5 Tips For Staying on Top of Your Emails

Tips for getting through emailsIt probably sounds really cliche, obvious and super simple, BUT staying on top of your email is seriously one of the best things you can do for yourself in business. Personally, I start feeling super stressed if my box starts to get beyond 50+ unread emails. And sometimes when I get overwhelmed, I become less productive and I'm more likely to procrastinate, on top of feeling a certain level of anxiety and guilt. Which I realize makes zero sense, but it's something that I've noticed. Maybe you relate?

I also want to point out that answering emails often leads to big opportunities. It's crazy to think that there might be an email sitting in your box right now that might lead you to a new venture, a new opportunity, a long term partnership, etc. There might be an unread email sitting in your box this very second that could change your life a little bit—so don't miss it! But, it's hard! Staying on top of an ever-growing pile of messages that need decisions, research, answers, etc. is not always an easy task. But over the years, I feel like I've gotten better and better in this area, and I'd love to share five tips I've learned with you.

1. Answer tough emails first.

I know, you don't want to answer that one first. I get it. And I have a tendency to think, "Oh I'll just gain some momentum by answering these quick ones first, and then I'll get back to that really time-consuming one later." But honestly, it doesn't usually work that way. I usually end up NOT getting to the tough one later, and then putting it off for longer than it needs. Meanwhile it's on my mind and distracting me from my other work. So, the best thing I've found is to tackle the tough ones first. Get it off your plate and out of your mind so you can move on to other tasks.

2. Create template answers for FAQs.

This is especially useful if you are working for yourself and you handle a lot of "customer service" type emails. A lot of times you'll get the same or very similar questions over and over again. Create a template answer that you can quickly copy and paste, and then maybe just customize a little to make it feel more authentic before you hit send. This can save you SO much time. Of course, there are emails where it would be inappropriate to send a templated answer. So just make sure you know the difference.

3. Organize and sort mail into folders.

This is actually a trick that Trey does really well. Not only does it help you prioritize what emails might need a faster response or just more attention, it can also be beneficial when you need to go back through emails to find information you may have forgotten or need again. Depending on what email system you use, there are different ways to accomplish this. And I know one barrier will be finding the time to just set this up, but add it to your to-do list one week to spend a couple hours creating your tabs or folders or however you plan to organize things, and I promise it will be time well spent.

4. Unsubscribe to junk.

I am subscribed to quite a few newsletters. I use the information many of them provide and I do want to receive some of them (like for sales at favorite shops, etc.). I know a lot of people will set up a different, more personal, email for these types of things so that it won't distract from their work email account (and if you work at a company that issues you a specific email, then you already have this built in). But it can also be a good exercise to go through and make sure you are actually still using and enjoying all the newsletters you are signed up for. If not, unsubscribe. It will only take a few seconds and will save you time as you won't have to receive those emails any longer. You can always sign up again if you find that you want back in. 🙂

5. Out of Office setting is only for when you actually need it.

This is partly a tip and partly a pet peeve of mine. When I email someone about something important, like potential freelance work, and I get an out of office response (or no response at all for 2+ days), then I expect they are on vacation or in some situation where they don't have Internet. BUT, if I hop on Instagram and see that they are not on vacation, I likely will reconsider working with them because I find this to be very unprofessional. We all have to take time off or have situations from time to time where we don't have good Internet access and can't respond. I am the same way. I also don't always check email on the weekends, so I don't usually expect others to. But sometimes I see people, especially creatives who tend to mostly freelance or work for themselves, use vacation settings as a way to simply not answer emails in a timely manner. Don't do this. It looks unprofessional to others and it's certainly a trap for yourself. Don't give yourself a free pass just because you've gotten overwhelmed. Get in that email box and make some progress. You got this. 

If anyone has other tips for getting through that sometimes-overwhelming email box, feel free to share! xo. Emma

Credits // Author and Photography: Emma Chapman. Photo edited with A Beautiful Mess actions.

  • These are great tips! I have to admit, I just upgraded my Gmail storage this morning, because I just don’t have the time to go through and delete all the junk from my inbox. #ihaveaproblem

  • Good advice! Business mail etiquette is just as important as in-person etiquette, especially with more and more people telecommuting and collaborating over long distances. There is nothing worse than trying to get in touch with someone over a time sensitive subject and being left in the lurch. That’s when I usually pick up the phone and have a nice old fashioned chat. 🙂

  • What perfect timing! I was just starting to look at my Outlook to delete old messages and start fresh for the new school year. This post gave me a real boost!

  • Agree, this is Elsie’s key board (she got the stickers on Etsy) and I’ve been meaning to buy one for myself because it just makes computer work all that more exciting. 🙂 I’ve *heard* a rumor about some marble looking stickers so I’m meaning to look around for that later… like, after I answer all my emails. 🙂 Ha!

