Tame your inbox

As TED’s UX Architect, I like my inbox the same way I like my designs: simple, orderly, and communicating clearly what to do next. Many people have no problem with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of unread messages in their inbox; if that’s you, you can stop reading now. But if you’re like me, unread email gives you stress — and it pretty much ensures important things will fall through the cracks.

Here’s how I keep my inbox at (or near) empty at all times. Be forewarned: this plan isn’t easy, but it works. I’ve been doing it for years with success, and I’ve helped others — in fact, some on TED’s tech team — do the same.

Step 1: Accept that your future self won’t have any more time than your current self.

I’ve noticed a trend among people with full inboxes: they don’t deal with emails as they arrive because they believe that, at some point in the near future, they’ll have time to be able to focus on each message and take appropriate action. Here’s the hard truth: the level of busy you feel right now? You’re likely to feel that next week, next month and next year. If you start from the premise that this mythical free-time unicorn doesn’t exist, you’ll find it a lot easier to make decisions as emails arrive rather than put them off for the future.

Step 2: Get a clean start.

There are two ways to do this, as I see it:

  1. Set aside a chunk of time and get caught up. Depending on how far behind you are, you’re going to need some time. And the time isn’t just going to appear — you need to schedule it. Set up a two-hour meeting for yourself during the day or dedicate an evening or a weekend to sit down and go through it all, the goal being to eliminate every email in your inbox. (Tips on that below.) Instead of playing Candy Crush, open your email app and play Email Crush.
  2. Go nuclear. You need to start somewhere, and if you’re so far behind that there’s no hope of catching up, I recommend an unthinkable approach. If you’ve got the guts, delete everything in your inbox right now. Next, send a generic email to anyone in your address book you deem important — bcc’ing the group, of course! — saying, “Hey, I just had some email issues. If you’re waiting for a response from me on anything important, please let me know.” If this seems too drastic, just delete anything over a month old and sort through the rest.

Step 3: Now, kickstart the vigilance.

This is one of the hardest parts of the plan, but it’s critical: you have to deal with your email regularly — several times a day. And by “deal with,” I mean “get it out of your inbox.” I like to think of each incoming email as a dirty little roach who’s found its way into my kitchen: I squash it the moment I see it. (Sorry entomologists.) If you find that way of coping overwhelming, maybe set a schedule to check your email only at appointed times, and only when you’ve budgeted the time to go through it. For example, set 15 minutes aside every four hours to do nothing but focus on your email.

Step 4: If it’s not important to you, delete it.

As I mentioned before, we often keep email messages with the thought that we’ll have time to pay attention to them later. In reality, “later” never comes. If it’s not important enough to look at right now, delete it. The forward from your cousin, the notification that someone just “liked” your post on Facebook — seriously, just delete it. It’s like those old pants you gave to the thrift store: it was hard to let go in the moment, but when was the last time you actually thought about them?

Step 5: Become a diligent unsubscriber.

Email subscriptions remind me of computer cables: they seem useful in the moment, but eventually we just end up with a drawer full of useless wires. If you’re not reading a subscription when it arrives, unsubscribe from it. Trust me, you probably won’t miss Schnauzers Daily. If you’re worried about missing out, check to see if the newsletter lets you choose to get fewer emails. Some newsletters even offer a pause option, so you can give yourself a temporary break when you’re feeling overwhelmed. (Note: if you create newsletters, give your users these options!)

Step 6: If an email is still in your inbox, read it.

If it passed the instant deletion and unsubscribe tests, open the email.

  • If it’s short, read it — giving it your full attention.
  • If it’s long and you really don’t have time to read it now, but you know you need to read it soon, create a folder in your inbox called “To read” and file it there.

If you’re honest with yourself, I predict this folder will only contain a small percentage of the emails you get. And you’ll need to make a time to digest the contents of this folder — whether it’s during your commute or after the kids go to bed.

Pro tips: Forward the email to an app like Instapaper or Pocket to read later. And if an email requires you to take action, forward it to a to do app like ToDoist or Omnifocus. Or if you simply want to keep an email for future reference, forward it to a note-taking app like Evernote. When you’re done, delete it!

Step 7: Respond to it.

If the email is something that only requires a quick response, send that response…now. Don’t wait. Respond while the sender’s request — and your thoughts — are still fresh. After you hit Send, delete it! (Are you seeing a theme here?) PS: Do your co-recipients a favor: remove anyone cc’d who doesn’t need to see your response. Now you’re helping others keep their inboxes clean as well!

Step 8: Forward it.

If you’re not the right person to deal with the email, forward it immediately with a brief explanation…then delete it! (Sometimes passing the buck can feel soooooo good.)

Step 9: File it.

Most email services like Gmail allow you to create subfolders in your inbox; this is a great way to move emails out of your inbox while keeping them around for later. For example, I have a folder called “Orders” to store receipts for things I’ve ordered. I also have a “Projects” folder with nested subfolders labeled by project name. Be creative! But a note of caution: if you create folders with abandon, and if you don’t do occasional housekeeping to keep them tidy, subfolders can become your email’s cluttered basement, a place you know exists but never want to visit. Spooky.

Step 10: Pick the right app.

Over the years I’ve tried almost every email app available — from Outlook to Apple Mail, Thunderbird to Mailplane, Mailbox to Spark, Sparrow to Postbox — in the hopes that one might help me take control of my inbox.

Airmail for Mac is clean — especially when you’re at Inbox Zero!

At the moment, my favorite email app is Airmail, Apple’s 2017 Design Award Winner. It sports a minimal and utilitarian interface, and has features like Snooze and To Do that will help you keep your inbox clean. It can sync your settings across devices using iCloud, and supports all major email services including Gmail, iCloud, Exchange, Yahoo!, Outlook, AOL and standard IMAP. It’s Mac and iOS only, however.

Summing up

Like the few diets or exercise regimens that actually work, there are no secret formulas or miraculous incantations required to tame your inbox, just some simple steps:

  • Accept that empty is better than full
  • Wipe out your current inbox
  • Take immediate action on each new email
  • Do periodic housekeeping
  • Unsubscribe with abandon
  • And just like any successful diet or exercise regimen, the most critical step is sticking with it.

If you decide to tame your inbox, I hope the ideas above are helpful.


Originally published on the TED Blog and my own blog.

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