inboxes. Use your good judgment.)

And there you have it: the seven go-to inbox tips I swear by. Now you too can get closer to maintaining inbox zero.

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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