How To Sort Out Your Inbox When You're Drowning In Emails

10/02/2016 10:33 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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We all know the pain of sitting down in front of a computer (or checking your phone, or tablet, or laptop) and being confronted with the sight of emails upon emails all demanding our attention.

It's no secret emails are the preferred form of communication in the working world, but the task of keeping on top of them can prove daunting, depending on what line of work you're in.

So how do you best manage your inbox without tearing your hair out?

"First of all, it's important to remember you own the email, it doesn’t own you," Life Coaching Academy spokesperson Deb Hann told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Getting your head around that is where to start."

From there, Hann suggests figuring out a strategy that best works for you and your professional requirements -- something she refers to as "the theory of relevance."

"Obviously the nature of everyone's working situation differs," Hann told HuffPost Australia.

"Someone might be part of a large organisation and flooded with email because that’s the nature of the corporate structure, or they could be start-up entrepreneurs running a business from home.

"You need to figure out what works and what doesn't work for you. It sounds really obvious but it needs to be said.

"There's no point in following the habits of a corporate high flyer if you are a small business person working 24/7 and wearing 26,000 hats. You need to figure out a routine that best suits you.

"But no matter what the profession, it's key to remember: you own the email, not the other way around."

According to Hann, a good place to start your email management battle is to focus on setting some clear boundaries.

"Again that comes back to the theory of relevance. It obviously depends on what kind of business you are in -- someone in sales who is constantly on the road will have different boundaries from someone with a young family who needs to be home to put the kids to bed," Hann said.

"But whatever your lifestyle is, you need to have boundaries. You need to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not.

"I'd recommend allocating specific times of the day when it is a phone-free time and you don't check your emails, especially after hours.

"Be clear what you won’t tolerate. Is [your device] in the bedroom or not? Is it turned off during dinner time?

"Know what your family values are, know what your boundaries are, and stick to them."

using phone at dinner

Try to avoid checking your emails during meal times.

Another important tip to keep in mind when tackling your inbox is to separate priority emails from the ones that can be dealt with later.

"Know the business which you’re in and what goes under your core area of focus," Hann told HuffPost Australia. "Know who you need to be in contact with internally and externally.

"You need to be clear on what your priorities are and the emails you will take above others. Don’t get distracted by the other things that come in."

Workers are also encouraged to liken emails to their predecessor postal mail, with Hann arguing many of the same rules and etiquette should still apply.

"I think it's important to recognise that email -- and this is really key -- is simply a communication tool," Hann said.

"In essence, it’s about managing expectations. Once upon a time we had snail mail, and you would give each letter the action it required. For example, if it was important, you would send it via priority paid mail and mark it urgent.

"The same thing should apply to our emails. Use the tools available to you by your email provider to categorise them in terms of priority.

"Don't feel you need to let everyone know where you are every minute of the day. Don’t overshare. For instance, if you are only working two days per week, don't mark in your email signature that you only work Mondays and Tuesdays. Just say you are in two days a week, so you're not hit with an avalanche first thing on Monday morning. Avoid building expectations.

"Similarly, if you are going to be away frequently from office, an auto-reply explaining this is very helpful to manage people’s expectations of when you are likely to reply."

It's also a good idea to de-clutter your inbox from numerous newsletters and updates you may have once subscribed to, but never actually read.

"There is a really simple way to do this," Hann said. "In the search section of your email, just type in 'unsubscribe.'

"It should pull up everything you subscribe to, which in this day and age, where you often have to give your email address just to download something, can be quite significant.

"I would actually recommend you have a second email address to use explicitly for subscriptions, but in any case, this is a good thing to do.

"Be harsh about it. If you haven’t read it in the past month, you're not likely to in the next month. Unsubscribing can make a huge difference -- it’s like detoxing your wardrobe."

Finally, Hann's last piece of advice when it comes to email management is one many professionals (this reporter included) might find difficult to put into practice.

"My biggest tip of all when it comes to managing emails is to avoid checking them when you first get into work," Hann said.

"Habitually, we turn the email on and look at it first thing when we are in the office, whereas I think it should be the last thing you do. The first thing you should do when you get to the office is plan your day and your priorities.

"If you can delay looking at your emails for an hour and use that hour as productivity time, you'd be surprised how much you can get done.

"Because we have all been in that situation where you think it will take only a second, so you read your emails, flick off an answer or two, and before you know it it’s 11 o’clock."

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