How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero and Keep It There in 14 Days or Less

Email is an extremely helpful professional tool. It’s fast, convenient and less intrusive than phone calls. It empowers school marketers to function and communicate with team members from almost anywhere.

But let’s face it – staying on top of your email inbox can be extremely overwhelming, not to mention hinder productivity. A research study conducted by McKinsey Global Institute found that most workers spend one-quarter of their day reading and responding to email messages. That adds up to 2 hours per day or 10 hours per week!

School marketers often receive hundreds, if not thousands, of email messages a day. Reading and responding to each one can become a huge time drain.

An overfull inbox will not only frustrate you but also can prevent you from maximizing your time and distract you from other obligations.

How can we tame the email monster that is continually attacking our inbox?

Here are 15 steps you can take to gain control of your email inbox. I recommend that you take one step each day so you don’t get overwhelmed with this process. Afterall, it’s designed to reduce your stress, not add to it!

Let’s get started….

Note: This method assumes you have proper storage for attachments, receipts and other information you’ve been sent set up on your hard drive and/or back up drive.

Step #1. Combine multiple email accounts

It’s a lot easier to stay on top of your email messages if they are all in one place. These days, most of us have multiple email accounts to manage. Take the time to consolidate your email accounts into one place to make it easier to manage them.

  • Mac: Mail and iCal
  • Windows: Outlook or Mail
  • Google: Gmail (redesigned April 2018)

Step #2. Create archive folders

This is a super-easy step – and may seem a little intimidating if you’ve been relying on lots of nested folders within your inbox.

*Note: I don’t recommend that you delete any folders until you are certain this system will work for you.

Let’s do away with all of the nested folders you have created for storage. It’s too hard to keep track of them all and difficult to find what you’re looking for. This system ensures you will have full control over your Inbox.

Try this instead:

  • Create an archive for the current year (2018) and create 3 nested folders: Copy Inbox, Save and Copy Sent. Create a folder for any other category you feel you can’t live without.
  • Now, set up a filter that copies all new messages to Copy Inbox and every sent message to Copy Sent
  • Test to make sure the filters are working.
  • Gmail users, you can use your All Mail and Sent Mail folders and create a Save folder and any other temporary folders to hold emails until you can get them sorted.
  • Now copy every message you have in your inbox and copy them to the Copy Inbox Do the same for your sent messages; copy them to Copy Sent.

Step #3. Get rid of old emails

I know how scary this might seem, but the reality is that you most likely won’t read your old emails anyway. If there is something really important the sender would have been in touch already or you would have taken action.

  • Select every email that is old by your standards. This might be a week, or 2 weeks or a month for you.
  • DELETE THEM! Yes, that’s right. Just delete them. Now you should have a fraction of the number of emails you used to have in your inbox. Your goal should be to have never have more than 300 emails in your inbox at one time.
  • Remember you still have a copy of every email you’ve received in your Copy Inbox folder so you haven’t lost anything.

Step #4. Sort your messages

Today you are going to sort through all your emails and clear out every message received in the last 24 hours. This should not take more than 45 minutes.

  • Create a new folder in your Inbox and call it Action
  • Now move every message received in the past 24 hours to this folder.
  • Next you are going to review each message and take one of the following actions with each one:
    • Delete it
    • Deal with it (take action)
    • Delegate it, or
    • Defer it.

Here’s how to do this efficiently:

  1. Delete unwanted emails
  • Sort all of the messages in your Action folder by sender, subject and recipients, but DON’T OPEN THEM!!!
  • Scan the subject line of each email. Delete all messages you don’t want or won’t have time to read. For example, don’t save messages from people trying to sell you something.
  • Often you can delete a whole group of messages if it has the same subject, sender or recipients.
  • Delete all out-of-office messages.
  1. Take action on important messages

Now you are left with messages that need more attention.

  • Start by dealing with any messages related to appointments or meetings. Save them to your calendar.
  • Next, open any emails where your name is Cc’d or Bcc’d. You should be able to quickly read these messages and either take action, delete or defer them. But hopefully you can delete them because they were informational in nature.
  • Open the rest of your current email messages. Either delete, take action, delegate or defer each one. Don’t close the message until you’ve taken the appropriate action.
  • Sometimes you can craft a reply but need to wait to send the email until you get additional information. Go ahead and write the reply and then save the email in your Drafts Then write a message requesting the rest of the information needed – and Cc yourself (the reason for this will become clear in a minute.)
  1. Delegate as many messages as possible

If possible, delegate messages that someone else can take care of. Forward the original message (change the subject line to something meaningful) and write a delegation messages – this should take less than 2 minutes. Before you send it, CC yourself. Now, delete the original.

