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Ethan Bull 20 min read

4 Steps to Get Your Email Inbox Under Control Once and For All

You're not alone

Does a full inbox with 10,000+ “Unread” notifications that sit next to your email inbox catch your eye every time you open your email account?

Do you have so many folders in your email that you become paralyzed every time you try and decide where an email should be filed?

Or, do you use the trash can icon as your only solution to quickly delete thousands of unnecessary emails to free some storage space, and then multiple emails seem to disappear, and never see them again?

You want to be productive and stay organized in your email accounts (personal and work email), so you keep searching on google for "how to clean out email inbox quickly" and reading article after article. But after a week or so, you still end up in a similar situation.

These are all very common problems that affect both executives and the assistants who support them.

Learn to manage your email inbox like a top-level Executive Assistant

We've converted many high-performers to our system of handling email and inbox management through decades of experience supporting executives and training assistants. This system increases their productivity, decreases their mistakes or “missed” emails, and sets them up for success.

The Goal: Use your email as your ‘to-do’ and ‘reminder’ list

Once we’ve acted on an email, it is time to move that email conversation out of our inbox and into a folder. This keeps the number of emails in your inbox down to a minimum and makes the list of emails easily scrollable so you can see what actions need to be taken quickly.

By moving emails that have been acted on from your inbox, you have the ability to keep the number of emails in your inbox down below 20 or 30 so you can easily scan them and know you’re not letting anything fall through the cracks.

The System: Clean up your email inbox

Just as trying to incorporate exercise and good eating into your lifestyle for a healthier living takes time, incorporating and learning our email system does take some commitment upfront. However, the dividends of having a tidy inbox and system that works for you—instead of against you—are immeasurable.

Our email organization system will work with any email client application you're using whether it is Apple Mail, Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, or any other email service provider. These principles translate no matter which platform you're using.

STEP 1 – Manage personal and newsletter emails

If this doesn't apply to you, please skip to Step 2. If you receive all your emails in your work email, like retail newsletters and sales alerts, news and sports updates, email subscriptions, or any unwanted emails, we highly suggest you change this. A cluttered inbox will stress you every time you open your email.

Having a personal email for, personal emails should be self-explanatory. Your work email is being filtered through your IT department and they shouldn't have access to anything personal that may show up in your personal emails.

How to fix: Personal Email

You'll need to filter emails and start forwarding every personal email that comes into your work email to your personal email (for example a Gmail account) and read them in your free time. Then, you only answer those unread messages from your personal email with the signature stating: “Please only use this email for personal emails and update my contact information.”

Over time by emailing back and forth with your friends and family from this account, you'll notice that fewer and fewer of these incoming messages will enter your business account.

How to fix: Newsletters, Retail, News, and Sports Emails

You can use your personal email for these types of emails, however, from a security standpoint and a desire to not overwhelm your personal email (i.e. running into the same problem you have now with your business email), you should use a separate email address for these types of communication, or for whenever you’re asked to sign up for a list to get a discount, etc.

For those lists that you really want to keep around, click the “Unsubscribe” link in their email, and then, when they tell you that you're unsubscribed, they usually ask if you made a mistake and want to re-join. This is when you enter your newsletter-only email, so you keep getting their emails.

What you’ll find is that most of these you won’t want to re-up, and this part of the process can be thought of inbox spring cleaning.

Through this process, your work email will become noticeably cleaner, but this is just the beginning.

STEP 2 – Folder management

The most common mistake that we see when it comes to folders in people's emails is there are way too many of them! Some folders even have zero emails in them! This creates confusion and hesitation when trying to decide where to put an email and get it out of your inbox.

Most email users have a file system that is unique to them and their needs. You create a separate folder for incoming emails to simplify your to-do list and avoid a messy inbox, but if you start to have more than 7-10 folders, you will realize that it is harder to decide where to file an email that has been acted on and needs to move out of your inbox.

Also, by limiting the number of folders you have, it will be easier to find specific emails when you need to.

Now, create and label the 6 or 7 main folders (top line; directly connected to your inbox) that just about all of your email can be categorized into.

Generally, these folder labels center around internal/company business, new business, clients/customers, meetings, travel, expenses, and direct reports. You will have sub-folders under new business and clients/customers, but the beauty of this system is that it will be easy for you to decide where to file an “acted upon” email.

