Let’s be frank, emails can be a nightmare. Most of the time, we’re all simply trying to find the important needle in a haystack of spam, receipts and old messages from family members who refuse to start a group chat.
It didn’t use to be like this. Back in the good old days, emails were easy, non-intrusive and quite frankly, boring – just the way they should be. Now, with every coffee shop you’ve visited in your life trying to get hold of you, there are two options – sink or swim.
The average person loses up to 25 minutes every time they respond to an email and a reported 347 billion emails were sent in the year 2023 alone. This is to say, emailing is a huge part of both our working and personal lives.
For some, emailing means hours of sorting, replying and fixing the chaos that is your inbox. For others, it is easier to ignore it all, reaching into the messy mail heap to grab what’s needed… but it doesn’t have to be like either of these experiences. There really are better ways to email.
We spoke to Paul Levy, a social scientist and an expert in digital mastery, helping organise the world’s chaotic digital lives from emails to social media. He lays down the tips and tricks to get you back on your feet.
1. Ignore the Inbox Zero myth
Coined by the productivity expert Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero is a concept that has picked up a lot of attention. The concept is incredibly simple: have an inbox with zero emails inside (who would have guessed!).
However, getting there is much more complicated. To reach this point, every email needs to be deleted, unless it is an ongoing exchange, or includes important information. After a rather lengthy culling process, whatever is left gets put into folders and voila! You’ve reached Inbox Zero.
While some people swear by the technique, it isn’t a winner for everyone – some people have even written entire journal articles about its flaws. So where does Inbox Zero fall down? “It’s like firefighting or trying to get your head above water level,” says Levy. heads above water. “A lot of evidence suggests that this drip-feeding system of clearing emails just isn’t really that efficient.
“You tend to clear your inbox more effectively if you make habits and check a couple of times a day. If anything, I’d argue turning your notifications off and checking sporadically throughout the day is better. That will stop you from falling into that ‘what was I looking for?’ state and getting distracted.”
Levy suggests breaking this up in an easy way. Check your emails in the morning when you start work, before you have your lunch, and as you are nearing the end of the working day. This way, you’ll never be taking too long to reply to emails, but not constantly monitoring them.
Levy argues that, while some people swear by Inbox Zero, its inefficiency lies in how much of your time it takes in small doses. Trying to stick to that key number requires constant attention to emails and can become more stressful than helpful.
In one systematic review of 25 years of research on work email habits, a team of researchers identified a number of stressful or negative factors associated with emailing.
“The experience of overload is a frequent experience with email. We all receive loads of emails each day, but it has a huge negative impact on our work overload. It can make us feel exhausted, burned out, under pressure, and out of control,” Dr Emma Russell, one of the researchers told BBC Science Focus on the Instant Genius podcast.
In fact, even Mann, the creator of Inbox Zero, thinks we’re doing it wrong. In one interview, he explained that email has changed drastically since he came up with the theory, citing the sheer volume of messages we receive each day. “Ask yourself. If I’m spending time and attention to so many different inboxes in so many places at so many times, is it any wonder that I’m very stressed out?” he said.
2. Make use of email rules and labels
“The majority of people when they first download a word processor, they don’t use 99 per cent of the features available. It’s the same with emails,” says Levy.
“There’s a whole load of features that can help you get organised. However, the evidence shows that over decades, most people just go to their inbox and start working through the list.”
In other words, a lot of us are dealing with our email inboxes like a sinking boat, catching the water in a comically small bucket and throwing it out. Instead, we should be looking to plug the hole first.
Popular inbox services like Gmail and Outlook offer ways to automatically organise your email inbox more efficiently. This doesn’t just mean creating a folder or two but making full use of your email system’s extra features.
“It is about learning how to do email rules. As it comes into your inbox, you want emails to fly straight into certain folders you’ve set up. You can have a high-priority folder, one for family, etc,” says Levy.
“Take some time out of your day and set up all of the folders you would need. And then whether it’s Gmail, Outlook or something else, find out how to create rules so emails are automatically filling into each of these folders straight away.”
Folders can be created for different clients, or specific roles within your job, with emails that are related to these areas automatically filing away. Equally, keywords can be blacklisted to avoid emails that clog up an inbox, and emails from key clients can automatically be flagged.
Rules can also be set up for keeping an inbox tidy. Automatically deleting emails after a certain date, or putting any non-important emails into another folder to sort through when you have more time.
These features are designed to make email…. well, less of a mess, but the problem is that it does take time and you have to keep up with it. New rules and folders need to be made in the future, and spam is still going to find its way in, but for those willing to lay the groundwork, it will make the future of email management far easier.
Labels and rules are a great way to make your inbox a more organised place, but they aren’t the only features on offer with most email clients.
“Make use of the email delay function,” advises Rusell. “If an email comes into your mind at 10pm and you won’t sleep unless you write it, then you can write that email, delay it sending, and check you’re happy with it before it goes out.”
Russell equally points to the out-of-office feature, advising using it to its full effect. While many use it when they are on holiday, Russell recommends using it any time you won’t be emailing for a while, like a day of meetings, or if a deadline particularly requires focus.
Tools don’t have to be found inside the email client itself. Russell also advises looking at add-ons like Grammarly, or alternatives that focus on keeping your email tone professional and polite.
There are now even tools that utilise AI to help with everything from writing emails to fully taking over the management of your inbox. Semrush offers a package that focuses on writing, drafting and styling emails. Alternatively, Klart AI can take over the complete management of an inbox, even streamlining the process.
4. Set up multiple email addresses
Whether it’s a little bit of freelancing, a hobby or a fully-fledged business, it can be tempting to use just one email address for every aspect of your life. However, separating your life into multiple emails can actually make everything feel a lot less crazy.
“Having two emails, one for your social or personal life and one for work is a great idea. It’s really easy to set up and isn’t too complicated to manage. Multiple emails can done from one service, like Gmail or Outlook, so it doesn’t even require a new system,” says Levy.
This is of course harder to do if you’ve been using one email address for a long time. If you’re in too deep and can’t separate out the two parts of your life, use the above tips and set up a comprehensive list of folders and rules to have your work life separated in your inbox.
5. Know when to move an email to instant messages
A cousin’s birthday is coming up, emails have been sent about the venue, a chain has been going for months about possible presents, and details keep getting missed because someone is forgetting to CC their emails.
It’s a scene that exemplifies the chaos of emails that we’re trying to sort here and one that Levy offers a very simple piece of advice for.
“Make a Whatsapp (or other instant messenger) group. Whether it is in a work or social context, if there are loads of emails flying about between the same group of people, suggest that a chat is made where the event can be discussed instead and watch the emails quickly dry up,” says Levy.
“Significant numbers of emails can be turned into conversations. Email was never designed to be quick back and forths, so not only does it speed up the process, but it will also reduce clutter in your inbox.”
About our experts, Paul Levy and Dr Emma Russell
Paul Levy is a social scientist and the author of the book Digital Inferno which looks at how to thrive in an internet-connected world. He is also a senior researcher at CENTRIM, The Centre for Change, Enterprise and Innovation Management Research at the University of Brighton.
Emma Rusell is a chartered and registered occupational psychologist and reader in occupational and organisational psychology at the University of Sussex. She is the co-head of the Data Observatory, as well as the founding director of agiLab – a project run with the NHS to improve agile working.