An indispensable guide to email management for creatives

Productivity wizard Christopher Phin is here to save you from drowning in emails with some great tips, tricks, and hacks.

Nobody gets into the creative game for the joy of the admin, and yet most of us end up spending more time wrangling email than actually doing any creative work – or at least, that's how it feels.

There are, though, some easy techniques for taming your inbox especially for those of us working in the creative industries, all designed to let you spend less time in Mail, Outlook or Gmail and more time in Illustrator, Photoshop and Maya.

We're not here to wag fingers or peddle some ideological time-management bullshit from a book, and nor, since we assume you've been successfully sending and receiving email for some years, are our suggestions the 'always use a meaningful subject line' pap that fills so many email management how-to guides; these are pragmatic, practical tips informed by years of working both in-house and freelance.

01. It's okay to let email pile up – and for replies to slip through the cracks

The secret to managing email, young grasshopper, is that sometimes it's okay not to manage it. Seriously: one of the most liberating things you can do is banish the mounting sense of nagging guilt most of us feel as the unread count on your inbox soars. Sod it. Trust your instincts; if you thought it was safe to ignore when you saw it arrive, it probably was – and if it wasn't, chances are someone will follow-up again.

Your job is design, not correspondence. (And while we're about it, many of us would do well to turn off the unread badge on computers and smartphones; unless you're super on top of email, the number is pretty meaningless.) You have our permission – our blessing – not to reply to every email you receive.

02. Don't check your emails first thing

The habit of checking emails when you first sit down at your desk, groggily sloshing a bucket of caffeine over your metabolism as you get up to speed for the day, is as fatal to your productivity as it is completely understandable. By definition, instead of cracking on with some real work and finishing what on your to-do list you failed to check off yesterday, you'll just be given a whole load of other tasks to add to that to-do list, and you'll probably get sidetracked by them before the day even begins.

Replace that email check with another ritual that provides that gentle on-ramp for the day – checking Behance, a half hour of directionless doodling, or might we modestly suggest seeing what's new on CreativeBloq – and then do a solid couple of hours' creative work before you even open your email client.

03. Don't use your email as a to-do list (use a to-do list!)

It's easy to use techniques such as flagging emails or marking them as unread to denote 'I must deal with that later' but if we're honest we know that the relentless torrent of new emails will push those marked messages off your screen soon enough and then you'll just forget about it. Get into the habit instead of transferring tasks that arrive in your inbox to an actual to-do list.

If Post-its stuck to your Mac work for you, knock yourself out (*cough* Kerrie Hughes), but do investigate apps too – popular ones include Wunderlist, Todoist and OmniFocus, as well as built-in options such as Reminders on OS X/iOS – since these can help prioritise your jobs, show you when deadlines are approaching, and importantly prompt you to do jobs at particular times or places.

04. Colour-code your emails

We're visual people, us creatives, so one tip that's likely to resonate is colour-coding. Outlook, Mail and pretty much every mail client under the sun can do this, and the process is basically the same whichever you use. Basically, you define some rules for incoming mail, so that, for example, emails from a particular client are highlighted in blue, while those containing a particular word in the subject line become orange. This is especially handy for agencies or freelancer juggling dozens of clients; it makes your inbox glanceable.

05. Use filtering and the like

Another thing you can use rules for is to filter email into different folders. Now, some people go nuts with this, defining intricate and subtle rules to ensure basically nothing arrives into the main inbox, but you don't need to go that far. Consider just a handful to route some of the most egregious emailers into particular folders, to make it easier to manage.

A good example is if you work with a system such as issue tracking software that automatically spits out an email whenever a task is assigned to you, routing these notifications to a particular folder not only means you get them out of your inbox (making it easier to browse), but means you specifically have to set aside time to go and parse what's there.

Gmail uses Labels rather than folders – and you can apply more than one to each message – but the effect is the same.

Note too that some clients such as Mail on OS X let you define so-called smart mailboxes; these are dynamically updating folders based on criteria you set, so instead of messages actually being moved to a folder, a smart folder just gives you a different temporary view or grouping of your email. You can link them too, so you might create a smart folder for each client, define a smart folder called Clients which shows all mail from any of your client smart folders, and another smart folder called Client Assets whose rule is 'Message is in Mailbox: Clients' and 'Contains attachments' – all this makes it easier to root stuff out.

Next page: more email management tips and hacks