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Your work inbox is a mess. These tips can help manage your emails.

Managing your messy work inbox when the emails never stop can be as simple as changing a few settings and habits

One of the problems with email is that it all arrives in the same inbox without any organization. (iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
7 min

You’re not imagining it: Your email inbox has probably experienced an uptick of inbound messages lately. And you’re not alone if you feel buried by the mess.

The pandemic shifted the way many workers communicate, moving most conversations to digital services like email and messaging platforms. And those trends don’t appear to be slowing, especially as some companies adopt remote and hybrid work environments.

“There were a lot of communications in the office you didn’t think about because they were just natural. You stopped by a desk. You caught up with someone after a meeting,” said Craig Roth, research vice president at market research firm Gartner. “All of the soft spots in the day when you communicated in person, you’re now doing digitally.”

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Though many conversations have moved to Microsoft Teams, Google Chat and Slack, email has long been a default form of communication for many workers, Roth said. Think of it as the Swiss Army knife of digital communications, serving multiple purposes such as file transfers, link collections, quick messages and longer document-style notes, he added.

When it comes to workplace email providers, Microsoft and Google reign supreme, owning 85 percent and 14 percent, respectively, of the worldwide enterprise email and content creation application market by revenue, according to Gartner. Microsoft, like other messaging services, says its users are getting more emails following the pandemic.

Managing your inbox can be tedious and frustrating. But you can control your inbox more effectively with a few tweaks to your settings and emailing habits. Below are six tips to help you.

File and archive your emails

One of the biggest problems with emails is that they all arrive in the same inbox without any organization, making it hard to determine which emails need attention and which can wait.

Outlook allows users to create new folders, so you can manually or automatically file emails from specific people or related to specific topics in the same place. Just right-click on the left menu of your inbox and select “create new folder.”

On Gmail, you can similarly separate emails from your main inbox by moving them to your archive folder, called “All Mail,” to make the inbox cleaner.

Make use of rules and filters

Creating rules on Outlook and filters on Gmail can help automatically organize your inbox as emails arrive. You could create a dedicated folder for emails that come from your boss so as they arrive, they automatically get filed. Similarly, you could have all emails use specific words like “trial offer” automatically get deleted or sent to a spam folder. On Gmail, you could set up emails to automatically receive a specific label like “finance-related items” or on Outlook receive a specific color category.

To do this on Outlook webmail, click on the settings gear at the top right of your screen, then rules and add rule. Pick a name for your rule, select your rule conditions, then set the resulting action. On the desktop app, you can find rules under tools at the top of your screen.

To do this on Gmail, click the gear icon on the top right, then “see all settings,” then “filters and blocked addresses” and “create a new filter.” From there you can set your conditions and actions.

Pin or star important emails

Some emails may require special or urgent attention. In those cases, Microsoft and Google allow you to pin or star emails for easy access.

On the Outlook webmail and desktop app, right-click on the email and choose “pin,” which will then tack the email to the top of the box as long it stays pinned. Microsoft also allows you to use a “focused inbox,” an option in settings that will separate emails into two tabs. Emails it assumes are important based on your interactions and other data points will go in the focused tab and those deemed less important will go into the “other” tab.

On Gmail, you can click the star icon to specify important messages. This allows you to use the drop-down menu above the inbox and quickly filter starred emails. By default, Google also will place yellow tags next to emails it believes are important to you based on your habits. You have the ability to turn this feature off.

Schedule send and snooze

To help you better manage the time you spend on email, try the schedule send and snooze features. These features can help you stay on top of your email when you’re ready. If you won’t have time later to send an important email, you can write it beforehand and schedule it to send at the appropriate time.

To do this, compose an email, then click the down arrow next to send, click send later or schedule send and set the date and time. Both Outlook and Gmail offer this feature. On Gmail, you can also snooze an email so that you’re reminded about it later. Doing this will resend the email to the top of your box at your selected date at time. Just right-click the email and hit “snooze.”

Change notification settings

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to escape from feeling overwhelmed by email overload is to change your notification settings.

In settings, Outlook allows users to choose whether they want to see or hear alerts for new messages, reminders and sent emails. On mobile devices, users can click on a person’s name, add them to favorites and set notifications settings to only alert them when those favorited people send them an email.

On Gmail, users can toggle their notifications to receive pings for important emails, all inbound emails or none at all via settings on their browser or on their mobile device.

Close and limit your inbox

If customizing your notifications isn’t enough to escape the email madness, there’s another simple solution: Close your email or turn your phone notifications entirely off.

“Don’t leave email open all the time,” says Jonah Berger, associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Close the inbox when you want to get things done.”

Berger suggests setting specific times in the day, if possible, to actively read and respond to emails rather than allowing yourself to be interrupted and “sucked in” to email all day. In between those moments, you can also use autoreply features to let people know you probably won’t respond immediately.

On Microsoft Teams, you may want to flip your presence indicator off. Some Teams applications are integrated with email, and the presence indicator will allow others using Outlook to see you are available with a green dot next to your name.

Berger also advises training yourself to read each email only once. So only dip into your email when you have time to respond or file in an appropriate folder for later. He also suggests unsubscribing. It may seem like a tedious task, but it will ultimately spare the collective amounts of attention irrelevant emails steal from your day.

To cut down on inbound emails, restrict your outbound emails, says Neal Hartman, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. Ask yourself: Does this really need to be an email, and does it really need to go to all these people? Sometimes a quick phone call will suffice. If you do need to resort to email, make your message clear and concise to limit back and forth.

Finally, you should experiment with your email boundaries, Roth says. Is it possible for you to have email-free Fridays? Can you turn off all notifications at 5 p.m.?

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