    -Emma

  • Yes, a bunch of my friends have been headed back to school the last few weeks (teachers and students) so it’s a good time to start new habits. And also—happy back to school to you!

    -Emma

  • I keep my work email in a way that really helps me stay productive and not so overwhelmed. I have a lot of folders for things I can reference (like you stated) and I keep my actual “inbox” designated for only action items. it helps me keep my action items at a quick glance and keeps me from having to sift through hundreds of emails to see what I need to DO. once I respond or complete a task, I will move it to a different folder. it works well for me! 🙂

    thanks for the tips!

  • I find that keeping only emails which require a response in my inbox is very helpful. Everything else gets sorted into a folder. That way my inbox becomes sort of an “action items” list that I can’t forget to deal with!

  • My work uses google hosted email, so I have it set to keep all unread emails in my inbox at the top- and I use it as an action list. At work I only delete junk that I know I will never need to refer to. But I keep everything else. I love how easy search is.

    In my personal email accounts, I keep my inbox under control with Unroll.me (it sends you a digest daily of emails from list-serves, retail locations- any email you get frequently, it will recommend that you put it in your roll-up). To clear a back log, I use mailstrom. Destination: inbox zero. 🙂

  • I TOTALLY agree that when I have emails piling up in my inbox (or tasks piling up on my to do list), it actually makes me want to procrastinate and get less done. I thought I was the only crazy one who felt this way. 🙂

  • These are great tips. Creating rules for emails I don’t need to look at immediately has been a lifesaver! Also, I make sure to only check it twice a day, unless I’m expecting something urgent. It’s a time save for sure.

    xx Jill
    MM.LaFleur: Revolutionary Work Wear + Q&A With A Fashion Tech CEO

  • I used to have a hard time staying on top of my mail account, but after I switched to Inbox by Google it’s so much easier! It sorts the mail for my in “updates” “finance” “travel” etc. And let me hook “finished” when I’m done with a thread. If someone writes in the thread It’ll pop back up again and all the info I need is still there. I can also delay the mail. Say I get a request for writing something, but I don’t have the time today. So I’ll say they can call me up tomorrow and I’ll make time for it then. I don’t want that mail sitting in my inbox all day – so I just make it come back the next morning!

    I love seeing an empty inbox at the end of the day. It makes it easier understanding that now I’m done for the day, and can go watch a movie without a bad conscience. Important mail I can just “pin” so it’s easier finding it when I need it.

    Inbox also automatically adds travels and such to my google calender, and really just makes my life easier! I don’t see a lot of people using it, but they really should try it! I used to spend so much time sorting my mail in different categories, and now everything is just done for me!

  • It is really tough to stay on the ball with emails! I am finding myself unsubscribing to many newsletters as I just cannot keep up with them. I maintain a read (reply if necessary) and delete (or file) immediately method to stay on track.

    X Min, honeyandgazelle.wordpress.com

  • It is really tough to stay on the ball with emails! I am finding myself unsubscribing to many newsletters as I just cannot keep up with them. I maintain a read (reply if necessary) and delete (or file) immediately method to stay on track.

    X Min, honeyandgazelle.wordpress.com

  • I totally agree with these tips. I recently went through and unsubscribed to a bunch of emails I had accidentally checked (or just not un-checked) to be subscribed to. Things are already a lot cleaner! Folders are the next step.

    BTW, where is that beautiful keyboard cover from? I’m gonna need that. <3

    Tiana xx // alwaysneedher.com

  • Great tips. I try to keep my blog e-mails and personal e-mails separate, but I could definitely organize them more.

    Kristi | Be Loverly

  • Julia hit it on the head for too much spam or too many newsletters, etc. you absolutely HAVE TO have Unroll.me. Seriously go get it now, it has saved my life 🙂

    Once every couple months, I also go through my emails and put them in folders with just the actionable one’s in the inbox. It’s great.

  • I use folders named with the @ at the beginning so they are at the top of my list.
    Examples @daily waiting @weeklyreview @inventoryfollowup. Anything that needs my attention later goes into one of these, the rest get deleted or filed. I reply right away to ones I can. This allows me to keep my inbox CLEAN. Which keeps me from feeling overwhelmed! Set aside time at the end of the day to go through the @dailywaiting folder and clean it out or move them to the Weekly review folder if its something you can’t take care of that day. With a little practice this can be so helpful! 🙂

  • This is so great! I come in every Monday to about 300-400 emails. Star from the bottom!! Also the out of office thing bugs me as well. Another tip if you are using Out look- Use your follow up tags!! It helps keep me on top of emails i have sent and waiting for a response on.

  • I second this. Unroll.me is a game changer and a life saver all rolled (pun fully intended) into one!

  • Great tips! I just recently tried accomplishing all of my most important work in the mornings & then answered e-mails later on in the day. I found that my energy levels are way higher in the morning so I use it to my advantage. I really like the tip about the folders. I’ll try that. :]

    // ▲ itsCarmen.com ▲

  • Oh I can so relate to this! I get mega email anxiety. I was just clearing out my inbox when I started procrastinating and came across this post, haha!

