How busy freelancers can achieve inbox zero (or close)

Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash

Nearly every freelancer I know has thousands of unread emails in their inbox.

I only know a handful who don’t. I’m one of them. Yesterday, though, I couldn’t have said that and been honest about it.

My unread email count often hovers in the 10,000–15,000 range, and there have been a few times I was forced to delete emails en masse due to storage limits. That wasn’t enough to make me change my habits, though, and I suspect I am not alone in that.

Now, before you get all excited thinking that I have hundreds of potential clients waiting to hear back from me… That’s not the case! Rather, my inbox is full of emails from PR reps, automated freelance job alerts, marketing newsletters from companies I patronize, social justice and political action campaigns that I also follow via other channels, and yes, of course, there were some retail coupons floating around in there as well.

I’ve had access to an email account for approximately 22 years. It’s staggering to think it’s been that long, but there it is. Once upon a time, the only people who could email you were people you knew in real life first. In the early days, brands weren’t even emailing customers with holiday sale specials and discount codes, because the only thing anyone bought online was books from Amazon, back when all Amazon sold was books.

Now that you think I’m a dinosaur, let me share some of the email management wisdom I’ve collected over the years (ok, decades).

I’m willing to bet a great many freelancers are using one email address for both business and personal matters. I think this is a mistake. While it can and does work for some, I’d argue those lucky souls represent a small minority. Most of us would go cross-eyed and start waving a white flag for help. Indeed, a number of my virtual assistant clients over the years asked me to “clean out” their email inbox for them, because they struggle to find the time and energy to tackle it themselves. I get it.

The longer you freelance, the more emails you will get. This is a fact, and in itself, it’s not a bad thing. Being on the receiving end of more emails is only a problem when those emails are unwanted or when they make it difficult to prioritize your incoming messages. When I joined a number of media databases and began receiving onslaughts of PR emails, I had to make a quick shift in order to save my sanity. Suddenly, all of my “important” emails were sunk in a sea of messages that I was either completely or mostly uninterested in. Luckily, Gmail’s features made it possible for me to create filters for messages from clients and other important things, like bills to pay, without putting forth a lot of effort. Dividing my email inbox in this way was an effective stop-gap for making sure I don’t miss a key message, but it didn’t address the root of the problem: those incoming messages. They kept piling up, and piling up, until Gmail told me I was out of storage space. Oops.

So, what’s a busy freelancer to do when the inbox gets truly out of control? Don’t panic. You have options.

  1. Get a new email address and share it only with the people you actually need to communicate with. Start using that and never look back.
  2. Delete all your unread emails and hope they don’t pile up again.
  3. Use a third-party unsubscribe service that doesn’t actually unsubscribe you from email lists, and makes analytics a nightmare for marketers.
  4. Change careers to something that doesn’t require heavy email use.
  5. Binge-watch something on Netflix. Doesn’t solve the inbox problem, but at least you won’t be looking at it any more.

Don’t like any of those suggestions? Oh, good. Neither did I.

Secret Option #6, though, was a quick and clear winner: take a deep breath and work to get yourself out of the problematic situation that you created for yourself.

(Sorry, but that is really the answer.)

Here’s how I took my messy, out-of-control inbox and whipped that sucker right into shape:

  1. Cut into your social media surfing time. I like to take “social media breaks” throughout my work day, which essentially means I scroll through Facebook or Instagram for a few minutes between other tasks. This helps me limit my social addiction and gives my brain a little rest. However, I found that by using a few of those short breaks a day to work on my email inbox, instead of looking at everyone’s lunch photos, helped me make major progress in very little time.
  2. Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe. This can be a time-consuming process, since most unsub links take you to a confirmation page, and there is often an optional feedback form after that. You do not need to complete a feedback form in order to unsubscribe from an email list, so save yourself the time and just close the tab.
  3. Bulk actions are your friend. As you look through your unread messages, you’ll likely see multiple messages from the same sender. If you’re not interested in anything from that sender, unsubscribe if possible and then search by email address and delete ALL of the emails at once.
  4. Keep what you want to keep, but put it in its place. If some of your unread messages are from a retailer you shop with a couple of times a year, you may want to stay on their list, and that’s cool. Create a folder or label called “Shopping” and set up filters for any applicable email lists. If your email service provides filtering options similar to Gmail, you’ll be able to add all your older emails to that new category, if you so desire. That can be useful if you want to park a group of emails to sort through at a later time.
  5. Separate the business from the personal. Don’t use the same email address for your personal shopping accounts that you use to communicate with clients and vendors. While this means you’ll have to keep up with two inboxes, you’ll accomplish more than prioritizing your important incoming messages. Using a dedicated professional email address reinforces and legitimizes your business on a psychological level, and also cuts down on distractions when you’re “at work.” (Sorry, mom, those vacation photos of yours are just going to have to wait…)

In just a few minutes a day over the past week, I was able to wrestle 15,000+ unread messages down to just a few hundred. The majority of those unread messages were off-target PR leads and brand email lists I didn’t really need. Now that I’ve unsubscribed to most of them (and updated my listings in the related PR databases), I won’t see nearly as many messages piling up.

I’ll set myself a reminder to repeat this clean-out task a month from now, and I bet I’ll be able to tackle all my unread messages in just one or two social media breaks. How long do you think it will take you to conquer yours?