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Tips for Better Email Inbox Management

Tips for Better Email Inbox Management
Credit: Who is Danny/Shutterstock

While email has been around for decades, people are more connected to it now than ever before, new research finds.

According to a survey by ReachMail, even though checking email throughout the day can decrease productivity, nearly 84 percent of respondents do so frequently. In fact, more than half of respondents send over 10 emails each day.

It isn't just during the workday that work emails are distracting people. Another ReachMail survey revealed that 75 percent of Americans check their email on days off and in the late evenings, and 61 percent check their inbox while on vacation.

While email is a great traditional form of communication, it shouldn't be all-consuming. Here's how to break these habits and create a healthier, more efficient relationship with email.

One of the latest trends in email management is known as "inbox zero." The goal is to keep your inbox clean at all times, but those who practice this technique tend to check their email more than 25 times each day, according to ReachMail.

If you want to be less distracted by email and more productive, ditch the concept and create a schedule to limit the time spent reading and responding. This minimizes interruptions that derail your productivity on tasks and ensures that you are setting aside adequate time for them.

There is no rule for what type of schedule works best. If you aren't sure how often you need to be in your inbox, try checking it at three designated times each day for a week or a fixed amount of time. Then reduce the time the following week until you find the minimum amount of time you need to adequately respond.

Managing expectations and creating boundaries is an important part of creating an email schedule. Make sure clients or co-workers are aware of the new schedule by setting up an automatic response with your email host or adding your email response times in your signature. This way, people who are accustomed to instant replies won't be surprised or offended if it takes you three hours to respond instead of three minutes.

Creating folders for timely emails or informative messages is a great way to get organized. If you work for a company that has several departments, it might be beneficial to organize your account by department, with subfolders for time-sensitive material.

Each email program is different, but whether you use Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo, AOL or some other email account, you have tools at your disposal to help you stay organized. It's just about knowing they exist and how to use them.

With some 1 billion monthly users, Gmail is one of the biggest email providers. But it may surprise you how many tools and tricks it offers that you don't know about. In fact, there's a whole list of beta tools called Gmail Labs that you can enable or disable as you see fit. Here you'll find the option to create canned response emails, which can save you time when responding to long emails. Or you could combine your personal, business and other inboxes into one inbox by enabling the Multiple Inboxes feature.

There are also add-ons to Gmail to give you more functionality. For instance, you can connect your Gmail to your RingCentral phone system, which can feed in your contacts and call history and even send SMS messages. There are tons of options that you can browse in the G Suite Marketplace.  

Want an easy way to figure out where that spam is coming from? If you add a plus sign in your email address, it will still come to the same address, but you'll know who sold your email address. For instance, if you sign up for a newsletter, try something like my+address@gmail.com and you'll see pretty quickly how that company is using your data.

Gmail offers tons of ways to prioritize or deprioritize content. Getting too many messages from a business or person? You can tell Gmail that a message is not important or even to filter out those messages directly to a spam folder.

Want to keep your messages confidential? A new mode from Google allows you to do just that. As the sender, you can set an expiration date for a sensitive email or revoke it entirely. Integrated rights management (IRM) allows you to block the forwarding, copying, downloading or printing of certain messages. Plus, you can use two-factor authentication on a per-message basis. That means you can request that a recipient authenticate their identity with a passcode received by text before they are allowed to open an email.

If you're not quite ready to deal with an email, you can also snooze it. If Gmail determines from the body text that an email has a time-sensitive nature, it will nudge you to respond.

Outlook (known as Hotmail among some old-timers) is also among the most popular email platforms. But Microsoft recognizes that you probably have more than one account on a different platform. That's one reason why you can integrate your Google or iPhone calendar to sync with Outlook so all your events are in one unified space. While you're at it, you can roll your old AOL or Yahoo email account into your Outlook account. Then there's no need to go to those other addresses.

If you have a big team or a list of valued clients you often send emails to, set up a distribution list in Outlook. Then you can quickly send messages to that group.

As with Gmail, you can set up canned text to quickly drop into the body of an Outlook message. Quick Parts, as Microsoft calls these canned responses, can be used to fill in boilerplate text. Also, if you use the Quick Steps feature, you can save time by making Outlook perform a particular task such as forwarding an incoming email to a particular person. 

You can schedule when your Outlook messages go out with the Delay Delivery feature. You can specify a date and time before hitting Send, but you can trust it won't go out until you want it to.

Encrypting your outgoing messages is easy in Outlook. You can also encrypt attachments so only your chosen recipients can read them. You do this through the Trust Center settings.

Like Google, Microsoft has a marketplace for third-party add-ons that can increase Outlook's functionality. Just click the Store button in the top right of your Outlook inbox to see all the options. For instance, with the FedEx add-on, you can automatically track your deliveries and receipts within your email.

Yahoo, owned by a sub-company of Verizon, claims it has 225 million active monthly users. The company was recently fined $35 million for failing to disclose a data breach in 2014 that left vulnerable data from 500 million to 1 billion accounts. So perhaps the first big tip for using Yahoo is to stop using Yahoo. First, you'll want to cancel any subscriptions for services you've signed up for through Yahoo. Once you click "delete user," it will ask you several times to confirm your choice.

If you've decided to soldier on and keep using Yahoo, you should probably change your password (if you haven't already) in light of that breach. It also couldn't hurt to turn on the platform's two-step authentication features that demands a code received over phone in addition to your password.

Yahoo recently rolled out a separate platform called Yahoo Mail Pro. This is an ad-free version of mail that includes customer support. It costs $34.99 for an annual subscription, or $3.49 per month. You can also choose to subscribe to the mobile-only version for 99 cents per month or $9.99 per year. The company claims this will give users priority support, so you can get help if you don't see how to do something.

An integral part of the email organization process is in the magic of the unsubscribe link. It's easy to get inundated with offers from companies and vendors by signing up for their lead magnets, but if their subsequent correspondence is only adding to your email backlog, it might be time to unsubscribe. Be ruthless with this; marketers know they need to earn subscribers' attention, and your subscription is their privilege.

If creating an email schedule and implementing a strict organization policy doesn't make your inbox more manageable, it may be time to consider an email management tool.

Additional reporting by Marisa Sanfilippo.

Anna Attkisson

After getting infected with the tech bug at Wireless World and Cellular Business magazines as an intern in 1998, Anna Attkisson went on to dabble in all sorts of publications covering everything from children’s fashion to financial planning, cars and travel. After spending 10 years, writing and editing for Laptop Mag and Tom’s Guide, she has taken on the editorial planning for all the B2B sites at Purch, including Tom’s IT Pro, Business.com and Business News Daily. She has a B.S. in journalism from the University of Kansas.