The home organization craze of recent years inspired many of us to tidy our physical spaces and develop systems for keeping things in order. But we don’t always give the same care to our digital clutter.
Just as having an organized home saves valuable time and creates a sense of calm and order, keeping our email inboxes under control has similar benefits.
“When your inbox is cluttered and disorganized, you can get lost in a black hole of emails,” Anna Dearmon Kornick, a time management coach and host of the “It’s About Time” podcast, told HuffPost. “When you have concerns, when you can’t find something in your inbox, when you know it’s is bursting at the seams with a combination of important emails and notifications and promotional messages, it makes our minds scattered and overwhelmed.”
When you take control over your inbox, you make your email work for you, rather than the other way around.
“Having an organized inbox allows you to make better use of your time, stay aligned with your professional and personal priorities and stay on top of your commitments,” said Helena Alkhas, founder of A Personal Organizer. “It boosts your self-confidence and productivity and reduces anxiety because you know where to find what you need when you need it. But an organized inbox doesn’t just happen out of nowhere ― it takes intention and dedication to keep it that way.”
So what’s the secret to a super-organized inbox? Below, Alkhas, Kornick and other experts share their tips.
Check at specific times of day
“The key to keeping your inbox organized is to only open an email message when you have the time to address the contents,” said professional office organizer Stephanie Shalofsky. “This way you avoid having a bunch of read emails requiring action getting mixed in (and overlooked) with unread messages. This helps to minimize the inbox clutter and ensure that issues are addressed promptly.”
Instead of keeping your email up on your screen all day, designate specific times to check your inbox.
“Schedule two to three sessions of 20-30 minutes a day and resist the temptation of checking your inbox all the time,” Alkhas said.
Kornick recommended three times a day ― the “Dr. Pepper” times: 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
“Ten o’clock is great because you can start your day planning your priorities and getting something done toward those priorities before you check your email,” she explained. “Two o’clock is after lunch. And 4 o’clock is as you’re starting to get ready to leave for the day. And then maybe once in the evening if you have a really high-demand job.”
If you check your inbox during designated email-specific chunks, then you can process and address emails as they come in, rather than quickly skimming and forgetting about them as you scroll through at random throughout the day.
To hold yourself to this system, make sure you turn off your email notifications. In addition to helping with organization, this will also ensure you don’t get distracted by your inbox while you’re working on a different task.
“Task-switching is hard on our brains and, contrary to what we think, makes us less productive and more stressed,” Alkhas said.
Sort your emails
Productivity coach Ellen Faye has a simple system for organizing your inbox as you go through your emails.
“Emails you will never need to see again: Delete,” she said. “Emails you may want to reference again, but there is no action associated with the email, get filed into a folder or label. I often recommend simply creating one folder or label called ‘Past Emails’ and moving all non-actionable emails there.”
Emails that require action should remain in the inbox to keep your attention and ensure the task gets done.
“Every email is not important,” Faye emphasized. “Think of email like junk snail mail. When mail you didn’t ask for comes into your house, you don’t feel obligated to read it. Try the same technique with your email.”
But don’t make your folder system too complex
“When setting up a filing system for email, keep the file structure simple and create broad categories in an effort to limit the number of folders,” Shalofsky advised.
Folders require you to manually sort your emails, so you don’t want to make that task take up more time than necessary.
“The most-used email systems like Outlook and Gmail have really excellent search tools, and it’s faster to search using a few keywords than to dig into 38 different folders to find the exact email you’re looking for,” Kornick said. “Avoid using a complex foldering system to manually sort all of your email. Instead, just use the search bar to find what you need.”
“Limiting the number of emails that are directed to your main inbox is one way to keep it organized,” Shalofsky said. “Using rules to automatically divert emails from your main inbox to specific folders will reduce the number of messages to sort through daily.”
For instance, you can set up your system so that daily newsletter subscriptions are automatically filtered into a separate folder, rather than clogging up your main inbox. That way you don’t necessarily have to read the newsletters each day but you’ll still receive them to read later.
“If you know you regularly get notifications or low priority emails, you can create rules or filters to have those messages skip your inbox, so you’re automatically cutting the clutter and putting them where it makes sense,” Kornick said. “Then you can check that low priority folder at your convenience.”
