Slave to your inbox? Master email with these 4 strategies

Apr 19, 2016

Isn’t it ironic that the tool we use most for efficiency is also the one that consumes all our time? If you let it, email can eat up your whole workday. Before you know it, 6 PM rolls around and all you’ve done is sent (or read, or deleted) a bunch of emails. Spend enough days like that and you have to work all weekend to catch up on your client projects.

It’s not exactly a recipe for long-term success or happiness as a freelancer. So what can you do to get your inbox back on track?

Here are a few common causes of email overload – and how to handle them:

Problem: You have too many subscriptions

Solution: This is one of the easier problems to fix. You can unsubscribe, of course, but doing so manually is a waste of time. These apps can make it easier and faster:

  • lets you unsubscribe from unwanted newsletters in bulk, making it faster and easier. Afterwards, it sends you the subscriptions you do want in a single skimmable daily digest.
  • Unsubscriber: This iPhone app does exactly what it says on the tin. It connects to your email inbox and then gives you a list of your subscriptions. Swipe left to unsubscribe, swipe right to keep.
  • Sanebox: Sanebox helps you manage your subscriptions by letting you unsubscribe with one click and filtering emails that aren’t from real people into one folder in your inbox. It has other features too, including follow-up reminders for outgoing emails that haven’t been replied to, automatically moving attachments to cloud storage, and email tracking. There’s a free trial and paid plans start at $7/month.

Problem: Client inquiries fall through the cracks

Solution: If you periodically find “lost” emails in your inbox that were from a potential client three weeks after they sent it, all hope is not lost.

If you tend to get client inquiries from a contact form on your site, you’ll notice that those emails typically come with a note in the subject line that references the contact form or contact form name. The subject lines look something like “[Contact Form A] Wanted to talk to you about a project.” The problem is that sometimes Gmail’s automatic sorting systems put emails from contact forms into your “Updates” folder (or somewhere else).

With most email clients, you can set up an automatic filter that takes anything with “[Contact Form A]” in the subject line and moves it into your priority inbox, marks it as urgent, or stars it. (Here’s the Gmail FAQ for how to do that.) Voila: no more missed emails.

Once someone gets in touch and you reply to their email, you can use a tool like Streak to sort your client emails into funnels and see which inquiries need a quick follow up with a glance. There are other CRM tools available, but Streak is my favorite and it lives right in your inbox.

Problem: You lose current client emails or project emails


The best way to avoid overlooking client communications is to get it out of your email inbox. If you can, get your clients to communicate with you in tools like Asana, Basecamp, or Slack so that everything related to your work is in one spot — no more digging for feedback on that round of revisions. If you can’t get your clients inside Slack, Clubble might help — it lets you reply to emails directly from Slack.

You can also make efforts to keep your email communications more organized in your inbox. I have a “Clients” folder in my email, and as part of my “new client” checklist, I set up a sub-folder with the client’s name. I set up anything from that client (and their team, and their domain name, depending on the client/project) to be automatically tagged with “Clients/ClientName.” Then, when I can’t find an email, it’s always in that folder — even if it didn’t make it into my main inbox for some reason.

Problem: Email keeps you from getting anything done

Solution: Set up email boundaries. Easier said than done, but when you periodically live out of your inbox and your productivity takes a hit because of it, you have to do something. Or you can stay overworked and burned out — your choice.

There’s two things that have made a huge difference for me here:

  1. Have office hours and make them clear from the get-go. Usually in our first call (or in the consult call to see if we’re a good fit) I tell clients that my office hours are 9–5 CST and that I don’t read or reply to emails on weekends.

  2. Batch your email processing. Instead of reading and replying to emails as they come in, go through your whole inbox at once. I scan my inbox at the end of each workday and spend a few minutes answering client emails (or other important inquiries), and I go through everything else on Monday and Friday to clear out the less important emails (that still require a reply). This is much more efficient than trying to reply to every single email as it comes in, and saves me a lot of time.

Those are my favorite email management tips — which one will you try next? Let us know in the comments!

Michelle is the Freelancer Mentor at Domino which helps you freelance jobs through your friends. When she's not writing for clients, she's listening to podcasts, watching something involving sci-fi or superheroes, or practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Michelle Nickolaisen

Michelle is the Freelancer Mentor at at Domino, a site that helps you find freelance jobs through friends. When she's not writing, she's listening to podcasts or practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu.