7 Shortcuts for Emptying Your Inbox in Record Time

You’ve seen the tweets. So have I. Folks lamenting about how full their inbox is, how long it’s taking them to empty it, and how much they hate doing it.

Email

Wipe that smug look off your face, Email.

Blarg. That’s what I say. People who complain about their inbox are like people who whine about the weather. But not you. You’re different. You know how to tame your inbox before it tames you. Here are some shortcuts to make sure that happens.

I process just over 115 emails per day through three different accounts. 95% of the time, my inbox is cleaned out before I shut down for the day. It doesn’t mean that I’ve responded to all those emails (that comes later), but it does mean that I have a clean, fresh start to the next workday.

Here’s how I do it:

1. Set up filters.

This is the first and most important step in setting you up for email domination. I have my filters set up into three main buckets:

  • Follow Up: Emails I need to respond to within 24-36 hours.
  • Long-term Follow Up: Emails that need attention with 3-5 business days.
  • Bacon: Newsletters, summary feeds, etc. that I actually enjoy reading but don’t want going to my inbox.
Here’s a look at how my filters are setup in Sparrow:
Work Email Filters

Look, Ma, work filters!

Freelance email filters

Personal & Project email filters

I use these filters as a guide. They show me, at first glance, what’s most important. If I’m crunched for time, I know where to allocate my responses. Easy breezy, yo.


2. Clean everything out of your inbox.

My son has to have his toys cleaned up before dinner time. All the blocks, trucks, trains, and books need to be in their proper place before we eat. It teaches him order and discipline.

Same principle applies here. You’re about to learn email discipline.

Before the end of the day, put all of your emails “away,” so to speak. Put them all in the filters we set up earlier. You don’t have to respond to them all, just do something with them.

You’ll feel better about opening your inbox the next day and it’ll give you the psychological advantage you need to thrash ‘dat inbox. Here’s a look at email zen:

Email zen.

Email zen.


3. Use Three Sentences.

I love this site. So very much. The simple reminder to keep emails short is enough to shout it from the hills.

Three Sentences

This just might save your life!

Here’s the thing: no one likes reading long emails. No one. Keep your responses brief and to-the-point and you’ll be better off for it. (So will the sorry chap on the other end of your reply!)


4. Set a timer for responding.

This might be my favorite shortcut of all. I set a simple timer in the menu bar of my desktop. I give myself 25:00 to respond, and get at it. When the timer’s up at the end of the day, I’m done responding. I file the other emails away until the next day.

Email timer

This is sexy.

But I could never do that! I hear some of you thinking that right now. And you’re wrong. You can. You just choose not to.

Here’s the thing with email, it follows Parkinson’s Law which says,

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

So if you give yourself 25 minutes to answer email, you’ll get done what you need to in the block. If you give yourself unlimited time to answer email, well, we’ve all been there before. Right?

Limit your email time, and, magically, you’ll find yourself getting a lot more done in the timeframe you allow.


5. Consider batch responding.

This one’s not for everyone, but Tim Ferriss suggests answering email only twice per day. Admittedly, I’ve tried this approach before and haven’t found it to be the most effective for me. That said, I know there are plenty of people who this would be perfect for.

Don’t give yourself an excuse to dwell in your inbox. If it doesn’t need to be open, shut it down. Set the times when you’re going to answer and stick to it.

6. Pick up the phone.

Whenever I find myself sitting in front of an email I know will take more than three sentences to respond to, I pick up the phone. It’s much easier (and efficient) to hash out what you need to over the phone than typing a freaking phone book back to said person.

Holla

Holla!

If you can, call the person quickly (or go to their office, cube, etc.) and chat it out. Your fingers (and productivity) will thank me.


7. Delete, delete, delete.

Ah, yes. The “delete” key. how I love it so.

I find that 30-40% of the emails I get on a daily basis don’t need a response of any sort. You know what I do with them? Delete them. Quickly. If you’re wondering what emails you can delete, use Seth Godin’s rule. Ask yourself, “would this person be offended if I didn’t respond?”

Most times, as you know, the answer is “no!” All of us have way too much email. That person will most likely thank you for not adding an email with the words “sounds great!” to their inbox.

The best part is (at least with Gmail, anyway) that the “delete” key is actually an “archive” key. So if you do find yourself needing to respond later, you’re a simple each away from doing so.


If you use these shortcuts, time in your inbox will melt away. You’ll find yourself able to spend more time doing the work that matters. Email is a necessary evil–you have to answer it. But that doesn’t mean you need to spend your whole day wading through.

You’ve got the tools to succeed. Now use them!

How do you cut down on your email clutter? What are some tips and tricks you’ve adopted that might help the rest of us?

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5 comments
John
John

Unsubscribing. Despite my best efforts to avoid unwanted subscriptions, they appear. Once a month I'll take 5-10 minutes to unsubscribe from some of the more pesky lists. Thanks, Justin. Starter Course has been great so far.

Mike G
Mike G

Justin - what's the timer that you're using on the mac? (#4)

Robin
Robin

I like the idea of setting a timer to respond to e-mail Justin. In fact, my company is working on a tool that makes responding to e-mail fun whilst encouraging you to get it done quickly and efficiently. You can sign up for the beta at http://inboxinstant.com/try or drop me an e-mail if you'd like to talk more about what we're doing for e-mail users. Thanks! Robin

JoAnn Corley
JoAnn Corley

Justin - great post and very needed!! I have taught a workshop across the U.S. to thousands and email overwhelm truly is an issue...to the point that I call email management a 21st century workplace competency. To add to your tip on set a timer is to tell yourself,"Decide quickly." Indecision bogs down processing email. I have a complete section on it in my new book Organizational Strategies for the Overwhelmed - it's available on audio & print and Kindle...it's based on my national workshop and I'm sure your readers will get great value in it! JoAnn