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7 Steps to Ruthlessly Organize Your Email

Are you inundated with more emails than you can possibly manage in a day? You’re not alone. In fact, I think the majority of us are in the same boat. Email is great and all, but it can sure be a constant annoyance. If you need some help figuring out how to organize your email inbox, you’re in the right place.

I despise a cluttered inbox and have developed some email habits over the years that save me time, energy and stress. Today, I’m spilling all of my tips for organizing your email so you can actually achieve inbox zero. Yes, you heard that right. Inbox zero is actually possible! While my email organization process if far from perfect, I hope this post will give you some ideas of how you can get your own inbox under control.

This post is part of the Resolve to Get Organized series, where I’m sharing a series of blog posts all about starting the new year off on the right foot by getting organized. While I’m writing this series in January, these tips certainly apply to any time of year.

I don’t get to inbox zero every day by any means, but it’s not uncommon for me to hit it once a week. I can totally vouch for the incredible feeling of satisfaction that you get when you see your inbox completely empty. It’s so freeing!

I am a huge fan of Gmail and use it to manage all of my email accounts. I’m going to specifically mention Gmail in several of the tips below, but know that most of them can be done with your own email software if you prefer. But I will say, if you aren’t totally sold on your current email inbox, I highly recommend forwarding your emails to Gmail.

Here are my tips for organizing your email once and for all…

It's time to organize my email inbox once and for all. I need to follow these tips to clean up my email!

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Organize Your Email With These 7 Steps

STEP 1 | Unsubscribe & Purge

I’m willing to bet your inbox is filled with an overwhelming number of email newsletters that are just taking up space. Our first step is to reduce the number of emails that ever make it into your inbox by unsubscribing to many of them. This task is much easier than you might think using Unroll.me.

Once you set up an Unroll.me account and link it to your Gmail, it will generate a massive list of all of the subscription newsletters it finds in your inbox. You can quickly go through the list and tell it which ones you still want to receive and which ones to unsubscribe from.

Unroll.me not only makes it simple to unsubscribe from junk that’s not relevant to you anymore, but it’s also a tool that can package up all of the newsletters you decide to continue receiving into one single email every day. This single step will convert the dozens or even hundreds of email newsletters you get into one single email. How’s that for reducing the amount of clutter in your inbox?

If you want to read more in depth about Unroll.me, I wrote a whole post about it here. 

STEP 2 | Consolidate Your Inboxes

How many email addresses do you have? It might make sense to consolidate many of your accounts into one unified inbox. Logging into multiple accounts is a big waste of time, so save the time (and the stress of remembering all those passwords) by forwarding your emails to one primary inbox.

To set up forwarding, look in the settings of your email provider. It’s really simple to set up. Once you have your email forwarding to one central inbox, you’ll only have to check that one place for all future emails. For example, I use the email address emily@smallstuffcounts.com for this blog. I never check the actual email account because any messages sent to that address are automatically forwarded to my personal Gmail account.

You can adjust your email settings so that you automatically reply from the email address that the original email was sent to. So even though I’m logged into my personal Gmail account, if I respond to a message that was sent to my blog email, my reply will automatically come from my blog email address.

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You can also set up multiple email signatures in your settings so that your signature matches the email address you’re using for that message.

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STEP 3 | Organize Labels/Folders

Set up labels for every category you can think of. It will take a few minutes to get them all set up initially, but it’s a must if you want to keep your emails tidy going forward. This is how you’ll keep emails organized and easy to find for future reference.

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In Gmail, your labels are listed in the left-hand menu so they’re easy to find. I like to color code them by assigning the same color to a like group of labels. For example, I have several labels related to finances and all of them are color-coded green.

Some people tell me they have so many emails in their inbox because they need to refer to them again, but that’s what folders and labels are for. Once you’ve read an email, label it right away and then take action on it. After acting on it, your email will be archived under labels that allow you to easily locate it if you need to do so later on.

STEP 4 | Follow The One-Minute Rule

If you read an email that will take less than one minute to deal with, do it immediately. Don’t touch emails twice if you don’t have to because once you’ve read the email, you’ve already spent mental energy on it. If you just leave it sitting there, you’ll have to use more mental energy to re-read and re-think about it later on. So commit to dealing with these emails as soon as you read them.

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STEP 5 | Act On Every Single Email ASAP

So many people read through their emails quickly but don’t do anything with them, leaving them to deal with at another time. This is a big waste of your energy! You should take action on every single email as you read it. There are only a few possible options, so make a quick decision about how to deal with it and get it done, pronto.

