Email: transform this tool from stressful to useful

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by Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and is currently 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.

girl checking email
Photo by Lars Kristian Flem

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.

I’ve written about email before, but it’s been awhile, and I’ve since further honed my inbox system. 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

inbox
Photo by Patrick Rhone

• 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).

• 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 sentenc.es, explaining their philosophy on having short replies, and possibly spreading the idea to others.

• 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.

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.

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Comments

  1. Great ideas! I never noticed the “starred” link on gmail. I’m totally going to try that out. I like how you sort e-mails and limit yourself to thirty minutes. Thanks for the great tips!

    Amy @ My Daily Dollars’s last blog post…Pantry Update 10/28

  2. GREAT tips! I am an email archiving junkie, so I can relate to some of your points. However, I really need to work on this particular point you made:

    “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.”

    Excellent advice! It’s really easy for me to just leave emails to collect in my inbox and then I just feel frustrated.

    Sarah H.’s last blog post…Organize My Wardrobe: Clothes Arranging 101

  3. I love responding to emails with 5 sentences or less. I used to want to write lengthy, thought-out replies to all of them, but let’s face it, I have no time for that anymore. Better a short response than none at all!

    Rachel’s last blog post…“Holidays by Hand” Festival

  4. I’m on top of my email for the first time in three months. I used to get a dozen emails a day. Tops. Then the blog got busy, and now I’m at almost two hundred a day. At first, that was overwhelming, so I just read them and let them sit there. I realized that was a pillow on my face, so now it’s read, archive, repeat.

  5. wow, just reading this post makes me cower. I currently have over 3000 emails in my inbox! eek!! last time your wrote about emailing was the first time i’d thought about archiving, and I’ve since added more labels and have even set a couple of filters. But I have a long way to go to organizing this activity. I’m almost ready to your 30-minute method….. but.I.just.don’t.know.if.I.can.do.it. :p
    Thanks for your ever-inspiring tips!!

    Gidget’s last blog post…Holidays by Hand Craft Carnival

  6. I’m partial to yahoo. But perhaps I should check out gmail more fully.

    Angie (from over at http://www.HalfAssedKitchen.com)

    Half Assed Kitchen’s last blog post…Spaghetti squash with parmesan

  7. I swear by Gmail, too. It’s my virtual filing cabinet. With three sites to keep up with, I don’t know what I’d do without it. AND they keep making it better and better!

    My thoughts at BlogCoach: http://tinyurl.com/6muxy2

    Angie at BlogCoach.org’s last blog post…Guest Post: 4 Secrets to Getting Press for Your Blog

  8. How did you know my inbox is a source of stress?? Most of the languishing stuff is a result of procrastinating, or I don’t have the proper place to archive things I need to keep. Time to get busy . . . thanks for the tip on gmail.

    Vintage Mommy’s last blog post…Only Children: Lucky or Lonely?

  9. Wow! What a wonderful article. The advice is so simple (aha!), yet some of these things I’ve never don before! Love Gmail. Love the star. The most horrible thing i do is to leave my email tab open all the time. I get distracted checking it when I see the number go up! I really need to stop that. But I feel naked when I don’t have it open. ;)

    Sarah (Real Life)’s last blog post…How is Carving a Pumpkin Like Being a Christian?

  10. Oh, my. The things I should take note of. I delete everything because I hate having a full inbox. Then when I need something I fish through the trash. So ineffective.

    Lisa- Domestic Accident’s last blog post…Now is that gratitude?

  11. I love gmail too! I wasn’t always loving it because it took me time to understand being so different, but I like the fact that I always find what I’m looking for there.
    I have a question, do you use gmail thru the web or do you use it in entourage for example? Cause how to do you archive your e-mail? I like to use it thru entourage but than I don’t think I can labels which I haven’t used before and now I’m curious after you mentioned them.
    Thanks for all these tips!! I’m gonna start trying to close the e-mail, I’m such an e-mail junkie! I do have an inbox sort of clean but I can do better!

    Dariela’s last blog post…Some tea?

    • I use it on the web. I’d love for Google to develop a desktop app for Gmail, but in the meantime, I use it on the web for the reasons you pointed out – archiving, labeling, etc.

  12. Hi. Great tips. I use Entourage, which is like Outlook for Macs… although I have a gmail account, I just can’t get used to using the online version. I should take a look. Also wanted to let you know that I’ve just started using a template like your Daily Docket (yours except I make it my own…) and Master Checklist. I also am keeping a home management workbook. It’s working really well for me, so thank you!

    Mommy2Twinkies’s last blog post…Spinx Greenville Marathon-Photos

  13. The other beautiful thing about gmail is the ability to LABEL and color code those labels!!!!

    Not to mention the igoogle.com function … add a Remember The Milk gadget and you are GOLDEN!

    GREAT post … and oh, ever so timely!

    Naomi’s last blog post…Best spots to trick-or-treat?

