Reclaim time your inbox stole from you — Business Productivity Tips

Delete, delete, del–wait… read later. Delete, answer, flag, answer later, delete…

Daily email processing is a draining, time-sucking chore. Email itself, though, is still a valuable tool. That’s why I was excited to use this trick to cut down the chore part and gain some productivity.

It works best if you suffer from have these same email habits:

  1.  I don’t sort or delete all emails after reading them

If you’re like me, “inbox zero” just isn’t a meaningful goal. Getting to an empty inbox every day might work for one of my secondary accounts, but for my main email address, it doesn’t match how I operate.

Charlie Brown empty inbox

See, emails sit in my inbox for reference. Maybe there’s one I want to answer — but only after some thought. Or after coffee. The downside is that accumulation is me just begging to get lost in my inbox every time I go back. I get that.

  1.  I try to sift through a day’s worth of new emails in one sitting

I check my email only a couple of times a day, keeping me from constant interruptions. It’s actually sound advice.  But just like how toothpaste is a beneficial part of our everyday lives, follow it with a swig of orange juice and you’ve got a dreadful combination.

Item #2 reinforces item #1, and then item #1 makes #2 tougher to do.

I’m guilty of inbox sin, but I’m trying, Ringo.

Since breaking habits is hard I figured it would be easier to sharpen my aim.  I want to be able to do a quick once-over of my email and know that I’m not missing important messages. That way I can inch toward inbox efficiency without running the path of unrealistic (for me) goals.

Thanks to my twitter stream, I stumbled onto a solution.

My friend Joe tweeted that he was going to set an inbox rule that all emails with the word “unsubscribe” would be automatically deleted. He’s setting a safety net for the unwelcome clutter that slips past spam filters.

He probably wasn’t kidding, either.

Clever, but it’s a little too “using a sledgehammer to kill a fly” for me. Some tools that I rely on like Twitter notifications and MailChimp follow a clear unsubscribe practice, and that broad stroke would leave me wondering where those notifications went. It’s not urgent that I get to them at the start of my day, but I definitely want to follow back people that follow @spyfu on Twitter or who favorited a tweet. Those notifications are handy.

Common threads are the key

I get enough email pitches every day that I can pick up on trends. More marketers are ditching the cold info dump and instead, asking for small agreements. Could I tell them about my company? Would I be open to getting a more detailed message?

They’re just conversational enough to escape spam folders, and that feeds my “sift through everything” problem. They love this simple, casual request: “If you’re not the one I should talk to about this, please direct me to the right person in your office.”

It’s actually a good tactic because it’s tempting for me to just reply so that they will pester someone else. Marketers know that it works, so they use it in one pitch after another. That got me thinking about Joe’s “unsubscribe” rule. If the low-value emails rely on the same practices like “direct me to the right person,” then they are unwittingly filtering themselves.

I could use that pattern to my advantage. (Cue the evil laugh.)

I’ve already admitted that deleting everything is too broad for me, but there’s still a solution. When I drop these common-thread emails into different folders, I can prioritize the folders.

Common threads might be:

  • Unsubscribe — Use with caution. It could include emails you *want* to get.
  • You received this message because…'” — Generic language in email footers.
  • If you’re not the right person… — They don’t know me, but I might want to know what they have to say.
  • My name is…– Usually not included in emails from people I work with, but there can be exceptions.
  • A special offer— As they say on singing competitions, sounds pitchy.

Voila, auto vetting

Now I can go to my inbox (non-filtered emails) and get that PDF I was expecting from a colleague, or I can skim my emails for anything pressing that I want to answer and get off my plate.

The emails that you end up seeing first get their “important” status back by virtue of having made the cut.

See, now they're tra-- Do I even have to caption this?
See, now they’re tr– …really, do I even have to caption this?

Work in blocks of time.

When you’re ready, you can move on to the lower-priority folders.

These don’t even have to weed out low-value emails. I mentioned how I want to review Twitter notifications, so I made a rule to look for the phrase “is now following you on Twitter.” Those get their own folder that I can focus on in one sitting. My brain doesn’t have to switch gears much at all.

You might want to consider a theme-based filter like “Schedule a call”  This might be from people you know, and that’s not a bad filter. Open that folder (along with your calendar) so you can effectively schedule higher-priority appointments and meetings.

The point is I want to stop giving weight to non-important emails without killing them off altogether. This alone builds productivity by cutting down on time spent deciding what to do with each email.

I’m not going to reach inbox zero, but I can reclaim some of the time that my inbox has robbed from me.

And that feels just as satisfying.


Recommended readings – Looking for tips to better your own email campaigns?

  • AmandasAbroad

    Nicely put (your caption under Admiral Ackbar, that is).

    I’m in charge of 30+ email accounts spread across a variety of email services. The time spent setting up proper IMAP and forwarding rules to get them all into one central account saved me hours of time because I only had to check one account vs 30 or more throughout the day.

    That central account is where the benefits of email filters really stand out. Setting all the filters up properly took a long time, but now the work of sorting and responding to 500+ emails a day is more than manageable. I love your tip for sorting emails into folders by filtering for common phrases people use (especially “schedule a call” and “is now following you”).

    Thanks for the article, Sidra! 🙂

    • AgentSidra

      I’m glad you found the common phrases to be helpful. It’s funny how they start to stand out after a while. Thank you for sharing your own tip about consolidating all 30 (!) accounts into one place. I’m glad you were able to find one more tip here to take that efficiency one step further.

  • P Moulton

    Great Idea

    • AgentSidra

      Let me know how it works for you. I’ve been using this system for a little over a week, and it’s smoothing out my mornings. I have a couple of tweaks to make, but the time I save overall is adding up.

      • P Moulton

        I tried it and it’s a game changer! Used the filter on any email that had “unsubscribe” to move to another folder, and since then I have been able to keep up with my key email correspondence. Thanks for sharing!!!

        • AgentSidra

          You’re welcome. Glad to hear it helped! I noticed that Outlook rolled out a feature called “Clutter” where they automatically filter aside emails that you get often but usually ignore. That is a plus, but they still miss new email blasts.