Do you ever get that sinking feeling when you open your email application on Monday morning after a weekend away from your computer, or when you return after an extended vacation? There’s nothing that causes such a strong desire to trash your laptop and live off the grid like looking at your inbox and seeing 300+ messages, unread and unanswered. How can you go through all those emails and still have time to do your other work? Where do you even begin?

We’ve all had moments of email crisis where we are faced with an avalanche of communiqués. For some of us, these moments are temporary and, while the process of organization can be time consuming, our inbox returns to a state of relative order. Others, however, never dig themselvesout. For example, some users simply open up emails in their inbox and let them accumulate, like dirty snow. And, like a dropped glove in a snowstorm, when the user needs to retrieve an email from a week earlier, it can no longer be found. Fortunately, with a little time and patience, even the messiest and most congested inbox can be organized and made useable.

Whether it’s changing your work habits or utilizing the software tools at your disposal, once you get your email under control you will be able to work better, focus on what’s important, and be more productive. Here are some steps to take to bring your inbox under control and keep it organized.

  1. Delete, delete, delete… If your inbox is simply out of control and you, for example, have 20,000+ unopened messages clogging up your inbox, you need to set aside a predetermined amount of time to go through your inbox. There is no way you will get through that sort of backlog during work hours. Instead, dedicate time in the evening or on a weekend when you’re not focused on your day-to-day work to sit down and go through all your unopened email. The goal is to delete everything unimportant and respond to or appropriately sort the important content.
  2. Unsubscribe. We all end up on a ton of mailing lists—some solicited, some not. Some of these lists result in one email a month, but some marketers will blanket your inbox with daily emails. Fortunately, all of these marketing email solicitations must give you the option to unsubscribe from them. If your inbox is brimming with marketing junk, uncaptured by your spam filter, taking the time to unsubscribe from all those lists will instantly pull these weeds out by the root.
  3. Implement rules. When your IT department brings up setting email rules on your system, many people’s eyes go glassy and they react as though you had just begun a sentence with “I was doing some differential calculus during lunch and…” Email rules are very useful and not as difficult to implement as many imagine.Email rules work well when you have emails from particular senders that you know are not urgent. For example, do you get regular status reports from a working group with which you are only peripherally involved? Are you getting bombarded with a thread of emails about a hotly disputed, but low-priority administrative matter? Has your mom not figured out that it’s not good etiquette to forward something that she thinks is funny, particularly during business hours?Emails rules are perfect for these situations. The rule will automatically detect emails with certain criteria and direct them to a folder you specify. It’s a great way to keep your immediate inbox clean and setting one up is easy. In Outlook, just right click on the email, and you’ll see options for segregating emails from a particular sender or those with a specific set of words in the subject line. Then, you can direct those emails to a folder away from your inbox. The same can be done in Gmail. Just go to the search box at the top and click on the down arrow. Select the criteria you want to filter by and then click “Create filter with this search” to instruct Gmail where to send the emails caught in this filter.Just be careful; even if an email is not urgent, that doesn’t mean you can ignore it indefinitely.Make sure to set a reminder to review these non-urgent emails or an appointment in your calendar to return to them. If you don’t, you may forget they exist.
  4. Get somebody to manage your email for you. All of these tools are helpful, but most of us go through a period where they just won’t suffice. Filters, for example, can only do so much while you’re on vacation. Other email users simply receive so much email that, if they paid attention to it all throughout the day, they would be overwhelmed. These users must ignore their email to make progress at work, yet they cannot afford to ignore particularly urgent or high priority communications.If you are faced with a daily, unmanageable deluge of emails, the solution is to assign someone—an administrative or virtual assistant—to review the emails in your inbox to filter what is urgent from what is not. Urgent emails should be brought to your attention while non-urgent emails are organized in appropriate folders. Expect a learning curve from the person monitoring your email. They will need time to familiarize themselves with your contacts and, to an extent, your business to learn how to properly prioritize your emails.Many people are hesitant to give somebody else access to their email due to privacy concerns. There are, however, a number of precautions that can be taken to segregate your personal emails. For example, tell your personal contacts that you are having an assistant monitor your email and suggest they email you on a different personal email account. It is best practice to segregate personal and business accounts anyway. Another strategy for segregating private email is to use filters to move emails from personal contacts to a folder with restricted permissions.Emails from the identified personal contacts will not show up in the general inbox that is being monitored and you can restrict access to the relevant folder.

Email is one of the most widely used methods of virtual communication among businesses and individuals alike. Given the prevalence of email communication, your inbox cannot go ignored. Find the right blend of personal practices, software tools, and human assistance to get your inbox organized and keep it that way.