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23,000 emails? Here's how to get them down to zero.

Deep breaths. It’s time to deal with those ‘unread’ messages haunting your inbox.

I’m about to ask you a deeply personal question, so here goes: What’s your number?

Relax, I’m not trying to ask you out or probe into your relationship history. I’m talking about the number in the little red notification bubble on your email app, or in the “unread” section of your inbox.

Mine currently says ‘18’ (she says, rather smugly) but there’s at least one of my colleagues whose number is more than 23,000. Yes, that’s twenty three thousand unread emails.

For many of us, whittling those unread messages down to single digits seems about as achievable as holding water in a sieve.

But believe it or not, there are folks out there who subscribe to a rule called Inbox Zero – and succeed. As the name suggests, this is a rigorous approach to email management. Success doesn’t necessary equate to zero unreads; some people mark messages as unread as a reminder to come back and action them. Ultimately, though, it’s about sifting away the excess — quite ruthlessly, it has to be said.

According to Productivity and Organising Consultant and CPO of A Little Elf, Karen Koedding, an inbox that’s bursting at the seams weighs significantly on its owner’s mind. “[It’s] a subconscious stress, similar to when your computer desktop is filled with heaps of files. The second you open it up, you’re hit with a mass of information,” Koedding says.

Logic would suggest the best approach is to deal with every email as it arrives, but that’s not necessarily going to help. Just ask Vox writer Joseph Stromberg, who recently revealed his secret to maintaining a clear inbox: “I don’t get to inbox zero by reading and replying to all of my emails. I do it by reading as few of them as possible”.

This might sound daunting, and achieving a ‘0’ in your unreads might be more doable for some people than others. Koedding says it’s more reasonable to employ some quick tricks that will enable you to manage the sea of messages you’re confronted with daily. Here are some that might work for you:

1. Unsubscribe from newsletters you don’t read.

This is an easy one. Koedding says to think realistically about which newsletters you want to (and have time to) read, then use your email software to automatically move them into a ‘Newsletters’ folder when they arrive in your inbox. That way you can come back to them at a more convenient time. As for the rest of them? Goodbye.

2. Don’t read what you don’t have to.

Repeat after me: you do not have to read every single message that arrives in your inbox. Read what you need to. “If they are obviously spam don’t bother to look. Just flag it as spam in your email software, which should auto delete it and block it in the future,” Koedding says.

3. Learn to use filters.

Filters aren’t only useful for, well, you know… selfie enhancement. Adjusting your email settings to a high level filter should prevent most spam messages from getting in there in the first place.

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4. Separate your work and personal life.

If you haven’t already, Koedding recommends setting up a separate email account for your personal emails. That way you’re not dealing with a double whammy.

Keep your personal life personal. Same goes for your personal emails.

5. Avoid unnecessary CC-ing

The ol’ CC chain can get out of hand quickly, especially when the conversation goes off on a tangent. If you find yourself being copied in on email threads that aren’t actually relevant to you, Koedding says to simply ask to be removed as a recipient.

6. Be a good delegator.

“If you’re receiving important emails but don’t have time to read them, you need to consider delegating [to] a PA or a team member,” Koedding says.

7. Consider picking up the phone.

Remember those archaic things called “te-le-phones”? Turns out they can actually save you a lot of valuable time and inbox space. Sure, a phone conversation isn’t always going to be convenient, but Koedding says to remember they can be a quicker way to deal with matters than constant email volleys.

Other suggestions from Inbox Zero converts include befriending the Archive button, so you can clear out your terrifying inbox clutter without permanently deleting any messages; creating an effective email labelling system; and hitting ‘Mute’ to silence any ridiculous Reply All email chains.

Anyone feeling particularly ruthless can follow the lead of Mashable writer Zoe Fox, who archives or deletes some emails without even reading them. This applies where she doesn’t recognise the sender’s name or see her own name in the first two words of preview text; and she claims this technique has only backfired once.

If you’re determined to hit Inbox Zero, Koedding says you need to start from a clean slate right away. The easiest way to do this is to move everything from this year into a labelled subfolder; this way, your inbox is empty and you can tackle new messages as they arrive, but you still have past emails there if you need to refer to anything. Ideally, though, you won’t bother going back through them.

Regardless of how much of your inbox you manage to clear out, Koedding says it’s important to not become a slave to your emails, or to allow them to interrupt you. “Turn off all notifications on your phone and tablet … I guarantee you’ll still check your email.  On your computer, turn off the sound and popup notifications,” she says.

“No one is good at multitasking and the constant interruptions by technology are a nightmare for productivity and stress levels.”

How do you stay on top of your inbox?

Want more? Try these:

How to make your CV look impressive (no graphic design degree required).

How to nail difficult conversations.

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