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How to Tame Your Inbox and Free Your Mind for Your Most Creative Work

American author Jeffrey Zaslow once wrote, “You are your inbox.” He continued, “The makeup and tidiness of your inbox is a reflection of your habits, your mental health, and, yes, even the way Mom and Dad raised you.”

If this were the case, then for a long time, this is what my inbox would have said about me: I’m disorganized, I enjoy drinking from a fire hose, and emails were my number one priority. Sorry Mom and Dad, but it would have seemed that you did not raise me to be a very tidy person.

For most professionals, an unruly email inbox sounds all too familiar. It stresses us out. It vacuums up our time. In fact, the average professional spends a whopping four hours a day sifting through and replying to emails.

The truth is: Email is one of the most popular forms of digital communication, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But as I learned, it’s possible to get the most out of your inbox — without letting it get the best of you. The secret is automation, the topic of my just-released book, Automate Your Busywork.

With automation, you can manage your inbox and save your brain for the big stuff — more meaningful work that fills your tank rather than emptying it.

Here, four strategies for taming your inbox (and making your parents proud).

Recognize emails are workflows

Picture this scenario: you arrive at your desk in the morning, glance at your inbox, and see a handful of unread messages. You feel a pang of anxiety and without reflection, decide to quickly knock out those emails before you start your day. But each email ends up leading to several tangents. You have to get information from a colleague before composing a reply, then research that answer, and then draft an email response, and double-check that the colleague agrees with your conclusion. It happens again and again, and then before you know it, you’ve lost an hour of your morning to that impulse to knock out a few emails.

Here’s the thing: An email is rarely just an email. More often than not, it’s a workflow — a series of interconnected steps that produce a result. Conceptualizing emails as workflows is helpful for various reasons.

First, it helps us to assess the time we’ll need accurately. Second, we can decide which tasks we should prioritize before tackling our inbox. And third, we can identify which steps in each distinct email workflow can be automated.

Take advantage of no-code automation

To map out how to automate our email inboxes, let’s start with the inflow of messages. For managing the daily barrage of emails, filters are a no-code no-brainer.

For example, when I go on vacation, I allot one hour daily to answering essential emails. As soon as I sign in, I can browse the emails that fall into that category because my pre-programmed email filters redirect the other stuff — the *Special Annual Sale Price* and the *Your Opinion Matters to Us* non-essential emails. My high-priority inbox displays the messages I care most about. I can tackle those emails, and those alone, and get back to family.

Your email client likely already has technical instructions for setting up filters. A spam filter usually comes standard. But beyond spam, think about how you want to filter. In my case, I separate high-priority emails from the rest. You might find it easier to filter according to sender type — for example, redirecting newsletters and marketing emails, and prioritizing emails that require replies.

Decide what matters most to you, set up email filters, and immediately shave time off your busywork.

Create email templates

I had a friend, Jean, who was the director of a culinary equipment marketing department. He had been with the company for a decade and in the director position for five years. But Jean had a problem. He spent hours each day replying to emails, and often, found himself addressing the same or similar inquiries. I suggested to Jean that he create email templates. It took some time to create them, but once he did, he ended up slashing his daily email time in half.

To set up email templates for your common inquiries, try the following:

  • Make a list of the email types and questions you frequently receive.
  • Group the full list into categories.
  • Use word processing software to prepare templates for each category.
  • Save the templates in your email program with easy-to-recognize labels.
  • Whenever you receive a query that matches a category, update the recipient information in the template and send the email.

As with my friend Jean, it requires some time to create the templates, but once they’re in place, they’ll pay off in dividends.

Set boundaries

When it comes to eliminating busywork, this strategy precedes all of the others: practice setting boundaries.

In my automation journey, I didn’t go from 0 to 100 overnight. Before I could begin to eliminate my busywork, like inbox wrangling, I had to set boundaries.

So, once I left work, I turned off email notifications. I relearned how to switch my mind from work-mode to home-mode. With time, it got easier. I wasn’t constantly refreshing my inbox. I didn’t feel guilty about not replying to emails as soon as they streamed in. And I found it easier to concentrate, uninterruptedly, on my more meaningful, creative work.

These might not sound like major steps, but in fact, boundaries help us to prioritize our attention — to focus on the big stuff and find ways to automate or eliminate the rest.

Tame your inbox and you might find yourself feeling proud of what it says about the person and professional you are.

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