How to Get Your Email Under Control

Inbox zero — is it a faraway dream, or a reachable goal? Getting your email under control can feel like a struggle, but there are plenty of ways to make your inbox productive instead of a chore that never seems to end.

“Email is real work that takes real time,” says Maura Thomas, a speaker, trainer and productivity expert. “You can’t start managing email effectively until you begin leaving some time in your schedule to process it.” Once you’re ready to dedicate some time to wrangling your inbox, here’s how to get it under control.

Sort and Prioritize

Setting up tools to manage your inbox before you even open individual emails will help you blast through them more quickly and efficiently.

First, apply filters to the emails that come in. “Newsletters, announcements and alerts don’t need to land in your inbox,” says Carlo Borja, head of online marketing for Time Doctor, a time-tracking and productivity tool. Instead, use a filter to put these in their own folder or folders for reading later. If you find you’re not opening even automated emails from companies you had subscribed to, use a tool such as to remove yourself from mailing lists.

Then, start prioritizing what’s left. “If it takes less than two minutes to take action — such as a quick reply or checking a file — I do it right away,” Borja says. “If it takes more than two minutes to take an action on an email, I put it on my to-do list.”

Automate What You Can

Integrated tools and native features can help you automate some of your email, saving even more time and making it possible to archive threads more quickly. Borja recommends using Gmail’s Canned Responses feature, which you can activate in Labs. Those template responses save you from typing out the same messages over and over.

Thomas says one of her favorite email tools is Spamdrain, which learns from your preferences about emails you think are spam. She also likes Throttle, which allows you to block senders’ access to your inbox and to combine your mass mailings like newsletters and social media alerts into digests that you read when you choose, not when the emails hit your inbox.

Cut Back On Using Email

Frankly, some of us use email to hide from direct discussions or to delay decision-making — but that just makes our inboxes even worse, experts say. Thinking about when you should use email — and more importantly, when you shouldn’t — can help you get a handle on an overwhelming inbox. “When it comes to team, project, or client communication​ my suggestion would be to get away from email for ongoing conversation or detailed discussion,” says performance coach Jamie Thurber.

So how should you communicate? Thurber suggests moving important, detailed conversations to a platform like Slack. “Slack is easy to organize, you can use icons to mark off specific points or tasks, and it’s a searchable platform which makes it so simple to reference back to previous parts of the conversation,” she says. And if your team uses a project management system like Basecamp or Asana, move project-related discussions to that platform.

And of course, phone calls and face-to-face discussions are still important, too. We’ve all moved away from picking up the phone, but sometimes a two-minute phone call can save from spending your time on a long and frustrating email chain.