Nothing causes Sunday Scaries like the looming threat of a cluttered inbox on Monday morning. But in addition to causing stress, a disorganized inbox can also negatively impact your productivity at work. When your unread-email count goes up with every minute, it's hard to know what to respond to and when — and getting your day-to-day tasks done on top of email management can seem almost too difficult to juggle. So with the KonMari method on the brain, we wondered: If you can Marie Kondo your closet, friendships, and finances, can you do the same for your inbox?
We tapped the expertise of Laura Mae Martin, executive productivity advisor at Google, who leads a training at the company about this very topic. Below, she provided tips on how to stay on top of your inbox so that it "sparks joy" — well, to the extent that emails can spark joy!
Help! My inbox is so overwhelming I could cry! How can I organize my emails to make them more manageable and efficient?
"Inbox anxiety is a real thing! But there's hope. These are the three most important steps for wrangling your inbox, in this order:
"1) Stop seeing emails you don't need to see. Each time you touch an email, it drains a little bit of energy, so you should only touch those you need to see. Create filters or rules to have less important messages that don't deserve your immediate attention — like newsletters — skip the inbox or go directly into folders. Try using the filter ‘Has the words: unsubscribe’ so that this kind of mail skips your inbox.
"2) Create filter/label combinations or 'flags' so that emails you do need to see visually pop as they come in. For example, emails directly from your manager to you should have a different look than emails from your manager to the whole company. If you're in sales or recruiting, emails from your most important clients or candidates should catch your eye easily.
"3) Create buckets outlining what your next step is for all the emails that do come in. This is the equivalent of Marie Kondo’s 'put everything on the bed and then put it in piles' method. Your bed is your main inbox. Take your whole inbox and organize it into three categories: Assign things you need to respond to or act on to 'keep,' assign things you're waiting on someone else for to 'donate,' and assign things you don't need anymore (archive) to 'throw away.'"
How long is too long to go without responding to someone?
"I believe 24 hours is typically an appropriate amount of time to give some kind of response, but that can depend on your workload and the email. Remember that a response does not mean completing their request. Sometimes my response is: 'I'm working on a lot of projects right now, so I won't be able to get to this until the end of the month — just wanted to let you know!' But it's still a response, so they know they're not being ignored or that I haven’t missed their email. It also saves me from getting another email from them checking back in."
What should I do before and after I go on vacation to help mitigate the inevitable coming-back-from-vacation inbox chaos?
"Before vacation, tie up any loose ends and make sure you give very specific instructions in your out-of-office [message], i.e., 'If this is urgent, resend with URGENT in the subject line' or 'If this needs a decision before I return, send to X person.' This way, it's not up to you to fish around for important emails while on vacation or upon your return. When you get back, give yourself some non-work time to go through your email so you feel prepared to return to a regular work day.
"You can also declare 'email bankruptcy' upon returning from a longer leave like maternity leave. Your out-of-office could say — 'I’m out of office and will be archiving all emails upon my return. If your request needs my attention after my return, please re-send after X date.' That way, you start fresh when you get back and fill in context by searching where you need to!"
What should I delete or archive? Is there a rule of thumb?
"The greatest thing about Gmail is the archive feature. It gives you a fourth option outside of inbox, delete, or folder/label. My advice is to only archive, unless you have space constraints. Then learn how to search Gmail really, really well and find emails quickly without having to check a folder or worry they’re in the trash!"
Are there any Gmail tools I can implement to help me stay focused on the task at hand and not overwhelmed by other clutter?
"One of my favorite Gmail features for this is snooze. It allows you to remove an email from your inbox and then bring it back at a specific time or date. This is a great way to keep an active inbox and only see emails you have a next action for. If you have an email that requires a response but you won't know the answer until after a meeting next Monday, snooze the email to next Monday! Snooze keeps the things you don't need hidden and, combined with filters, can make your inbox include important tasks only."
How can I keep things that "spark joy" and part with things that do not?
"Let's be honest — most emails don't spark joy. But there are some exceptions! I keep a Smile File folder, which contains all the emails I've gotten that make me smile. My Smile File has anything from puppy pictures to people thanking me for helping them save so much time. When I'm having a particularly overwhelming day, I open that folder and it sparks a little joy.
"When it comes to your inbox, the sparking joy question is: 'Do I have a next action on this?' You should be asking yourself that with every email. If the answer is yes, immediately, put it in the corresponding folder (i.e. To Read). Many people open an email once but then mark it as unread again, confusing their brain as to whether it’s new or if they already saw it. If the answer is 'no next action,' archive or delete it. People get overwhelmed when they leave things around that they might need later or may want to reference one day. Those things don't have an immediate next action or spark joy, so they should be purged (right after you thank those emails for their service, like Marie Kondo does!).
"The real joy comes from having a tidy inbox that you’re on top of. It creates the calm feeling and mental headspace that stems from knowing exactly what you have to do and where to find what you need to do it. People tell me all the time they feel so much better and happier setting up this system — it's the positive energy from having your inbox space set up well!"