Transform email from stressful to useful

This post was first published on October 29, 2008.

Ah, email – a portal to the outside world for any stay-at-home parent. It’s such a helpful tool for communicating with friends and family near and far, for taking care of some household tasks with less transportation, and even providing endless opportunities for working from home.

But there’s a fine line between when you’re your own inbox master, and when you become its slave.

If you’re like me, you get a lot of email. And it can easily get overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that you’ve found that if you put off replying long enough, the email’s topic then becomes old news, and you’re off the hook from communicating back. But you feel like a jerk.

Here are a few tips for taming that inbox monster, and training it to serve you, not the other way around.

Transform Your Inbox Into a Thing of Beauty

relaxing with a laptop
Photo by Lee

Set aside a set chunk of time to read, respond to, and archive your email inbox. Make it part of your daily routine to handle email at the most appropriate time of day.

For parents, the “best” time of day can fall all over the clock, and sometimes, you don’t have more than five minutes at a time. But as much as you’re able, dedicate a set time of day when you do nothing but email. Right now, I set aside 30 minutes every morning, afternoon, and evening dedicated to my inbox (remember, I get a lot of email).

Then close out your email client. This is something I definitely need to be better with, because I know first-hand how tempting it is to leave your inbox open, “just in case.” Closing out that tab can feel like cutting off a medium of communication with the world, but you know what? — that’s exactly what it is. By leaving it open, you’re making yourself available to anyone who beckons your call, even if you don’t actually open any emails.

Very rarely is there an email emergency. When there’s nothing you’re waiting for, close your email client when you’re done. You’ll be more present in the world around you, and able to concentrate on your task at hand.

Use Gmail. Yes, I’ve already waxed poetic about its benefits, and I know there are other email clients who do a good job. But I’ve found Gmail to be the most useful of them all, and I doubt I’ll change anytime soon.

You don’t need to change your preferred email address and send out a notice to friends — you can simply filter your current email address into your Gmail account (you can import quite a few addresses), and use the Gmail interface for all your addresses.

During your inbox focus time, take action immediately on every. single. email you open. Don’t just read it and leave it – do something with it.

How I Handle My Own Inbox

Photo by Patrick Rhone

Read and Archive

• Most emails just require me to read them without a response – I quickly read and archive them. I also take full advantage of Gmail’s labeling system, and label most of my emails with things like potential advertisers, etsy orders, or post ideas (for those of you readers who write me questions).

Reply Immediately

• If it’s an email that requires a quick, three-sentence-or-less response, I reply to it immediately. Then I archive it. I know some people who put a link in their signature to, explaining their philosophy on having short replies, and possibly spreading the idea to others.

Star and Archive, then Reply

• If the email looks like it requires a longer reply, or if it requires me to look up a bit of info, I “star” it and then archive it. When I’ve gone through my inbox, I then click on the starred items (in the left-hand sidebar in Gmail) and work my way through replying, starting with the oldest email.

Walk Away

I close out Gmail after my 30 minutes are up, regardless how many starred emails I have left. If they’re filtered with a star, then they’re not urgent, though they still need a response soon. This is why I have my contact form prefaced with an explanation that I probably won’t get to responding right away.

During my next email session, I repeat the whole process, starting with my inbox and then proceeding to the older starred items.

At the end of the day, there are always emails to which I haven’t yet replied. But I’m okay with that, because I’ve taken action on all of them. And because I close out Gmail, I don’t feel pulled and swayed by my emails that come all day – I just concentrate on them fully at one set time. This definitely aligns with my single-tasking philosophy.

I also use filters so that certain emails bypass my inbox altogether. For example, when I’m doing giveaways, I filter all my emails that have the right secret code in the subject line with the label giveaway, and archive them before they even hit my inbox.