Stop fixating on inbox zero
You’re not alone if you fixate on achieving “inbox zero” ― the benchmark of having zero unread emails at all possible times.
“While many experts promote the idea of ‘inbox zero,’ for many of us, that feels like an unachievable goal and can become a source of anxiety,” Alkhas said. “Instead, I prefer to work with smaller steps and easier ones to implement.”
She noted that the average office worker tends to receive about 120 emails per day, “making it rather difficult to keep the deck clear and leading professionals to use their inbox as a holding space for their ongoing projects and pending items.”
Don’t think about the presence of any unopened email as a problem stopping you from keeping your inbox at zero. This will distract you from more pressing tasks and make it hard to prioritize what’s important.
Don’t respond in order
“Don’t respond to each email in the order it appears,” Kornick urged. “Instead, process your email. Scan for high-priority senders and subject lines and start with those. It’s OK to jump around because you’re checking in priority order rather than the order it hits your inbox. You’re taking control of the priority versus letting your email tell you what to do.”
She suggested using the “two-minute rule,” meaning that if you can respond to an email request within two minutes, just get it done in the moment. But if it will take longer, add it to your to-do list and prioritize when you need to send your reply in the context of your other obligations for the day or week.
Faye similarly advised tackling your inbox based on priority rather than the date received. She suggested setting up categories for high-priority messages that require immediate action and those that can be addressed later.
“This technique is a game changer,” she said. “It is the only thing I’ve found that really works.”
“As with any other organizing task, developing habits that become part of your daily email management routine is key,” Shalofsky said.
She recommended making time to periodically unsubscribe from email blasts ― either manually or using an app. Get in the habit of doing this regularly.
Blocking small chunks of time regularly to process emails, creating a rule as soon as you identify the need for one and periodically making time to unsubscribe to email blasts either manually or by using an app are all examples of habits that are worth forming.
“It’s hard to make time to unsubscribe, but it’s a great thing to do with a few extra minutes,” Faye said. “Next time you are waiting at the doctor’s office, in the carpool line, or on hold, instead of picking up your phone and playing a game, use that time to unsubscribe.”
Use other platforms for task management
Certain tasks require email, but that doesn’t mean the entire process has to take place in your inbox.
“Do your best to move away from emails for project management,” Alkhas advised. “Instead, adopt a project management platform like Asana, Monday, or Notion and agree with all involved that you will only use that space for your communication.”
Similarly, she suggested using tools like Doodle polls to schedule meetings, rather than starting unnecessary back-and-forth threads. This will help you and your peers avoid having to sift through a lot of extra emails.
“Know when to email and when not to email,” advised productivity coach Samphy Y. “Email is not a productivity tool, but only a communication tool. And it is only one of several ways to communicate.”
Do a “spring cleaning”
“Practice routine inbox organization on a regular basis,” said Rashelle Isip, a professional organizer at The Order Expert and creator of the Empty Inbox Online Course. “Ongoing maintenance is key and there’s no need to wait until things reach a tipping point.”
It’s helpful to take a routine maintenance approach to the systems you set up as well. Pinch-Hitter Professional Organizing and Productivity Solutions founder Josephine Paige suggested doing a “spring cleaning” of sorts every three months or so.
“Review folder names and rename if the name doesn’t work for you to recall the contents and delete or archive files you no longer immediately find useful,” she said. “Take time to unsubscribe and or delete any communications you do not need or want.”
Streamline your messages
Keeping your inbox organized goes beyond the systems you set up and into the content of the messages you send.
“The overall objective should be to minimize the unnecessary clutter in your inbox,” Shalofsky said. “One strategy to help accomplish this is to draft emails that are clear and concise with well-defined questions or requests. This should reduce the rounds of back and forth clarifying exactly what is needed from the recipient.”
Faye also advised writing mindfully with simple, specific questions or goals. Try to be strategic with the email addresses you place in the “To” field and those who are CC’d or BCC’d.
“Be respectful of others’ time and inboxes and copy only those who need to have the information,” she noted.
And remember, you don’t have to respond to every single email in a thread if it doesn’t move the conversation forward ― especially if the dreaded “reply all” button is involved.
As Faye said, “Rarely should you use reply all unless you have a reason to reply all. ”