Email hacks that keep me sane

Updated: Apr 21

I love email.

Said no one. Ever.

Yet our lives are inundated with email.

People send us emails like it’s going out of style.

When you’re on vacation, you still check email, right? At least that seems to be the expectation (I’ll talk about burnout in a later post).

While email can be a source of good news (“congratulations, you’re hired!”), getting our daily news, or be our main source to stay connected with others, for many of us, we often think of email as a source of stress, frustration, and more work on our plate.

The data about email is pretty sobering.

According to a report by Workfront, U.S. employees average 199 unread or unopened emails in their inboxes.

Research by Deloitte Human Capital reports that the average U.S. Worker now spends 25% of their day reading or answering emails.

Talk about overwhelming!

There is a way out. Or at least there are ways to reduce the burden of email and maintain some semblance of balance in your inbox.

Through a bit of soul searching (why am I holding on to this email—it’s dated in 2018?!), I came up with a system that works for me to keep my inbox under control and maintain my sanity.

Here are my strategies that allow me to average about 5 emails in my inbox with the goal of zeroing out my inbox every day:

Stop seeing red and see your email in colors

The thing about email is that it can sometimes be a source of anxiety. Did we miss an important email from our boss? Client? Key customer? To ensure I don’t miss emails from key people or on key topics, I color-code my email. Major email platforms like Microsoft Outlook and Gmail (personal and business) allow for color-coding or tagging emails with colors based on the sender or the subject matter. Using this technique allows me to immediately see the emails related to specific people (i.e. clients or business partners) and/or related to a topic I want to be sure I do not miss. From there I can make a decision on addressing that email today, this week, or sometime this month.

This leads me to my next strategy…

File it, but don’t forget it

There is certainly debate about using folders for emails, but I find the use of folders as a way to keep me better organized and helps with managing my time. My main organization folders are ‘Today’, ‘This week’, and ‘This Month’.

Today: these are emails I plan to respond to sometime today. My goal is that I respond and/or take action on the email by end of business. Before I shut down my computer for the day, I review that inbox to clean it up.

This week: at some point, I plan to tackle these emails by Thursday or Friday. This folder can get full pretty quickly, so I make it a point throughout the week to address five emails per day from that folder throughout the week, with the objective of cleaning out the folder by the end of the week.

This month: emails that I will address sometime within the month. I put my focus on the last week of the month on making a decision on what needs to be addressed or turned into a to-do task.

Turning my to-dos into ta-da’s!

What I have found is that some of my emails that I’m hanging on to are actually task items that should be on my task list. Thankfully I’ve invested in a project management tool that allows me to forward those emails. The tool converts the email into a task, which I can then put dates, additional information and connect it to my calendar with reminders. With my particular project management tool, many to-do’s that I complete are rewarded with a flying unicorn across my computer screen. can’t tell you how much that keeps me inspired to get things done. Ta-da!

Avoid checking email first thing in the morning

This is such an important strategy from my perspective.

The moment I check email, it has the potential to impact the course of my day. Checking email first thing in the morning impacts the other work that needs to be completed. And it has the potential to adversely impact my attitude for the day.

This was a challenging switch for me.

I come from an environment where your day is defined by the emails in your inbox.

Someone else’s priority.

When I started putting this strategy into practice, I started my day focused on what I needed to complete, on a professional and personal level:

  1. I don’t check email when I wake up–notifications are turned off on my phone (my phone serves as my alarm clock).

  2. I take time to chat with my family in the morning before we start our day.

  3. I enjoy my morning coffee.

  4. I enjoy a morning walk with my dog–with a clear mind.

  5. I tackle my high-priority tasks first thing in the morning when I log into my computer.

It is only when my immediate tasks are done, that is when I start checking my email. That usually occurs by 9 am. Enough time to address any concerns of the day.

Systems are made to be tailored

These four hacks have helped me to be ruthless and fearless with my inbox.

I will say this strategy works for me, but it’s based on tailoring strategies I’ve researched and learned from others.

Do I always have an empty inbox? No.

Do I always tackle my ‘Today’ folder or clean out my ‘This Week’ folder? Not always.

However, the key is to be consistent and persistent with the goal of managing my folder.

If I get off track, I do a quick evaluation (was I training all week?) and make the effort to clean up my inbox when I can.

I am a huge advocate of having a system in place. Systems allow for economies of scale, efficiency, and for me, keeping me focused on what matters the most.