The Productive Freelance Editor, Part 2: Making Email Work for You

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In Part 1 of this series, I shared some of my recent productivity goals and provided a set of questions designed to help you create your own list.

The productivity goals that were the most important to me both related to email. Specifically, I wanted to reach Inbox Zero in Gmail, spend less time answering email, and stop feeling overwhelmed whenever I opened my inboxes.

So, I decided to “take time to make time,” as they say, and invest in revamping the way I managed email.


First, I sat down and did some online research into better ways to manage my email accounts. I had already been very consistent about using Gmail labels (in fact, I had hundreds of active labels), but I hadn’t been brave enough to start archiving emails or filtering certain messages so they skipped the inbox entirely.

I decided to completely clean out my inboxes, with the goal of reaching Inbox Zero. Here are the steps I took:

  1. I removed all labels from emails that were 3+ years old and archived the messages. (I can still access them by searching a specific client name, email address, subject, or project name.)
  2. For emails from this year, I removed specific labels (client name, project name, etc.) and applied a label to all of them. Then I archived them so they would no longer show up in my inbox.
  3. Finally, I created automatic filters for many non-client-related emails. For example, newsletters and marketing emails skip the inbox and go into a “To Review” label that I work through once a month. Receipts from automatic bill payments also skip the inbox and go into a “Receipts” label.

I managed to reach Inbox Zero in both my personal and business email accounts in one day (about six hours) of focused work.

Note: Even though the steps above will only work in Gmail, there are ways to reach Inbox Zero in most email clients. This article is helpful for both Gmail and Outlook users.


Reaching Inbox Zero felt great, but I also wanted to make sure that I never felt overwhelmed by email again. I did more research and came up with some new rules for managing my inboxes. Here are the main three I try to follow consistently:

  1. Only check email three times a day. This helps me stay focused on other tasks.
  2. Only keep “active” emails in the inbox. Once I answer an email, I label it and archive it. When the person emails me back, it pops up in my inbox again automatically.
  3. Adopt a philosophy of “deal or delete.”This helps me escape the constant overwhelm of opening up my inbox and seeing hundreds of old messages. Now, if I can’t or don’t want to “deal” with the email right away (i.e., take action on it), I can use Gmail’s snooze button to make that email reappear in a few hours, or even the next day (or week!).

Even though revamping the way I use email took some work up front, it has made a huge difference on my day-to-day life. I feel more in control and rarely overwhelmed, I’m already saving tons of time, and my new system is helping me stay on task and productive throughout the day.

This was only the first step toward completing all seven items on my list of productivity goals, however. Stay tuned for next month’s column, which will offer a glimpse into how I streamlined my Google Calendar and created a more productive way to use to-do lists.


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