If you don’t struggle with managing your inbox, stop reading now.
If you do struggle, I’m right there with you.
Many people have a love-hate relationship with their inboxes. They like them for quick communication, but they hate trying to manage the overload of messages and information coming at them. I can completely relate!
When I worked corporately, I was always shocked by the state of my executives’ inboxes. I was always on top of my inbox back then, and if I could manage, why couldn’t they? When I started my own business, I got my answer. As a virtual assistant, I was managing up to ten different email accounts for various projects, and I wasn’t keeping up. Before I knew it, my inbox was overflowing, and I was overwhelmed. I needed to change, so I sought out books and training on email management. I asked experts for tips. And it helped – for a bit. However, inevitably, I would lose control of my inbox, get frustrated, and fall right back into my old, bad habits.
Fortunately, I then found productivity expert Laura Stack, who introduced me to a more effective way of managing my workflow in Outlook and helped me uncover some lesser-known features of the program. Empowered by this knowledge, I hit reset on my strategy for email management.
Then COVID hit, and I just gave up on email entirely. I’m not proud of this fact, but it’s true. So, reclaiming my inbox is one of my goals for 2022. I know an empty inbox is achievable. It is sustainable. And I know I can do it!
Want to join me?
You will need to change how you think about your inbox and task management. You will also need to create a new system for how you manage your inbox. That system has to include a task and project management component, so you process email out of your inbox and into that system. Here are a few key points to remember as you hit reset on your inbox management strategy:
1. Use folders for sorting, not storing
Think of folders as an inbox sorting mechanism, not a storage location. Many companies have inbox limitations that require judiciousness with email folder storage. Even if you can get exceptions to the storage cap, it’s more efficient to save important emails to a shared network folder with your other project files. Outlook has a file extension called .msg just like Word has .doc or Excel has .xls. When you save (or copy/paste) an Outlook email message to your shared network folders, you can then open it just like you would any other file. You can still reply or forward the email when it opens with Outlook even though you do not have it saved in Outlook. Taking this approach to saving important emails will keep you organised because now all your digital files will be in the same location on your shared network drive instead of in your email and on the network.
2. Set up rules
Rules allow you to automate the sorting and prioritising process. They are used to send general correspondence – such as sale flyers, advertisements, or newsletters – to a specific folder. By removing the item from your inbox, you won’t spend more time on it than it deserves. This doesn’t mean you never look at it, instead you choose when you look at it because it’s not urgent. If you turn off email notifications to help with focus, you can also set up rules to alert you when your executive emails you so you can respond in a timely manner.
3. Create tasks
Any inbox item that requires action needs to become a task with a start date and a due date assigned. Your tasks then become a master to-do list and daily action item lists that you can prioritise and keep visible. When you MOVE (not copy) an email to a task in Microsoft Outlook, the original email remains intact and attached to the task so you can open and reply to the original email at any point. It’s important to note that when you drag (instead of move) an email into the Outlook Tasks folder, the original contents of the email is copied into the body of the task, but the original message is not included as an attachment. So moving an item to your Tasks folder is better than dragging it if you want to be able to reply to the original message once the task is completed. This best practice gets you out of your inbox and into working from a prioritised task list. It also helps you focus your time and attention on the day’s priorities and minimises distractions from new emails.
4. Calendar appointments
An inbox item that requires you to be somewhere at a specific date and time should be moved to your calendar. When you MOVE an email to your calendar, it will remain intact and attached to your calendar appointment. If you receive a calendar invite from someone, simply click ‘Accept’ and it will automatically be added to your calendar. For invitations that come in message format, you can easily
convert them to an appointment by using the Move feature in Outlook.
5. Create an “OLD INBOX – [today’s date]” to initiate a clean sweep
In addition to using these basic Outlook principles, I also recommend that you create an archive folder called “OLD INBOX” and include today’s date. Then move all your emails out of your inbox and into that folder so you can start with a clean inbox. This will help reduce overwhelm and allow you to get a better handle on your new approach. Once you have a clean inbox, click on your “Old Inbox” archive folder. You can sort your emails by name and do some quick cleanup of old newsletters, ads, and general notifications that aren’t important. Next, sort your “Old Inbox” emails by date and scan through the list to determine if there are important ones you need to handle. When you find one, convert it to a task or calendar appointment. I suggest going back about 30 days on your initial review. If you have time, you can go and search a bit further back. It’s probably not practical or worth your time to go through every single email in the “Old Inbox” folder once you pull the important things from it. Plus, you can always find things with a search or refer back to it if needed.
Establishing new habits to maintain your clean inbox
As new emails start to pour in, try to avoid letting junk clutter up your inbox. It’s vital that you empty your inbox every single day. This doesn’t mean that you answered every single message; it simply means you processed it and placed it in the appropriate place (task list, calendar, folder, reference file, or trash). Unsubscribe from emails that aren’t relevant. Create rules to filter newsletters and promotional emails that you want to read when you have time. You may also want to turn off social media notifications if you’re not responsible for managing work-related accounts.This new approach to email management will take a few days, probably even a week or two, to get used to. But once you clear out the old stuff, create rules, and get rid of the junk, you and your inbox will be in much better shape. You will likely start to see some wonderful productivity side effects! When I work from my task list instead of my inbox, my entire approach to getting things done shifts. I feel more in control of my day. I feel more in control of my time. I know exactly what I need to do next when I finish up one thing and move onto the next. It is a very liberating feeling – one I hope to feel again as I work through my own inbox this week! And I hope that by taking this new approach to email management, you will feel the same way too!
Julie Perrine, CAP-OM, is the founder and CEO of All Things Admin, providing training, mentoring and resources for administrative professionals worldwide. Julie applies her administrative expertise and passion for lifelong learning to serving as an enthusiastic mentor, speaker and author who educates admins around the world on how to be more effective every day. Learn more about Julie’s books — The Innovative Admin: Unleash the Power of Innovation in Your Administrative Career and The Organized Admin: Leverage Your Unique Organizing Style to Create Systems, Reduce Overwhelm, and Increase Productivity, and Become a Procedures Pro: The Admin’s Guide to Developing Effective Office Systems and Procedures.