  • Great ideas Emma, I will add to mine.
    What has helped me of=ver the last few months is the following. I set aside 10mins max, (and I tiem it) each morning the first thing when I hit my desk. I quickly go through emails from the today and delete very quickly a lot os teh time before even ready more than the heading. I have had to be disaplined with this as you can so easierly get caught for 30-40mins just reading crap emails that ad nothing to your day. I lot that you just dont even miss that you have deleted. Trust me this is a ral tiem saving and frees up you in box within the first 15 mins of your day and then you cna plan what you need to get to first. My system is this: After quickly deleting the “excess no value today emails” I have 2 folders for daily to do emails. One for short 5-10 mins emails and another for the longer harder one. I start with the short ones and do them in 30-40 min block then tackle on hard one untill im through the list. Any new that come in ove rthe day are straight away pulled into the correct folder so my deck inbox feel and looks uncluttered. So far it works brilliantly. But with you tips added as well should keep me on track and sane. Tahnsk agin and have agreat week, Regards, Daryl

  • Wow Emma I can’t believe how well you hit the nail on the head of becoming less productive when you’re overwhelmed with something, and the ensuing cycle of guilt–anxiety–even less productivity etc. I can totally relate! This is me procrastinating right now..
    Thanks for articulating this and helping me realise how to combat my own self-destruction 🙂

  • Great tips. I’ll be incorporating a few with what I already do. I have folders already made up and I unsubscribe from all junk. I like that you answer tough emails first (kind of getting them off your plate so you can enjoy the best ones last).

    Side note: Is that your keyboard in the pic? I love it!

  • Color coding is how I keep all of my emails organized. It’s just so much easier to find emails at a glance, if they’re color coded by topic. It also helps to color code in ways that make sense. For example, green for finances and blue for health. I use a red to keep track of all of my emails for my blog, Red Leaf Style, (get it, get it), but red would make sense to indicate important emails. Give it a try. I bet you’ll love it!

  • On the Out-Of-Office subject, it’s funny, I never thought of it that way before! (As being unprofessional.) I loved this post by Sarah Von Bargen about creative and smart ways to use your Out-Of-Office: http://www.sarahvonbargen.com/blogging/how-to-ignore-emails/ It has examples of great autoresponders used by busy bloggers and creatives. I don’t see it as unprofessional, but rather almost like a template response: a timesaver for all involved.

  • Great tips Emma! Especially unsubscribing to junk mail-ugh it takes forever but definitely reduces the load!

  • This was such a helpful post to read!
    I am a florist, and became one because I love creating things with my hands and working with flowers, but what I had not anticipated getting into this biz was the pile upon pile of emails (aghhh!).
    I am guilty of the very thing that is your pet peeve, so this really motivated me to get it together and answer as much as I can during the week because a potential client could feel the same way as you. Thank you again!

    -Claudia

  • I get about 400 work emails a day. I don’t personally have to address all of them, as many are due to being part of a listserv/group email address. But I do have to go through every single one of them and make sure they are NOT for me and the person who they are for is actually included on the email. I have become very adept at breaking even my most time consuming tasks into smaller chunks so that I can stay on top of emails! It’s been a great skill to learn. When the phone rings, I always know exactly how to save my place so I can pick it right back up. The most I go without checking my email during work hours is about 15 minutes.
    I love love LOVE the idea of tackling tough emails first.
    Thanks!

  • The only way I can keep on top of mine is by having them come to my phone, flag the ones that need attention and reply to those that are quick. Failing that- hire someone haha!

  • I definitely get stressed out by my email. Mine stresses me out when it goes over 20. I have multiple emails and try to keep them for specific purposes: professional, blog, newsletters, etc. But, sometimes they crossover and I feel myself overwhelmed by spam and letting the important stuff slide. I have folders in all of my emails that I utilize daily as I like to keep business-related ones for later reference. This post is great and has some really helpful points. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great tips! Going along with #4, I use unroll.me it bundles all of my subscribed mail (mostly promotions and some newsletters) and I can set how many times a day they will send me a bundled email. I receive them in the morning and scan through to see if there are any good deals or articles I’m interested in and only takes me a couple minutes as opposed to the 20+ minutes it would take me to go through and read or delete them all. There is also a quick unsubscribe page for any new subscriptions or things you’re no longer interested in receiving.

  • Great tips! I always try to respond to emails within 24 hours of receiving them. With those tougher ones that I want to put more time into, I’ll usually just shot the person a pre-game email to the effect of “Hey, I haven’t forgotten about you, I just have a ton of stuff to do and I want to make sure I answer all of your questions the best I can!”

  • I needed this! My emails pile up then I have to sit down and dominate! Some emails could be a week old and I know fast response is huge! Thanks for posting!