  1. Defer responses that will take longer than 2 minutes to produce

Sometimes messages will take longer than 2 minutes to handle. For example, an email where a lengthy response, proposal, report, etc. is required.

  • To defer a message, simply forward it after changing the subject line to something meaningful to you. Include the due date in the subject line if that will help you. Delete the original message.

THAT’S IT! Now your Action folder should be empty and your Inbox should be clear as well.

Exclusive FREE Bonus: Download the pdf How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero and Keep It There in 14 Days or Less to reference in the future and/or share with colleagues at your school.

Step #5. Schedule email processing times

Resist the urge to check your emails throughout the day. Instead, set aside time each day to check your emails. I recommend not checking emails more than twice a day because it can be such a time drain.

Another time management strategy I like to use is to schedule a heavy-duty task for the first hour of the day, before I check my email. Otherwise, I can get sucked into email management and not get my priority work done first.

Schedule two 15-20-minute time slots per day, depending on how many emails you need to deal with.

Here’s how to process your email during your email management sessions.

  1. Send all messages you’ve sent to yourself (i.e. messages you need to take action on, have deferred or cc’d yourself) and move to the Action These are your most important emails. If you need to further organize these emails, set up a color-coded flagging priority system.) Here’s an example:
  • Red = high priority

  • Orange = medium priority

  • Green = low priority

  • Purple = items that need follow up

  • Gray = items that don’t need action but can’t be deleted yet

This will help you with prioritization and follow up.

  1. Now, set up a filter that moves all messages you send to yourself to the Action

Step #6. Clear out your inbox

Today work on clearing out the rest of your inbox using Steps # 3 and 4.

Step #7. Finish clearing your inbox

If you haven’t finished clearing out your inbox, take time today to get ‘er done! Use the strategies laid out in Steps # 3 and 4 to get through them all. If you can’t finish today, put some time on your calendar to finish up.

A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to get through 75 email messages per hour.

  • Turn off any notifications or pop-ups you have set up. Constantly monitoring emails is a waste of time. Reserve time every day to process your email and keep your inbox clean.

Step #8. Process your Action folder

At this point it may seem like you’ve just moved a bunch of emails to your Action folder. While this is true to a point, but you’ve also prioritized them.

  • Sort your Action folder according to their flags so all your High, Medium, Low, Follow-Up and Bcc’d emails are grouped together.
  • Schedule time on your calendar to deal with your emails still in your Action
  • Transfer email from your Action folder to your calendar. Doing this increases the chances that you will take the appropriate actions when needed. Treat them the same way you would if they were an appointment or meeting you were scheduling.
  • When you’re done scheduling your Action emails, either change the flag to Completed or delete the message.

Step #9. Set up virtual folders 

Whether you’re using Windows or Mac, you can set up virtual folders that automatically search for certain criteria and places email in folders you’ve set up. For example, you might want to set up folders following your Action flagging system – High, Medium, Low, Follow-Up and Bcc’d emails. This will save you time because you won’t have to review these emails – they will already be moved to the right folder.

  • Windows Outlook users, click here for an explanation and directions on how to set up a custom Search Folder.
  • MacOS users, use these tips for setting up and saving custom searches.
  • Gmail users, create a virtually infinite number of aliases by placing a period anywhere in your name, or placing a plus sign followed by a word at the end of your username. That will give you a simple variable you can use to create scenario-specific filters to manage emails.

Step #10. Weekly task review and planning

The weekly review is an important time for you to process your Action folder. Set a 30-minute weekly appointment on your calendar for review and planning the next week’s tasks. This is a very critical activity that will help you with work-life balance. Strive to keep this appointment with yourself every week.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Mark tasks that you’ve completed as Complete or delete them from your calendar.
  • Evaluate the objectives in your Action folder.
  • Plan next week’s work schedule. Move tasks from your Action folder to your calendar.
  • Reflect on the past week. Did you schedule too much? Did some tasks take longer than expected? Were some tasks time-wasters?

Step #11. Write effective email messages

One way to reduce the amount of email you receive is to write messages that are clear and complete. One method for doing this was devised by Sally McGhee. She calls it the PASS model. Here’s how it works:

  • P = Purpose

Clearly state the purpose of the email. Keep the message simple and to the point.

  • A = Action

State the action you want the receiver to take and when you need the action to be completed.

  • S = Supporting documents

Attach your supporting documentation and refer to it in the body of the email (so the receiver knows to look for it).

  • S = Subject line

Subject lines are critical. They often mean the difference of getting your email read or not. Write clear, succinct, descriptive subject lines for the best chance of getting your message seen.