  14. I love the *idea* you have posted about (and I’m quickly becoming a fan of the Daily Docket, THANK YOU!!), but I’m having problems getting my free Yahoo and hotmail accounts to work going into Google. I’ve had both for so long that I don’t know if I could effectively change email addresses completely. Maybe there’s a way….

    Thank you for your blog, you have been very helpful to this work-at-home mom of four!

  15. What a timely post. I recently began the transition from a stay at home mom to a work at home mom and there are many challenges to making that transition. Email is one of those. I have to constantly evaluate and re-prioritize what I should be doing at any given moment. Email can be very time consuming. I’ll definitely be implementing some of the strategies you posted.

    Marta Costa’s last blog post…What is a Virtual Bookkeeper?

  16. You inspired me to action.. my gmail inbox is empty for the first time EVER! Now to tackle my thunderbird… can’t quite bring myself to combine it all to gmail as gmail acts up on occasion with my slooow net.. but it is tempting! Thank you!

    katef’s last blog post…If you can’t beat em….

  17. I’ve been such a ball of stress lately.. this was an awesome post!

    All of what you said can also be said for your google reader! I don’t have to read every blog post (sorry that goes for yours too) – no one is keeping score!

    Dana’s last blog post…A new job!

  18. Gorgeous post. Organizing the working routine and especially E-mail communication is a hard task for most people I know. I just have several folders in my email client – Done folder – where I store all the emails I have already “worked out”, “to do” folder – those letters that require some response/action from me, “other” folder – that keeps all the remaining emails. I flag those high-priority ones in “to do” folder and am trying to have no more than 10 letters sitting there simultaneously.

    Lina’s last blog post…Skin Care Comes in Fabric

  19. Thanks for tackling this subject. You have some great points about not letting email creep into the here and now. I never knew I could connect my Yahoo mail into my Gmail account. I set up my Gmail account for all those times I don’t want people to know my REAL email address. It works great but I may set it up to recieve my yahoo mail as well. Thanks!

  20. I follow most of your email rules already – I hate having stuff sitting in my inbox! However, I wonder what tool you use for reminders? I use MS Outlook and am constantly adding tasks and things to my calendar that cause a ‘pop up’ reminder to come up. Most of my pop up reminders are for random little things like ‘tomorrow is trash day – take out the trash’ and ‘call the doctor’ (a reminder I’ll add for tomorrow when I remember at 10 pm that I’ve again forgotten to call). Any suggestions for that? If I close my web browser (gmail) or outlook… I lose the reminder function. I so want to close my email, as I am a slave. I can’t believe you only check 3 times a day. Thanks!

  21. This is AWESOME!!!! I so need this. And I needed someone to tell me to close gmail during the day. I am so addicted. This is a fabulous system. I’ve often wondered how you are able to get so much done so effectively. Thanks for sharing!

    (and since I’m already a gmail fan, I feel like I have a great start on implementing the Simple Mom system. ;) )

    Megan@SortaCrunchy’s last blog post…More on the Thirty Days

    • Megan! I’ve been thinking about you lately, since you were one of my first readers. It’s good to hear from you.

      And yes, it definitely is how I manage to get more done during the day – but it’s definitely not easy. I understand how email calls to us like a moth to a flame! But I’ve truly come to realize how unimportant it is to get back right away with emails, about 90% of the time, anyway.

  22. Great tips! I didn’t know about sentenc.es. What a terrific idea. If only there were a way to cap the character limit of emails like with Twitter. Life would be so much more… succinct.

    I completely agree that Gmail trumps other web-based email setups. I’ve wavered a few times and tried other options, but I always come back to the Big G.

    For those who’ve used Gmail for a while and want an excuse to waste their Friday afternoon delve a bit deeper, don’t forget the “labs” area, which lets you switch on a whole host of new options, including ‘canned responses’ and ‘check for missing attachments’ features: http://tinyurl.com/6ftnwr

    Nick Cernis’s last blog post…Outsourcery: the dark art of personal outsourcing

  23. Question: I’m afraid to switch from MS Outlook Express to a web-based Gmail. What if your internet connection goes out (as it does here more frequently than I’d like…), do you have access to your emails?? I still like to be able to use the non-online time to answer/compose emails, reference old emails, etc. KWIM? Or maybe I’m not clear on how Gmail works… Thanks so much, Cindy S

  24. using the gmail archive system has totally changed my email life! I didn’t know how to take advantage of that function before reading this post, and I have to thank you for the great tip. The shortcut key “e” has become my best friend. My inbox is empty (but for a few unread reminders of posts I want to write) every day. I love it. Thanks!!

    Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship´s last blog post…Mary and Martha Moment: Called to be Good Stewards of the Earth

  25. Great article, thank you. I ditched Gmail a while back – just couldn’t get on with it. Will have to go back with all the new features. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  26. Well this post is just perfect – it completely sums it up. I’m just going to copy your link into my own blog if that’s OK as I can’t put it better myself!!

    Really appreciate the reminder / ass-kick / re-focus / inspiration to do something!

    Thanks!

    Vicki

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