It’s nice to be popular. But there comes a point when you’ve got so emails in your inbox, it’s impossible to get through them all. And so either you ignore them, and get more stressed as your inbox gets fuller and fuller. Or you spend all day going through them, and lose a day when you could have been doing design work.
So you turn your spam filters up to the max, and spend a lot of time unsubscribing from various newsletter you don’t ever recall signing up for. But still, the torrent seems unstoppable. What else can you do to stem the tide? Here, we speak to creative pros to find out how they deal with email overload, and learn their top tips for uncluttering inboxes.
01. Assign a specific time of day to emails
One of the ways that email sucks the time out of your day is the sheer number of times we check our inboxes, and the random and disjointed way we reply to messages. Instead, we'd recommend apportioning one or two specific periods each day to emails. That might be first thing in the morning, last thing at night, or at any set time of the day. The important thing is that you only focus on emails during this period, and ignore your emails during other periods of work time. You’ll be surprised how much more productive this makes you.
Creatives are often scared to do this, as they fear people will think bad of them if they don’t reply to messages instantly. However, we’d argue that the opposite is true: taking time to reply to emails gives the impression you’re a busy and industrious person, rather than someone who’s just sitting around all day waiting to hear from someone... anyone...
Producer, designer and strategist Rochelle Dancel offers a good example. “I only check email once a day now, for around 30 minutes," she explains. "I call anyone who needs a quick response – which also ends the email trails – and schedule follow-up actions appropriately. People will reach me via Slack, Teams or just call me for anything urgent during the day.”
02. Automate your responses
Do you feel you’re spending too much time writing the same thing, over and over, in response to certain emails? Then try setting up a Google Doc containing standard replies for you to copy and paste, and bookmark it in your browser bar. It really does speed things up, and saves your fingers from RSI into the bargain.
Meanwhile, if you want streamline your process even further, many email clients also have built-in tools for saving canned responses, such as Gmail’s Templates. (Settings > Advanced > Templates). Spending a few minutes setting these up will save you masses of time over the long run.
03. Organise your emails
The morning after you cook for a large dinner party, your kitchen looks like a bomb’s hit it. It seems like the washing up will take all day… but actually, once you’ve stacked all the plates, bowls and cups together, it doesn’t look half as bad. And it can be helpful to take the same approach to your inbox. Take a few minutes to sort your messages in a logical way, and dealing your emails suddenly doesn’t seem like such a stressful and imposing task.
Award winning freelance graphic designer Russell Daniels-Lake is a keen advocate of this approach. “I organise my emails into folders,” he explains. “I have client folders that sit within current work and clients. I also have a resource folder and contacts that I’m able to organise into printers, V/Os etc. It keeps my inbox clean and easy to navigate.”
To save time, you could always automate this process, by creating rules to filter certain messages from your inbox to a folder. For example, any email with your company name in the subject line would be filed in a specific folder automatically, saving you the bother of doing so manually.
Want to go further with automation? SaneBox is a third-party AI tool that plugs into any email client to help you organise your messages. Create folders like '@SaneReceipts', '@SaneBills', or '@SaneFamily', move a few example emails there, and the app will do the rest. “I’ve been using SaneBox, and it’s been great,” says designer, developer and professor Joe Casabona. “It learns about your email and organises everything into folders for you, keeping most stuff out of your inbox.
04. Free yourself from chains
You know those long and rambling email chains, typical in large companies, that seem to copy in everyone you can think of, and seem to go on forever? Well if you get a lot of those, then Ollie Dearn, a PR & Marketing Director at Havas London, has a useful tip.
“Delete every email in a chain, bar the most recent,” he recommends. “All the previous correspondence is still there if you scroll down, but without 10+ different emails on the same subject sitting in your inbox. This way, at any one time, there’s only one email in my inbox on any one subject. Like a mini to-do list!”
05. Speed up deletion and archive
When you deal with your emails sporadically, you’d be surprised by how much time you spend laboriously dragging each message into the appropriate folder. Instead, why not allocate a short time each day to move everything in one fell swoop? Also, find out whether your email client has a tool or feature to make this happen faster. For example, says web designer Si Jobing, “In Outlook, I use swipe gestures on iOS and macOS: left to delete, right to archive. This keeps my inbox lean in record time.”
06. Use HEY
How much of your email is unsolicited? If it’s the majority, then you could benefit from moving to a consent-based email service like HEY, from the makers of Basecamp, one of our favourite project management apps. When someone emails you for the very first time, they don’t get straight through, they land in what HEY calls ‘The Screener’. This is where you decide if you want to hear from them or not.
Say no and you’ll never hear from them again. If you say yes, you can decide whether their email lands in one of three places: one for important email you’ll want to read immediately, one for non-urgent email like newsletters, and one for things like receipts you'll probably never need to read, but want to keep just in case. “My trial of HEY has been great, and it’s already improving my email workflow,” says web designer Dave Smyth. Read about his experiences in his blog post, Thoughts on HEY.