As the number inside of the red bubble at the bottom of your phone screen grows, a certain sense of anxiety tends to come with it. How bad is your inbox? Double digits? Triple?
I know a few iPhones ago, I let my personal email get to several thousand (mostly junk) messages that I just could never seem to get rid of. But you don’t have to live your life chasing the elusive inbox zero with no end in sight.
We’ve collected the best tried-and-true strategies for achieving (and maintaining) inbox zero once and for all.
Lean on an app to help you out
While writing this article, I signed up for a free service called unroll.me that claims to be a game-changer in the email management game.
If you use Gmail, Outlook or Yahoo, give this free service a try, and at the very least, you’ll be able to quickly unsubscribe from all the random offers you’ve ever signed up for. After entering your email information, your inbox will be scanned, and you’ll see a message like this.
Then if you’re like me, you’ll say “What? There’s no way I’ve signed up for 184 subscriptions.” Then you can look at your list and remember signing up for a 15 percent off coupon a few months ago, and you can unsubscribe from each one you don’t want to receive anymore in one click.
Then, you can “roll up” the ones you still want to receive into one daily email, instead of dozens. You can try unroll.me here.
If you check your email primarily on your phone, you could benefit from downloading a third-party email app that makes it easier to get through your inbox quickly.
Mailbox is an iOS and Android app that allows you to put off messages now and return them to their inbox later, when you actually need to reply or act on them. You can choose anywhere from “later today” to any date in the future to have this email return to your inbox.
The more you use the app, the smarter it gets, learning to intuitively sort your emails better. You can download Mailbox on all of your mobile devices, and there’s a beta Mac OSX app available, too.
If you need a heavy-duty, customizable tool to get through your inbox, there’s a paid service that might be worth a try. Mailstrom is unlike the other apps in that it puts you in total control of your inbox.
If the thought of an important message slipping through the cracks of these other apps gives you a panic attack, then Mailstrom will restore your sense of calm.
It claims to let you “find the email hacks that work for you,” rather than choosing your strategy for you. It’s available for Outlook, Gmail and Yahoo. You can sign up for a free trial on their website, and paid plans start at $49.95 annually.
Categorize your inbox
If all of your messages are being dumped into one inbox, the sheer number of emails to sort through can seem overwhelming. Why would you want to treat emails from your broker with the same urgency as a newsletter from a local park?
Everyone’s email is different, so I won’t tell you how to categorize your inbox. Start by creating folders and simply dragging and dropping emails you receive into these folders. Then, when you notice patterns, create rules accordingly.
When your phone buzzes, it’s impossible to resist the urge to drop everything you’re doing and read that email now. But often, that buzz that you’re hoping is a client is just a coupon for the Gap. It isn’t urgent, and now you’ve disrupted your current train of thought.
However, there are certain emails you’ll want to respond to as soon as you get them (you know — leads). To make sure you aren’t missing these, look into setting up custom email notifications for your mobile devices.
On an iPhone, you can set up VIP email notifications for specific email addresses. Here’s how. This article also describes how to use IFTTT to set up a similar system on an Android device.
If your lead capture notifications come from a specific email address, just set your preferences to send a push notification for that address. You won’t miss a lead, and you also won’t be dealing with a buzzing phone all day.
Ask yourself these two questions
Inbox clutter is a form of procrastination. By ignoring an email (without deleting it), you’re saying you’ll circle back around to it later. Avoid handling each email twice by asking these two questions of each email in your inbox:
1. Am I ever going to respond to this, or will I need this information?
If the answer is no, you know where to put it — in the trash. If you’ll need to refer or reply to this email later, move it to a specific folder for follow-up.
2. Can I respond to this email in a few minutes or less?
If answering now will save you time later, and you can answer the email without referring to any outside resources, go ahead and reply. Delaying simple responses allows them to pile up and become a project. If the email requires a longer response but needs to be addressed soon, move it to a “requires response” folder.
If you decide to make inbox maintenance a priority, it won’t be easy at first. You won’t be able to judge how busy you are by the number of emails in your inbox. You might find yourself missing that red notification at the bottom of your screen.
You might get annoyed at the process of setting up rules and folders and answering emails right away. But it gets easier, and the organization process will mainly operate on autopilot after your initial setup.
And when you take your first vacation from email and are able to arrive safely back without an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, trust me — you won’t miss that little notification one bit.
Do you have a stellar tip for getting to inbox zero that I missed? Or do you just want to vent about how high your email count has gotten? Leave a comment below and let me know.