Step #12. Use email templates (swipe files)

We all have standard emails that we write over and over. Maybe it’s an introductory email, messages related to meetings and appointments, or sending a periodic report. Take the time to create templates (also called swipe files or canned responses) for your recurring messages, saving yourself hours in the long run.

  • Apple Mail: Click here for How to use message templates in Apple Mail (TechRepublic)
  • Microsoft Windows Outlook: Click here to create an email message template
  • Gmail: Click here for How to Create Gmail Templates in 60 seconds (Hubspot)

Step #13. Refrain from carbon copying

When you use Cc or Bcc you are opening yourself up to more emails, and possibly unnecessary distractions. Most of the time these emails are a waste of time. Try to refrain from using Cc (or Bcc) as much as possible, making it easier on yourself to keep up with your email inbox.

Step #14: Unsubscribe

Most of us only really need about 10 percent of our incoming emails. The other 90 percent of messages are wasting your time.

  • Take some time each day to unsubscribe from email lists you don’t actually read or need. Even if you unsubscribe from one list per day, eventually you’ll get rid of all superfluous email messages.
  • If you aren’t quite ready to Unsubscribe, try creating a filter that sends emails from certain senders automatically into the Spam, Junk or Trash folder. That way, you can check your Spam, Junk or Trash folders and still review the subject lines before dumping the folders. Use this method in case you want a fail-safe, but my bet is you won’t even miss them!

Step #15: Consider using email management tools

There are lots of tools and free apps to help you get your email organized and manageable. Here are some for you to consider:

Shift is a free desktop application that allows you to access all of your email accounts in one place. It is available for use on Mac, Windows and Linux. Not only can you access your email accounts, but you can set it up to interface with popular productivity tools like Boomerang, Grammarly, Google Services, Unified Search, Slack, Trello, Jira, Asana, Box, Canva, Desk, Amazon Web Services…and many more commonly used apps. Here’s an introductory video…

Possibly one of my all-time favorite tools, Unroll.me is a free tool that will let you create a list of all your subscription emails and unsubscribe from them easily when from whichever ones you don’t want to keep. Unroll.me explainer video…

This tool lets you schedule email reminders to others or yourself so you can stay on top of following up on your emails.  Here’s a video that explains how it works.

Officially considered a sales app, Hubspot Sales is a Chrome extension that can be used with any email software, making it a powerful productivity tool as well. For example, it will notify you if someone clicks on or opens your email. A sidebar pops up with you open an email thread and you can see relevant information about the person you’re emailing like contact history, social media content, mutual connections, etc. There is a free as well as a paid version.

I’m sure you know about If This Then That (IFTTT), a productivity tool that allows you to set up programming strings (called recipes) that connect apps and devices you use every day. Check out this beginner’s tutorial for more information.

Here are some ways you could use IFTTT for email management:

  • Get a text message when a specific person emails you
  • Send email attachments to Dropbox
  • Save starred emails to evernote or Pocket
  • Schedule reminders tomorrow for the emails you star in your inbox today
  • Add “receipt” or “order” emails to a Google spreadsheet
  • Track your work hours by adding an entry into a Google spreadsheet every time you arrive at or leave your office
  • Turn emails into Trello cards

SaneBox is an email management tool that prioritizes your incoming emails based on your past interaction with your inbox. If SaneBox determines the email is important, it will keep it in your inbox. If not, it will move it to another folder. Over time, you train SaneBox to filter certain types of emails into folders. SaneBox includes other cool features, like automatically sending attachments to Dropbox and unsubscribing from email lists you’ve swiped into your SaneBlackHole folder. Pricing starts at $7 per month. Here’s a great introductory video…

If you’re a competitive person that enjoys playing games, you might like this free email app that gamifies the act of cleaning out your inbox. Basically, once you start the program, it will give you 5 seconds to make a decision about what to do with each email. You get a certain number of points for each action and you’re penalized if you take too long. The Email Game makes email management fun and entertaining! Here’s a great video to get you started…

Originally designed as an alternative to Mac’s Sparrow, Mailbird is an email client for Windows that unifies your inbox with your calendar, tasks and messaging apps. Here’s an introductory video to help you get started…

Organizing and managing your email inbox doesn’t have to be a nightmare. As a matter of fact, it can be fun and help you streamline your workload. Reimagine your inbox management system using the above 14 steps to getting control of your emails. There’s a whole new world of possibilities out there just waiting to be discovered – and there’s no better time to get started than now.

What are your favorite email management hacks? Best email management tools or apps? Please share with the rest of the school marketing community below. We’d love to hear from you!

Exclusive FREE Bonus: Download the pdf How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero and Keep It There in 14 Days or Less to reference in the future and/or share with colleagues at your school.

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