Also, it's worth noting that with modern email applications, the search functionality is so good that finding specific email conversations within specific folders is pretty painless.

STEP 3 – Wiping the inbox/folder slate clean

Now that you have your main folders created, you need to create one last folder called…Old Messages.

Instead of deleting emails one by one or requesting your IT department to wipe all the emails so you can start anew, there is a way to rebuild your inbox without losing any of your old emails and save your precious time.

This step may sound scary but is one of the most important for setting you up for inbox success.

Create a top-line folder titled “Old Email”

To organize old emails, select all of your old folders (not the new ones you just created) and drag them into your “Old Email” folder. This will keep all of your old email and the folder system you previously used in your “Old Email” folder. Nothing is being deleted and you can always go in there to find something before cleaning your inbox.

Move Old Emails

Next, if you still have emails in your inbox that go back months or years, you’ll want to pick a period of time—say 3 months back—and select all emails that came into your inbox prior to that time or later (i.e. the beginning of your inbox) and drag them into your “Old Email” folder as well.

Clean Remaining Inbox

Now you're left with fewer emails in your inbox for you to deal with. Start from the bottom (oldest emails) and start filing those emails away that have been acted upon into your new, simpler folders. If something still needs to be acted upon OR if you want to ‘be reminded of' that email later, leave it in your inbox. Once you go through this process, the only emails left in your inbox will be either one that still needs your attention to be acted upon or an email you want to be left in your inbox to ‘be reminded of'.

STEP 4 – Daily Triage

Now you’re in a position to triage your email. We suggest daily or ‘as the email comes in and is dealt with,’ but you could do it every couple of days or weekly as long as you stay on top of it.

When an email comes in and has been replied to/dealt with, move it to the folder it belongs in.

That’s it. This system will keep your inbox clean and make it really easy—and at a glance—for you to decide if anything needs your attention. Plus, you’ll find that emails aren’t falling through the cracks for weeks or months on end.

Parting tips and tactics for managing your email inbox

  • If you like viewing all of your emails from all of your accounts, you can use the “All Inboxes” tab on your mobile device to see all of your personal, work, and newsletter emails.

  • Use your email signature to your advantage by providing detailed contact information including that of your assistant (should you have one) that can assist anyone trying to get in touch with you.

  • Use your ‘out of office' feature to alert people to when you're going to be away from your email and how and who they should reach out to in your absence to keep them and their needs moving forward while you're away. Google ‘out-of-office messages to get a list of useful messages that you can copy and adapt to your own needs.

  • If some of your work emails are company-wide communications or alerts that you want to be able to skim but don't want them clogging up your inbox, set a rule that will deliver those emails to a specific folder.

  • Label VIPs and direct reports in your mobile device so you are alerted to their emails and set specific notifications for each depending on how you want to be notified.

  • Re-mark emails as “unread” to draw your attention back to an email that you've opened, read, and want to deal with but not at that moment. As you use this email system, this tactic can be very useful as you'll key in on your unread emails and know what needs your attention.

  • While you may want to implement all of this into your new email routine, you should only implement these specific tips and tactics slowly so you're ingraining them into your workflow before adding others.

Your email—specifically your business email—should be working for you and not against you

Whether you key in on our system or take parts and pieces of it and create your own, knowing that you're being responsive, keeping the work moving forward, and not holding back people waiting on your responses will give you peace of mind and free up that mental space for other parts of your business.

Confession time: my personal email account is a bit unruly and that’s OK. But my work email is what drives our business and my communication with clients is the KEY to being successful… I’m sure it is for you too. So, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to keep your personal email completely organized.

Best of luck and if you have any questions, or suggestions or would like to continue the conversation, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Need a bit more help? We offer flexible programs to provide you with a dedicated, high-caliber remote executive assistant who can tame and manage your email inbox like a pro



Wondering if a remote executive assistant is the right fit?

Many board members, entrepreneurs, business owners and C-suite executives don't realize that they have options when it comes to an executive assistant. Check out our guide, The State of the Assistant, to see what level of support is the right fit for you!

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Ethan Bull

Co-Founder of ProAssisting

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