9 Things I’ve Learned That Will Turn Your Inbox Into a Power Tool

I’ve been around email most of my life. My first company, Da Vinci Systems, was one of the world’s biggest providers of desktop email. When I joined Silverpop more than a decade ago, we created one of the first turnkey, rich-media email marketing applications. Even today, as Silverpop has evolved to enable dialogs across every channel from social networks to SMS, email remains a staple that few companies can ignore.

And despite countless predictions of the death of email, nearly everyone seems to spend more and more time in their inboxes. And, it’s not just friends and colleagues – email has evolved to encompass everything from e-receipts to social status updates to daily coupons. Email is far from dead and it looks like it’s here to stay. Over the years I’ve picked up a few great ideas on how to turn the inbox deluge into an inbox power tool that saves me countless hours per week. Hopefully, you can use a few of these ideas as well:

1. Simplify your inbox folder tree (a lot) 

At some point, most of us have tried to meticulously store all our important emails into lots of little folders. The idea was to make it easier to quickly locate old emails. But years ago, I read about a different approach, which I’ve applied to two folders I call “Archive 1 year” and “Archive 3 years.” Nearly everything I save goes into one of these, and as a result I’ve avoided countless hours of clicking around to find some particular folder in a giant folder tree every for every message I want to save.

“Archive 1 year” is for emails whose topics won’t be relevant in the future, while “Archive 3 years” is for emails that I’ll want to keep forever (in the world of email, three years is forever). Frankly, I was skeptical this would work, but I gave it a try and it turned out better than I could have predicted.

2. @Waiting For

This is one of a tiny number of folders I have in my inbox. It’s for messages where I really need a reply from the recipient and I can’t risk forgetting. For these, I “bcc” myself on the email I’m sending and then put the copy I get back into this folder. Every few days I go back through this folder, deleting the messages that have been replied to and following up with the people that haven’t gotten back to me yet.

3. @Read Me

This folder is for that small set of messages that I really need to read carefully but don’t have time or focus to do right now. I go back to it when I have some time set aside to concentrate and can move through far more quickly. Bonus tip: If you put an “@” in front of these folders, it puts them all together in your inbox folder tree so they’re always at the top.

4. Flags and unread

Some of the emails I get require a bit more attention than I can devote the first time I read them. Using the flag feature or resetting the message to “unread” ensures I’ll know to go back and look at it again later, even when my inbox is overflowing. Both of these features are available in most email tools and are often accessible via menus or a right click of the mouse.

5. Use the search function

Gmail has killer search. Outlook and Mail on the mac have Spotlight. Windows has the “Start” button. Most email programs have a search bar within each folder. Folks, if email is the killer app, search is the killer feature. There is no faster and easier way to find an old email than using search. And using search keywords like “From:[email name]” or “Subject:[subject word or phrase]” makes it even more powerful.

Search is fast and it makes folders like my “Archive 3 year” immediately accessible no matter how big it gets. If you include your “Trash” or “Deleted” folder in searches, you can also use that folder as a virtual “Archive a few months” resource.

6. Pruning email folders

Every month or two, I go back into “Archive 1 year” and Archive 3 years” and delete all the messages that are older that the folder name (I also use the cool auto-archive per folder feature in Windows Outlook). Pruning your email folders makes it easier to find what you’re looking for, and it means searching will return a much tighter set of matches.

7. Think about “To and “Cc”

Most of us put everyone we can think of on the “To” line and “reply all” without a second thought. I always try to take that extra half-second and think about the recipients. Can I remove a few people from “To” or “Cc” that really won’t benefit from the message? Every time an email sender removes a few names, they are making the entire email universe a little better.

8. Point out when new people are added to a thread

How many times have you accidentally replied to a message on a long thread only to realize that there were a few recipients that really shouldn’t have seen your frank reply? Email threads are a powerful feature, but there’s a tendency to add more and more people as they grow, even if no one notices the “To/Cc” recipient list getting larger and larger. The solution is easy — every time you add someone to a thread, put a line at the top of the reply email body for each new person you’re adding, “+ [name].” This ensures that everyone will see that the “To/Cc” list has grown and will be mindful of what they send back. Same goes for removing people with “- [name].”

9. Email is for your intellect, not your emotions

We all know this, but most of us screw it up anyway. We all have stories of epic flame wars over email. Sometimes they burn relationships. Sometimes they even burn careers. Email is great for ideas and collaboration. Email is terrible for communicating emotions. Most of us will never achieve a Hemingway-esque ability to express rich emotional meaning in writing (no matter how many 😦 sad faces we use).

So, if you find your fingers tapping out a reply while your emotions are roiling over a message you just read, it’s time to stop. Immediately. Pick up the phone. Walk down the hall. Take an hour or a night, but never send an email reply right then. 


I’ve been collecting these ideas for years and I’d love to hear some more. Please drop me a note or comment on your favorite tips for conquering your inbox and making email a power tool.

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