Here are your options for each email:

  • Archive/Delete – Many emails probably require no action on your part, so it’s simple to deal with them. Read them, tag them with the appropriate labels, and archive. I like to archive most of my emails so I can easily find them later on, but don’t be afraid to delete it if it’s junk.
  • Reply – Follow the one-minute rule here. If email just needs is a quick reply, do it right then and there. Once you’ve replied, archive it with the appropriate tags. To save yourself extra clicks, go to the general settings in Gmail and enable the “Send & Archive” button in reply. This gives you the option to automatically archive the email at the same time as you send your reply. I use this feature all the time.
  • Delegate – If there’s anyone you can delegate emails to, do it! Forward emails to co-workers, team members, or your spouse and ask them to handle it. If you’re worried they won’t actually take care of it, see step 6 below about scheduling follow-ups.
  • Defer – If your email doesn’t fall under the one-minute rule and you can’t delegate it or delete it, you’ll need to handle it later. I have two labels set up that I use when I’m deferring until later. One label is “read later”, which is for newsletters and things that I want to devote more reading time to later on, but it’s not urgent and doesn’t require a reply/action from me. I label these messages and archive them, and then once a week or so I spend some time reading back through the messages with this label. The other label I use is “deal with”. This label is for emails that are important for me to reply to, but I need to do some research or think about it first. I label these as “deal with” and these are the only emails I leave in my inbox. Many people also put these emails into a folder, but I prefer leaving them in my inbox where I can see them until they’re done. If I tuck them away in a folder, chances are I will forget about them. I know myself and I’m really good at the whole out of sight, out of mind thing. If you’re determined to get them out of your inbox, you can use Boomerang (mentioned below) and other tools to set reminders or schedule the email to reappear in your inbox at a later time. I don’t do this right now, but I need to try incorporating it into my email routine.

Make it a habit to take one of these four actions on every single email as you read it, and you’ll have a lifelong habit that helps you achieve inbox zero.

STEP 6 | Streamline Your Replies

Schedule Replies – Use Boomerang for Gmail to schedule your reply in advance so you don’t have to think about it again. This may be helpful if you are reading emails late at night but don’t want to set a precedent that people can expect a reply from you at that time of day. It can also be helpful for sending reminders or other emails that you don’t want to forget, but you don’t want to send right away. Once you install Boomerang, you’ll see a red “Send Later” button at the bottom of the email you’re composing.Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 9.03.14 PM

Schedule Follow-Ups – You can also use Boomerang to program a specific email to show back up in your inbox at a certain time if the recipient hasn’t replied. This option is just to the right of the red “Send Later” button. I love this feature because it allows me to archive the original email after sending while having the peace of mind of knowing I’ll get a reminder to follow-up again if I don’t hear back. This is much better than what I used to do, which was leave these emails sitting in my inbox until I knew they were taken care of.

Set Up Canned Responses – Do you find yourself sending the same response to many emails over and over again? If so, you need to set up a canned response. This saves a template response so you don’t have to waste mental energy thinking up the answer and retyping it every time you get that question. If you have a business or blog, I bet this will help you.

In Gmail, you can enable the canned response option by clicking the gear icon in the upper right corner of your inbox. Go to “Labs” in your settings and search for “Canned Responses” to enable the tool. When you write a new email, click on the arrow in the lower right of the compose window and you’ll see a “Canned Responses” menu. You can save your current email as a response, or you can select a previously saved response and insert it into your email.

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STEP 7 | Schedule Email Time

My final piece of advice is to schedule specific time for answering emails. Don’t just mindlessly check your email all the time. I’m very guilty of checking email on my phone with no intention of dealing with any of it, which is a waste of time because I have to re-read all of them later on when I’m at my computer ready to reply. In last week’s post about how I organize my week with time blocking, you may have noticed that I have a small block of time two mornings per week for email. This is specific time when I manage my personal Gmail account. At work, I add time to my daily to-do list for dealing with emails.

I check my email way more often than I’d like to admit, but ideally I would limit myself to checking it just a couple times throughout the day. I think so many of us let our email dictate our work when it shouldn’t. When’s the last time you got a life or death important email? Your emails can probably wait a few hours. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you here. I’m constantly checking my email, but in reality I could get so much more done if I focused my energy on my projects and limited email checks to scheduled times during the day. I’m going to get better at this!

Do you have any other tips for organizing your email? Any Gmail hacks to share? Leave a comment below and let me know.

Other Posts In This Series

Introduction: Resolve To Get Organized

Part 1: Setting Goals & Designing a Road Map to Crush Them

Part 2: Dominate Your To-Do List With This Time-Saving System

Part 3: How I Organize My Week for Maximum Productivity & Focus

Part 4: 7 Steps to Ruthlessly Organize Your Email you’re here!

Part 5: How to Organize Your Mail to Eliminate Paper Clutter

Part 6: 13 Practical Habits That Will Keep Your Home Organized

Part 7: Organize Like a Pro With Free Printable Storage Labels

Part 8: How to Organize Any Space in 7 Steps

Conclusion: 6 Warning Signs Your Organizing Attempts Will Backfire

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