Expert Advice on How To Handle an Out of Control Email Inbox

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Anna Spaller)

An out-of-control inbox is a problematic thing. Not only does it make it hard to keep your professional and personal life organized, a cluttered inbox can often lead to missed emails and opportunities.

Andrew Mellen knows all about the value of well-organized inbox. As New York City’s leading professional organizer, he’s made streamlining people’s digital disorder his business. We asked him for advice on how to better manage our own email issues, and he had a lot to share. Read ahead for twelve foolproof ways Mellen says you can improve your inbox for good.

1. Check e-mail only when you have the time to review and reply to it

“Do not open e-mails unless you have time to process them and answer them as well. This means you must start and finish dealing with each new message when you first see it. These three steps should guide your e-mail process: Read it; Reply to it; File it (or trash it).”

2. Check e-mail on demand—disable automatic checking

“When you’re not checking e-mail, make sure to close your e-mail program completely. Turn off automatic mail checking as well as all announcement features (such as sounds or pop-up screens) that herald the arrival of e-mail.”

3. Don’t read and answer your e-mail throughout the day

“To help minimize the amount of time spent on email every day, establish a particular time (or times) of each day for checking your email. If you have to, set a timer to ensure you don’t spend too much time reading and responding to emails.”

4. Don’t answer e-mail at your most productive time of day

“Answer the following question: I’m most productive between ___ and __. Now that you’ve defined it, that time is off limits. Do not answer e-mails or take on conflicting commitments during this time.”

5. Inbox means inbox

“Your inbox should show only unread messages. Translation: it is not the place for typing shopping lists or other daily to-do reminders.”

6. Set up your e-mail program to manage your e-mail as much as possible

“Configure your e-mail settings to direct certain e-mails to specific folders based on sender, subject, or content. This way you won’t have to sift through distracting spam emails before you get the important ones.”

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

7. Only reply when necessary

“It might seem like a no-brainer but sending out unnecessary email replies can be a total time drain. Train yourself not to respond to e-mails that don’t require a response so you can focus your time on the ones that do.”

8. Read the entire message thread before responding

“Ever answered an e-mail only to discover you responded too soon? Save yourself the time and face by being thorough before hitting the reply button.”

9. Use complete information in the subject line

Avoid cute personal shorthand, private languages or overly abbreviated subjects, such as “update,” “checking in,” or “status.” Be thorough and succinct to help the recipient anticipate content and ensure an accurate response.

10. And always update subject line when changing the thread or content

“Once you’ve completed a communication thread, start a new thread with a new subject line to keep your messages current and organized. Feel free to revise the subject line if your correspondent hasn’t yet—it’s a huge time waster when you search on a thread and find multiple conversations all with the same subject.”

11. Automate responses to frequently asked questions

“Did you know you can create standard replies to frequently asked questions by folding them into “signature” files in your e-mail program? Just remember to select the appropriate “signature” when replying!”

12. Publish your preferred methods for contact

“Let people know, in print, how and when you like to be contacted. If you prefer text messages to e-mails or Skype to phone, spell it out for folks in your signature so recipients can comply with your wishes.”