How much time do you spend in your inbox every day? You may think not much, but organizing your inbox, checking your email, and responding to messages adds up to an astonishing amount.
According to a McKinsey analysis published in HBR, “The average professional spends 28% of the work day reading and answering email.” This means 2.6 hours a day or 13 hours a week are lost on managing email. How can you cut back on time spent in your inbox and focus that energy on what matters most?
At Double, our executive assistants are experts in inbox management. We’ve asked four doubles to share how they approach organizing executives’ inboxes and tips for the best way to spend less time managing your email.
Our inbox organizing experts
Elodie L. is a communications expert having worked as a journalist and executive assistant for the last 12 years.
Sorya Q. knows all about managing and organizing. Before becoming an executive assistant, she ran operations for the back office of a bank.
Kelley M. has more than 15 years of experience in operational development and currently splits her time as an assistant and working at The Wave Foundation.
Aurélie P. is a seasoned executive assistant with more than 15 years in the role at companies of all sizes and fields including medical, finance, and tech.
1. Create an inbox strategy
Creating an inbox strategy means understanding what your own goals are, how you currently use your inbox, and what you’d like to change. Some executives want to reach the coveted inbox zero; others are looking to set up processes and use specific email features.
Kelley M.: After gaining access to my executive’s inbox, I first familiarize myself with the types of emails they’re receiving—business-related emails, personal emails, promotional emails, news, etc. After I have a good idea of what kinds of emails my executive is receiving, I then ask them questions about how they use their inbox and what kinds of emails they want to receive and read, and others that they don’t care about.
For example, an executive may use their main inbox solely as their “to do” list and won’t want me to move anything from there. Other executives let me know that there are certain products and news/industry emailers that they want to keep and read. From there, I build sets of labels and automated filters to clean things up based on their personal preferences.
Sorya Q.: I always start by eliminating the unnecessary emails such as newsletters they don’t read, spam, etc. I ask what are the emails they absolutely need to act on or to read, who is important, and what are the emails I can directly act on.
Aurélie P.: The first sight at an executive’s inbox tells a lot about that person and their working style! Just by looking at the number of emails in the inbox, the labelling and the automated rules in place, I get a lot of insightful information about how my executive likes (or hates!) to structure their work.
Elodie L.: I start by digging into the emails to understand what kinds are received/sent, open/not open, and if there are categories or any kind of organization in place. I try to figure out what’s in front of me and look for a pattern. This helps me understand how I could improve the entire process.
2. Use a labeling system
Across the board, our doubles recommend using labels as a way to focus on what’s important. Labels are particularly helpful when delegating your email to an assistant. If a labeling system is clear, it can let the assistant know what to work or respond to—and vice versa.
Kelley M.: I’ve found using labels works extremely well. The executive can use labels to indicate what they’d like me to do without having to send me a note and/or explanation. For example, labels like: “Unsubscribe,” “Mark as spam,” “Polite Turn Down/No Thank You” allow me to take action immediately.
Aurélie P.: I create a labeling system that clarifies the status of each email. This is effective because it allows the executive to easily navigate their inbox and find all the information needed immediately without having to ask me.
Sorya Q.: Labeling emails is super important and an easy way to be organized. I create labels for every type of email that is received—regardless of if the executive uses Gmail or Outlook.
4. Declutter, don’t delete
A fear for executives delegating their email is that some important information will accidentally be deleted. Our doubles recommend decluttering by archiving and labeling, rather than deleting emails outright.
Aurélie P.: I avoid deleting emails. Instead, I archive them so nothing is lost. In my opinion, you really don’t need an email from a month ago if you do not intend to act upon it today.
Sorya Q.: I try to never delete an email. I archive instead. This makes the executive feel safe—that nothing is lost. I also never archive an answer, so the thread of conversation remains in the inbox.
Elodie L.: I create an archive category for everything older than a year instead of deleting.
5. Block time to prioritize email
Time blocking and tracking is an effective way to ensure you’re focusing on the most important tasks at hand. Restricting yourself to checking your email 1-2 times per day for a specified amount can help you break the cycle of living in your inbox.
Sorya Q.: I usually propose to block slots in their calendar specifically for the executive to look at their inbox. I explain why it is important to take time in the day to avoid being overwhelmed. Time blocking helps them form the habit of spending less time with their email. I’ve found that with this approach, executives quickly see time saving results and in turn, become more motivated and focused.
6. Delegate organizing your email to an assistant
Handing off your email to someone else may seem impossible, but executive assistants are experts in creating a process that makes sense for you and ultimately saves you valuable time.
Aurélie P: If after reading this article you think, “It’s too late, my inbox is already a mess and the task is too huge!” then you might need a double to work their inbox organizing magic!