Do you find that your inbox easily gets overwhelmed and you can’t find emails that you know are there? Or do you worry that there’s so much in your inbox that you might miss something important?
There’s also the question of how much storage you have and whether you’re going to fill it up. Do you constantly get emails warning you that you are getting close to capacity? If you do, then it’s time to put a system in place for managing your emails. If you establish a way of handling emails it doesn’t have to be a chore – just a few regular actions to keep things under control could make all the difference to you.
1. Understand your email storage
Right then, let’s leap straight in with this. Do you know how much storage you have for each of your email addresses? If you don’t, check your web hosting/email account or ask your service provider. If you’re a Webfooted client ask me, I’m here to help!
It’s also important to understand where you are storing your emails. Are you downloading them to your device or keeping them on the server? Apologies for getting a little technical here but this will depend on what settings you have used:
- IMAP – with an IMAP connection, it may look like you’re downloading to your chosen device, but actually everything is kept on the server. Your devices are synced with the server which means that everything you receive or send is stored online. So it’s vital to know what your storage capacity is and how much you are using.
- POP3 – on the other hand, with POP3 you are downloading emails from the server to your device. So anything you receive is stored directly on your device. With this setting you can also keep the emails on the server or have them automatically removed after a certain amount of time.
These days, IMAP is the most popular way of connecting. It means you can have your emails across a range of devices – in my case that’s my desktop computer, laptop and phone. Wherever you are you can access your current emails. But it does mean that you need to be proactive about managing your emails and making sure you don’t reach your storage capacity.
2. Choose decent email software
Because we’re being proactive about managing our emails we need a decent bit of software to do this. On your phone, the default email app is usually fine. But on your desktop/laptop a little bit more thought needs to go into it.
If you’re using Gmail this is all handled for you by logging into Gmail through your web browser. But what I’m talking about here is when you’ve got an email address associated with your own domain name, for example firstname.lastname@example.org. For this you are likely to have a webmail option (something like Roundcube which is what our web host provides) but it’s a pretty restrictive way of handling your emails long-term. You’re much better off using a dedicated email program like Outlook (very popular choice) or Apple Mail (if you’re on a Mac).
My personal favourite is Thunderbird which is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Thunderbird has everything you need when it comes to your email software.
3. Keep your inbox clean and tidy
How many emails do you currently have in your inbox? Less than 10? 100? 1000? Eleventy billion? I’m a strong believer in “inbox zero” which means that emails only stay in the inbox long enough to be processed – they are then either deleted (if junk or not needed) or moved to a folder. I’ve got a bit obsessive about it – nothing stresses me out more than an overflowing inbox.
I know that a lot of people keep all their emails in their inbox, but I genuinely don’t know how they cope with it. If that’s your approach, how do you make sure you don’t miss something important? And how do you find previous email threads?
I would encourage you to create a system (using the following tips) to process your emails out of your inbox and keep it manageable. Believe me, once you’ve discovered the joys of an empty inbox you’ll never go back!
4. Use folders
So, if you don’t keep your emails in your inbox, what on earth do you do with them? Folders are the answer! I have a set of current work folders – these are emails that are kept on the server so that I can access them wherever I happen to be working. I have an @action folder which are any emails that I need to respond to and then a series of folders for active projects where I can pop emails that I have replied to but still need to refer to.
And for emails that are no longer current but need to be kept, I move them to local storage so they no longer take up space on the mail server. I’ll explain more about this in Tip 10 below.
5. Don’t keep emails you don’t need
Whatever you do, don’t keep emails that you don’t actually need. By this I mean junk and things that you might glance at but don’t need to refer back to (the latest newsletter from your favourite online shop, for example). Honestly, why would you keep these cluttering up your inbox? Particularly the nasty spam emails that might have a virus lurking in them. Delete delete delete!
6. Regularly empty your deleted folder
And you know what? Deleting might not be enough. What most email software does is move anything you delete to a “Deleted” folder but they are still there in the system. This might tidy up your inbox but it doesn’t make room on your server. You should regularly empty your deleted folder so that those emails are gone for good. Your chosen software is likely to have the option of emptying your deleted folder when you close it down (Thunderbird does). That’s an excellent way of keeping it clean without you actually having to do anything.
7. Train your software to recognise spam
Unfortunately spam is something that we’re never going to completely eradicate. It’s annoying, I know! But there are ways to handle it. Did you know that you can train your email software to recognise spam and deal with it for you? That’s certainly something decent software will do for you.
In Thunderbird I have a Junk folder where the software sends anything it thinks is spam. And if something doesn’t immediately get caught as spam I can simply click the spam icon which helps educate the system. When I first set up Thunderbird it wasn’t great at identifying what was what, but over time with a bit of encouragement from me, it has got pretty good at it. I always have a quick glance through the junk folder to make sure something genuine hasn’t been sent there by mistake, and then empty it so that the junk isn’t hanging around for ever more.
8. Unsubscribe from mailing lists that don’t spark joy
Thanks Maria Kondo for introducing the concept of getting rid of stuff that doesn’t “spark joy”. It works doesn’t it?
The sheer volume of emails landing in your inbox can be a problem in itself. I find that over time the number of mailing lists I’m on builds up so that I’m constantly wading through newsletters and special offers. So, every few months I have a purge and unsubscribe from anything that I don’t actively enjoy receiving. For example, I used to love it when Netflix sent me recommendations but at some point it started suggesting a load of stuff I wasn’t interested in and, even worse, nagging me to finish a series that I had no intention of going back to. So bye bye Netflix emails.
Try it, it’s truly liberating to reduce the volume of emails you receive every day.
9. Process emails at set times during the day
This is where habit-forming is the answer. I fully process my inbox three times a day – first thing in the morning, after lunch and towards the end of the afternoon. My processing consists of:
- Deleting (or sending to junk) anything I don’t need
- Responding to emails
- Creating actions for jobs arising out of emails
- Moving the emails to appropriate folders in my system
After each batch of processing my inbox is empty, which gives me a sense of control over my emails.
10. Move old emails you want to keep to local storage
Now, this is a good one and something that I’m not sure many people are aware of. You can create “local” folders in your email software to move emails off the server into local storage. Anything that isn’t current but you want to keep can be moved to your local folder. This means that the emails are no longer stored on the server and taking up precious space.
Thunderbid comes with “Local Folders” already there and you can create sub-folders within that to move anything off of the server. Once a week, I check through my active email folders and move anything to my local folders that has been fully dealt with. This keeps my email storage nice and clean.
Outlook allows you to create “Personal Folders” which work in the same way and Apple Mail let’s you create folders which are “On My Mac” and therefore stored locally.
By doing this, you can be confident that you won’t ever completely fill your online mailbox capacity and miss important emails.
All of the tips above are things that I actively do myself. Over time it’s become second nature to me to keep my inbox clean and my emails organised. It gives me confidence that I will never miss an important email and I never find myself in the position of having to do a massive clearout to make space for incoming emails.
What are your top tips for managing emails? Are you an “inbox zero” fanatic like me, or are you now thinking you should do something about the 10,000 emails in your inbox?