What You Can Do Today

Inspired to organize your email system? Here’s a few simple things I encourage you to do today:

1. Read Inbox Heaven by Nick Cernis for inspiration, laughs, and helpful tips to get you started.

2. Create a Gmail account, and set up all your email addresses to go to there.

3. Dedicate time to first completely empty your inbox, whether it takes 30 minutes or several evenings.

4. Stop doing nothing with your already read emails – it’s stressful just to look at a full inbox. Archive them.

5. Just start doing something. Don’t wait to launch this perfectly – approaching your inbox with at least a plan is much better than haphazardly opening it and immediately feeling overwhelmed.

What are you going to do today to improve your email reading? Share your inbox tips and tricks below.

top photo source
Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. This is perfect timing. I don’t get near as many as you, but I have been thinking about streamlining my email. I sort of check into it all day, and it can be a real time waster. I like the idea of limiting it to once or twice a day, and acting on each one right away. I use outlook express and just started flagging ones I wanted to get back to, but I haven’t been super organized about it. I think I’ll try gmail for a while 🙂
    .-= Angela Mills´s last blog ..Course of Study With Reviews: First Grade =-.

  2. It is so tempting to check it a few times per day, but such a time sucker. I know. I really need to reply right away like you do, otherwise it can be days or even weeks (cringe).
    .-= Shannon´s last blog ..Menu Plan – Mostly Soup =-.

  3. This is full of helpful ideas! I’ve just started shutting my computer completely down when I’m with my three kiddos, and it is such a relief not to be rushing upstairs regularly to “check one thing.”

    I find the best time for me to handle emails is in the evening, when the kids are in bed and I’m too tired to do anything else!

    .-= steadymom´s last blog ..Reminder: Moms’ 30-Minute Blog Challenge This Tuesday =-.

  4. I don’t know how I missed this one the first time around. Or maybe I saw it but wasn’t as overwhelmed by e-mail at the time? (doubtful.)

    Anyway, I just looked at my own Gmail, and realized with abject horror that I’ve essentially been using the stars to “fave” e-mails. Wha?! (Actually, I was starring them with a mix of “ooh, really good e-mail to come back to later!” and “oof, really difficult e-mail to come back to later!” … but in both cases, I was “setting it and forgetting it.” Criminey.)

    Looking forward to applying this. Thanks.

  5. I’m currently maintaining 2 email accounts, 1 for personal and 1 for blog stuff. That sounds crazy, but it automatically filters the emails so it works. Not having last minute soccer stuff mixed in with blog business is helpful. I’m thinking of setting up yet another separate email for a new project, but I do wonder if that will put me on the fast track to email insanity.
    .-= Tiffany´s last blog ..Weekly Menu, Grocery List and Recipes – Week 13 =-.

  6. I have been using Gmail for a while and my favorite part is the filters. That way I can see what’s coming in and prioritize very quickly. I used to have them go directly to those folders and not my inbox, but I recently changed that and have everything come into my inbox to make it easier to process them. I also hid my labels since I usually use the search box to find a particular email anyway.

    Using the star to archive actionable items and create a to do list for later is an awesome idea! I just went and implemented that and love it already. 🙂

    Thanks for a great idea!
    .-= Trish´s last blog ..To-Do Tuesday with Biomed Update =-.

  7. The first time I read this post, it was so freeing to me. Good to be reminded as well. Thanks for reposting.
    .-= Shilo´s last blog ..Looking Unto Jesus Who Gives Repentance =-.

  8. THis is a very helpful post! 😉 I really need to act on this, my email inbox has well over 3,000 emails. =( Its very stressful as its a combination of work, school, and personal.

  9. You have an excellent point that there is rarely such a thing as an email emergency. I love the idea of dedicating strict periods of time to email…I do this at work, and it works great; why on earth do I not do this at home?!
    .-= Tiffany´s last blog ..How a Robot Broke My Heart =-.

  10. I read this post when I first found you blog several weeks ago. I immediately switched to Gmail and LOVE it. I also set up Google Reader to help me quickly get thru the blogs I subscribe to. This has saved me so much time. Using your tips I have saved so much time and kept myself from being on the computer for extended periods of time.
    .-= Marcee´s last blog ..It’s Official =-.

