Tuesday, April 29, 2014

5 Quick Steps to Clean Up Your Inbox

If your email is overflowing with distracting emails and it's hard to find your client communications, it's time for an inbox intervention.  I used to have that situation until I developed a system that helps me quickly view what's important and keep it separate from the unimportant.

There are generally three types of emails that land in your inbox:

  1. Actionable Email: inquiries for new business, customer support for current business, or certain social media messages or invitations that may need immediate responses
  2. Reference Email: important information that doesn't need a response but may need to be referenced such as newsletters, additional client information, sales and promotions you're interested in, social media updates, product updates, event announcements that don't need RSVPs
  3. Spam: unsolicited and unwanted junk emails

The biggest problem is that you have lots of #2 & #3 sitting in your inbox, which gets in the way of #1.  So here are 5 simple steps to cleaning up your inbox quickly!  If you spend just one hour doing this every once in a while, you'll find that your inbox stays much more clean on a regular basis.  Please note, this was written primarily for people who use an email system that can manage multiple accounts offline, like Microsoft Outlook or Mac Mail.  It is still possible to do this in Gmail or with other online services, but the method of execution may be slightly different- the important part is understanding the concepts of the sorting method and applying it in a way that works for you.

Step 1: Create Your Action, Reference, and Spam Folders
Regardless of what email system you use, you should have the ability to create folders or categories for sorting your inbox.  Set up these three folders in your inbox so that you will be able to quickly sort all inbox email into one of these three categories.
Create New Folder -> Label "Action "
Create New Folder -> Label "Reference"
Create New Folder -> Label "Spam"

Step 2: Quick Sort Your Inbox into Action, Reference, and Spam Folders
There are two ways to make your quick sort even easier!  Instead of looking at emails by date, organize your emails by sender.  This allows you to quickly identify major senders of spam, reference, or actionable items very quickly, and then do a bulk selection of each sender and sort large amounts of email more quickly.  Occasionally you may want to follow this with organizing by subject in case you have a situation where you receive similar emails from different senders, but with the same subject headings.  These different ways of organizing your inbox make for much quicker sorting than just going chronologically.  You can always return your inbox organization to chronological when you're ready.
-> Sort by Email Sender -> Move messages in bulk to correct folder
-> Sort by Email Subject -> Move messages in bulk to correct folder

Step 3: Unsubscribe, Mark as Spam/Junk, or Delete Your Spam Emails
Obviously deleting spam email is the quickest way to get rid of it, however, if you'd like to prevent spam from making it to your inbox in the future and wasting your time again, try marking the email as spam or junk within your inbox AND using any unsubscribe links in the emails themselves, then delete.
Open Spam Folder -> Unsubscribe and Delete Emails

Step 4: Filter Reference Emails
Organize your reference folder by sender or subject and create a filter in your email program that automatically sends future emails from these senders straight to your reference folder.  In Gmail, this would be under the "More -> Filter messages like these", in Mac Mail it would be "Mail -> Preferences -> Rules -> Add Rule".  The goal is to get it out of your Inbox as soon as it comes in so it doesn't crowd important actionable emails.  For example, if you like to get and keep the promotional emails from your favorite stores to see what sales are happening, assign the sender of those emails to your reference folder.  If you'd like to be even more organized, you can create a filter just for all promotional emails from all your favorite stores so that you can quickly find what's on sale when you need a new piece of equipment or pair of shoes (another photographer claimed that by implementing this method, she saved $1,000 a month on not shopping just because there was a sale email in her inbox.)  Other things I like to filter are the subscribe and unsubscribe messages from my blog or newsletter feed- they don't require action, so they don't need to be in my inbox, but it's nice to have them for reference.  Using this filtering method, you can also create stars or flags on important incoming messages from your website contact form or other inquiry sources to quickly identify new inquiries immediately in your inbox.
Open Reference Folder -> Sort by Sender or Subject -> Create New Rule/Filter

Step 5: Take Action on Action Emails
If used effectively, your inbox can now function more like a To Do list than a holding area for random information.  When the only things that land in your inbox are actionable items, because everything that isn't actionable is getting filtered out of your way automatically, you'll spend less time traveling down the rabbit hole of distracting emails and promotions, and more time serving your clients and being responsive to new inquiries.  Sometimes just your ability to respond in a timely manner is a deciding factor in whether a client chooses to work with you or not, so any advantage you can have in providing better service can lead to more clients and less time wasted!
For some video demonstrations on taming your inbox, check out this post: Efficient Email Management
Anne Ruthmann is a lifestyle & event photographer in New York City. She spent 10 years practicing marketing & management in corporate and non-profit businesses before pursuing her passion for photography in 2004 as an independent small business.  She loves helping others find creative and smart solutions to business problems.  Stay in touch on Twitter or Facebook.

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