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Do you ever feel like the most important number in your life is the number of unread emails in your work inbox—and the higher that number gets, the higher your stress level gets?

Sounds like it may be time to take control of your inbox.

Managing your inbox more effectively can increase your productivity by freeing up time for the substantive work on your plate. Here are tools and tips you can start using immediately to manage your inbox.

Tools and tips for Gmail users

If your organization uses Gmail through the Google for Nonprofits program, you have a suite of Google tools and add-ons at your disposal.

  • Customize your inbox layout. The default option splits your inbox into different tabs based on categories such as Primary, Social, Promotions, and Updates. Google will automatically sort your messages into the tabs, but you can move messages around if they are miscategorized. Other inbox layout options include: display messages marked as “important” first, followed by everything else; display unread messages first; display starred messages first; or priority inbox, where you can choose which sections you want to show and in what order.
  • Use filters to accurately sort your messages so you can get the most of your chosen inbox layout. For example, you can set a filter to automatically mark all of the messages from your boss as important.

There are dozens of other tips to get the most out of Gmail’s built-in features, and many companies have developed Gmail add-ons or Chrome extensions (if you’re using Google’s web browser) to go beyond the built-in features. For example, Boomerang lets you schedule an email to be sent later, like if you have a question to ask your colleague but you don’t want to send her an email until after she’s finished an important presentation that day. You can also use Boomerang to remind you if you haven’t gotten a response to an email you’ve sent. Use Boomerang’s free option to queue up to 10 messages a month.

Other add-ons or extensions to consider using in Gmail:

  • Gmelius, free and paid options: Gmelius offers more than a dozen customization options, including scheduling emails and setting email reminders (like Boomerang); adding notes to a message that are only visible to you; and creating reusable templates for emails that you typically send.
  • ActiveInbox, $4 per month and up: ActiveInbox can turn your Gmail inbox into a task management system (beyond the limited task management tools available through Google Tasks). You can create tasks from your emails, add due dates, and assign the tasks to projects.

Tools and tips for Microsoft Outlook users

Microsoft Outlook is still one of the most common email clients at the office. If that’s true at your office, then Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook ($21.95 on Amazon) can become your new best friend.

Now on his 5th edition of the book, author and “Efficiency Guru” Michael Linenberger presents a task and email management system that is optimized for Microsoft Outlook. He calls his system “Master Your Now!” (MYN) because it “helps you choose what to-dos to do now, what email to focus on now, [and] what not to worry about now”—and it’s all automated, using built-in Outlook features such as search folders, rules, and filters.

You can try out the MYN system with a free 14-minute Quick Start video (scroll down the page until you see the yellow box that says “PREVIEW." The Quick Start video teaches a simplified version of the MYN system that Linenberger calls “The One Minute To-Do List” (1MTD).

Pro Tip: If you and a few colleagues try the 1MTD system (or “MYN-Lite”) and find that it’s improved your productivity so much that you want to go full MYN, you could ask your organization to buy some shared office copies of the book or a subscription to the MYN-Outlook Complete Video Training ($399.95).

Tools and tips for any email client

Although it’s a good idea to use tools and tips that are optimized for your specific email client, here are some universal suggestions you can start using immediately.

  • Unsubscribe from unnecessary emails. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how many newsletters, events lists, and other mass emails you’re signed up for but never read. Unroll.Me is a free tool that shows you all of your subscriptions and lets you easily unsubscribe from anything you no longer need or want.
  • Set automatic rules or filters to sort incoming email. Every email client has some sort of rule or filter system that you can apply to incoming mail. Using those systems can help you organize your email without lifting a finger. For example, my organization sends a morning and afternoon news roundup to the whole staff, and I’ve created a rule in Microsoft Outlook to automatically send those messages to a folder labeled “Clips” so they don’t interrupt my workflow during the day.
  • Step away from your email periodically. As long as you’re not in a job where you need to constantly be available by email, closing your email for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or even an hour can work wonders. It’s like giving yourself permission to focus on the work you need to get done. And when that important to-do is finally crossed off your list, you can restart your email with a sense of accomplishment and renewed motivation to tackle the next task.

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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