Talent   //   March 20, 2024

Is managing your inbox the key to productivity?

Gabrielle Lask has 27,017 unread emails. 

That number might shock, frustrate or even frighten some people. But for her, it isn’t a bother at all since she has her own way of knowing what is important to respond to and what’s not.

With all of those emails, it might seem as though she’s being unproductive or even unprofessional, especially when we are working remote or hybrid more often which requires asynchronous communication frequently. However, Lask argues that’s far from the truth. The reality is that she has so many unopened emails because she is being productive in other ways outside of her inbox. 

“By not having to worry about zeroing out my inbox and keeping it pristine this saves me a lot of time to work on other more important things that my job entails such as writing pitches, hopping on calls with clients, and looking for new media opportunities,” said Lask, publicist for Otter Public Relations who receives roughly 250 emails a day. 

She’s not alone in having thousands of unread emails. Anna Marikar, an online blogger, does too. In fact, she’s almost across the six-figure threshold with 94,920 unread emails.

“I avoid them happily because I know it’s not affecting my work,” said Marikar. “But I do skim through and get to the important ones, so the number next to my inbox is just a number and that’s not one of the numbers that indicates success to me. I would rather look at numbers like revenue, or website traffic. Once you remove any self judgment for having a chaotic inbox, it’s not that hard to ignore.” 

But for those that see a high number of unread emails and start to feel inundated, there is a way to meet in the middle to maximize productivity in the best way possible. The key to that is having some sort of method to your madness in your inbox. 

Organizing your inbox

“Just because my inbox may not be streamlined, doesn’t mean it’s not organized,” said Lask, who uses email labels and the star feature on Gmail to keep track of emails that are actually important. “For me this is a lot faster and easier than trying to sit and delete everything or move it out of my inbox and into the label folder.” 

She’s also become very skilled at using the email search bar to find what she needs quickly. Marikar uses the same system for the roughly 200 emails she gets a day. Other emails she forwards straight to her business partner, and the rest are safe to ignore.

"By not having to worry about zeroing out my inbox and keeping it pristine this saves me a lot of time to work on other more important things that my job entails."
Gabrielle Lask, publicist for Otter Public Relations.

Other people keep all of their emails separate. Gabrielle Gambrell, founder of marketing and communications firm Gift of Gab, created multiple inboxes for various purposes. There’s one for family matters, including anything involving her children, another for promotional items, which is given out to sign up for a discount on a purchase, and another for work purposes. Only one of her inboxes is at zero, and another has 164,000 messages. Similarly, Katya Varbanova, CEO of Viral Marketing Stars, has multiple inboxes. She made that change a few years ago when she had over 10,000 emails that left her always feeling overwhelmed.

“I decided to clear them all and start fresh,” said Varbanova.

Her tips? “Don’t be obsessed about your inbox. You don’t have to check it every 10 minutes. Checking it once a day or even two times a week is more than doable. Mark things as read as you go, flag important ones if needed, forward emails you don’t want to deal with, and use technology with automation and time-saving tools to help you save time and energy.”

Is Inbox Zero even possible?

WorkLife spoke to several people who celebrated their inbox zero achievement. While it may seem far-fetched for someone who has tens of thousands of emails, there can still be a light at the end of the tunnel if you so wish. And for most of these folks, it’s tied to feeling anxious from seeing a huge number of unread emails or not knowing who they need to get back to. 

That was the case for Mathilde Dechansiaud, a senior performance marketing manager at global employment platform Oyster. “I’ve been trying to clear my inbox every day for as long as I can remember,” said Dechansiaud. “It gives me anxiety having unopened emails. I also do the same on Slack, I open and read everything and then manage through a to-do list. I just hate seeing notifications of unread messages.”

She starts her day by deleting everything that seems like spam, and then writes down the to-dos of the day. She keeps super important emails unread as a reminder to get to them, but will likely be cleared by the end of the next day.

Karin Ridgers’, director of a PR service firm MAD Promotions, trick is to go through her inbox when new emails aren’t coming in constantly – so that means over the weekend: “I would rather spend an hour or so at a weekend than getting stressed working even later during the week,” she said.

Paula Vazquez, a partner support specialist at visadb.io, said that achieving inbox zero took longer than she expected. Her trick now is to have folders organized by year and month. She deletes useless notifications, newsletters she doesn’t want to keep, and properly archives conversations she has taken care of. 

For some people, hitting inbox zero actually helps their productivity skyrocket. While they might be spending some time going through their inbox, it can leave them feeling ready to tackle the rest of their day. That was the case for Victoria Moy, director of Hill Street PR.

“It might be an OCD thing, but also, an empty inbox helps me to feel considerably less stressed throughout the day,” said Moy. “I find that I enjoy my time outside of work more when I don’t have emails that need responding to – love being organized. I am able to move onto other tasks when my email inbox is empty, so I’d say it makes me a lot more productive.”

"I treat my inbox like a living, breathing to-do list to help manage my day and get my inbox to zero."
Mackenzie Sikora, senior PR director at Kite Hill PR.

It also can significantly depend on the industry. Mackenzie Sikora, who works at a PR agency, gets anywhere from 300 to 500 emails depending on the day. 

“My first-ever manager told me that my inbox was the backbone of my role,” said Sikora. “I’ve never forgotten that advice and it’s one of the first lessons I share with my direct reports during the onboarding process. I treat my inbox like a living, breathing to-do list to help manage my day and get my inbox to zero.”

Like Moy, getting her inbox to zero helps her feel confident about signing off work for the evening. She says that inbox zero helps her work-life balance because she knows when it’s at zero there aren’t a bunch of people waiting to hear back from her. She uses color-coded folders to help her get there.

Other people we spoke with use other methods. One person said they use a rule of 10: try to reply within 10 minutes and try to deal with anything urgent before 10 a.m. Get rid of email notifications and batch-check emails just a couple times a day.

Don’t do it all manually

One of Varbanova’s tricks for sorting her inboxes is thanks to SaneBox, which automatically categorizes and separates newsletter promo emails from genuine emails. That makes it easier for her to flag important emails and conversations. Another tool she uses is HelpScout, which allows her to completely remove emails, tag them, add notes, collaborate with others, create automations, and save email templates to reuse. 

Job van der Voort, CEO of Remote, uses a combination of AI tools as well. If it’s a longer email to draft, he talks it out, records the audio and uses an AI voice-to-text app to auto-summarize it into a neat email, which helps speed up his response times. He also uses Superhuman, which several people we interviewed mentioned they used, to help triage emails, set reminders, auto-summarize threads, and manage different workflows. He’s also experimented with tools that auto-tag emails and format automatic replies, but they aren’t perfect yet.

“While these strategies help, I must admit that the volume of emails I receive is increasing, and I don’t have a perfect solution yet,” said van der Voort. “But by combining AI tools with an intentional and open communication policy, I’m sometimes able to keep my inbox under control.”