  11. I just did something similar last week and I’m loving it! I work from home and filter my work and personal emails into my inbox. I love the new read and act system as before I had hundreds of emails in my inbox just waiting. Now I use 1 archive folder and 2 action folders (personal/freelance) and (work). Here is another resource on Modish Biz Tips called inbox zero!
    .-= Kristen´s last blog ..gone batty! =-.

  12. Thank so much for sharing the much needed tips!!!

  13. I have all my email sent to my Gmail address unless it’s personal. Friends and family (and a few other important sources) use the email address that goes to my Apple mail client. That way I get the email that really matters without facing the distractions that tempt me when I open my browser.

    I actually use my email client as a word processor:

    I save my daily to-do list as a draft and keep it open. I delete tasks as I get them done and then change the subject line to the next day’s date that night.

    I also have other drafts going for notes, recipes, links and anything I want to copy and paste. I title each in the subject line so I can quickly find what I’m looking for.
    .-= Myrrh´s last blog ..Holes Make Us Whole =-.

  14. Hi! I am becoming a fan of your blog more with time. The thing is that I actually can refer to the issues you brought and the solutions that you suggest. And the most satisfying thing is that I am applying many of your suggestions and that gave me the great feeling of taking control of things. Thanks for your suggestions and I already implemented some of your inbox suggestions and already feeling in control. I want to share an article that I read in yahoo today that relates really good to this. I hope you and your readers will like it.
    Have a wonderful day!

  15. Email clutter can be a nightmare, no doubt. I can’t imagine the anxiety of having my email sent to a Blackberry so that it dings every time an email hits my in box. I don’t know how people do it.
    .-= Renee´s last blog ..Reflections – September 2009 =-.

  16. Great tips! I’m setting up my g-mail account now!
    .-=´s last blog ..Easy Eating: Lentil Tacos =-.

  17. You make it sound so easy. LOL Do you mean I have to get rid of my 50 ZILO-MEGS of saved emails in Outlook? All those folders and folders of emails… ?

    I need you to hold my hand. I need my mommy. My email scares me.
    .-= sprittibee´s last blog ..One Red Dress =-.

  18. This is good. The worst is to check your email during a family dinner. I have done that a few times and it is ALWAYS a mistake. Crises are best solved on a full-stomach!

  19. Thanks for this post! I REALLY need to get my inbox under control!!
    .-= TidyMom´s last blog ..Top 2009 TidyMom projects =-.

  20. I have a question – I use Outlook Express (and like it) but I do have a Gmail account – and would like to use it more (My biggest fear is my computer crashing and losing all of my emails) – If I have my email sent to Gmail, will it still come to my Outlook Express?

    in other words I’d like to use Gmail as a backup and way to organize some
    .-= TidyMom´s last blog ..Top 2009 TidyMom projects =-.

  21. Yikes. My inbox has 1691 messages. And 52 more that haven’t been read yet.

    You’ve inspired me to get moving on sorting them! Thanks!

    What do you personally do about all of the emails you don’t really know what to do with? Like the ones you may or may not need later?

    They are too varied in theme to group all in one folder…

    Just curious what your method would be.

    Thanks again!

    (Mama Laundry)

  22. I’ve been using gmail for a while, but only now am I *starting* to understand the archive/filter/star system. Just knowing all those Facebook messages bypassed my inbox? BEAUTIFUL! 🙂

  23. I just read this now and went and archived the 500 emails in my inbox after answering the important ones. Maybe I’ll get back to them but I’ll start dealing with things fresh from this point on with the guidelines you mentioned. Thanks!!
    .-= Jenn @ Beautiful Calling´s last blog ..Comparison = Discouragement or Pride =-.

  24. Hi Simple Mom Folks! I love re-reading these posts (I read this one when it was posted in ’08 and found it helpful). Heads up that the references to Nick Cernis go to dead links.

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