A New Job is a Chance to Email Smarter. Here’s How.

You don't need inbox zero to feel organized.

I’ve used email since I was 11 years old.

Getting my first professional email account was different.

I was shocked to find out some people had zero emails in their inbox. (Not zero unread emails — zero emails, period!) Meanwhile, my emails quickly piled up.

In an office, email is often the primary form of communication. Important announcements, meeting requests, you name it. Email users send about 75 emails a day, according to a report from The Radicati Group.

So if you’re starting a new gig — whether you’re a new grad or not — it’s your chance for a fresh start with a new email account.

And while no way is right for everyone, there are some general guidelines to getting started.

1. Don’t leave everything in your inbox

You don’t have to be an inbox zero evangelist, but in general, productivity experts and professional organizers agree that your inbox shouldn’t be a catch-all.

Illustration of people walking around a tablet checking their e-mails. Email Smarter pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
You can cut the clutter pretty quickly by unsubscribing from junk mail, ads, and email newsletters you don’t read.

“Once you’ve got thousands of messages, you forget about the ones you don’t see,” said professional organizer Susan Kousek. “Seventy-seven thousand messages is the most I’ve seen.”

Kousek says your inbox should function as a to-do list. That means that you should aim to deal with all emails that come in.

That doesn’t mean you need to delete all emails. Most email systems have an “archive” function, where you can file emails that you might need later. And you can organize others by creating separate folders.

How you organize those folders is up to you.

They can be based on urgency (“do today,” “do this week,” “do this month”), or subject, or project.

Once you complete a project, archive the folder.

You might find that keeping another folder for extra-important documents is a good call. Professional organizer Tammy Schotzko has a client with an email folder called “Keeps Me Out of Jail.”

That’s where he files DMV notifications for renewing his license, as well as other important government documents, like taxes.

Ultimately, how you keep folders should depend on how you search for email. After a client told Kousek she looked for email based on the person, not the subject, Kousek helped her create different folders for each of her colleagues.

You can even set a rule so emails go directly into their own folder, instead of the inbox.

2. Don’t constantly check your email

Ding!

That’s my email inbox, every 10 minutes, almost on the dot. Email notifications are annoying, and it’s hard not to check your email when you get them.

But Kousek and Schotzko said you shouldn’t drop everything each time you get a new email. Unless your job requires it, Kousek even recommends turning off that notification altogether.

That’s because multitasking doesn’t work, and you won’t be able to stay focused if you’re constantly taking breaks to check email.

However, some emails, like those from a boss or important client, might be more urgent. In those cases, you can create a “rule” in your email account that will still notify you of new email (by sound and/or pop-up message), from those accounts only.

Schotzko recommends setting aside time twice a day, on your calendar, to check your email.

“Not first thing in the morning, because if you walk in the morning and the first thing you do is check your email, you’re going to get off track instead of checking off a project off your list,” she said.

Instead, pick times that you’re typically sluggish and not otherwise productive — your 10 a.m. coffee break and that 3 p.m. slump, for instance.

That way, you’re saving your mental energy for the big projects on your plate.

You might feel tempted to read an email and save the reply for later. Schotzko’s rule of thumb: if it’ll take you 30 seconds or shorter to respond, just do it now. (Future you will thank you).

[ICYMI: Is Using Email Wrong Killing Your Workday?]

3. Use categories— not flags

For those emails that you can’t respond to right away, you need a good way to add them to your to-do list.

Gmail and Outlook have handy “flags” that will place your emails in a to-do list, and visually “flag” them in your inbox.

But that might not be the best way for you. The flags can be hard to see, and they’re not descriptive.

“It’s like if you have post-it notes all around your computer monitor,” Kousek said. “After a while it becomes part of your decor.”

Any time Kousek keeps an item in her inbox, she sticks a category on it. (Green is urgent, for instance). She can then search by category to find something. Those categories carry on into the calendar on your email account, so it’s easy to coordinate.

4. Email smarter

Email clutter is just like clutter in your house. We keep it around because it’s nostalgic, or we’ve switched tasks, or we don’t know what to do with it.

But unlike physical clutter, it can feel like email space is never-ending.

“It takes so much less visual space,” Schotzko said.

You can cut the clutter pretty quickly by unsubscribing from junk mail, ads, and email newsletters you don’t read. (An email newsletter you’ll always read? Rewire’s. Subscribe here.)

Services like unroll.me can help you figure out which mailing lists your account is subscribed to, and pick which ones you want to keep receiving.

You can also cut the amount of email you’re getting by sending fewer emails in the first place. It’s not impossible.

“Proactively, I encourage clients when they’re sending an email out to be very specific about what they want,” Schotzko said. For example, “give them two options they can choose from in terms of times and dates, so there’ll be less back and forth.”

You’ll be surprised how much it changes your email flow. Plus, it’s respectful of the other person’s time.

A win-win.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.