My name is Sarah and I'm so glad you're here!
This blog is where you'll find all my best tips and tricks to organize, simplify, and streamline your business and life.
If your website is the virtual storefront for your business, your inbox is the front door.
Though your social media accounts often act as an extension of your virtual storefront and may very well be the first place you have a conversation with a potential client or customer, the inbox is where those conversations can move beyond simple questions or comments to deeper waters that can lead to booking them.
How you respond via email — including both the words you use and the timeliness of that response — are a direct indication to potential clients and customers about what they can expect if they choose to work with you.
If you’re like a lot of business owners, you know this is true and so you know keeping your inbox organized and under control isn’t just important but vital to the health of your business. But knowing it’s important and making it actually happen are two very different things.
When you have inquiries from prospective clients, emails from current clients, conversations with other business owners, and other resources and subscriptions coming in every single day, it can feel like a never ending battle to keep things organized and in tip top shape.
Would you believe me if I told you I have six different inboxes between my personal and business life and I get every single one of them to inbox zero nearly every single week?
It might sound crazy, but it’s true. I’m able to do that because every single one of those inboxes is intentionally organized to help me focus on the emails that need my attention and weed out the ones that don’t. The question is, of course, how can you do that?
So your inbox is a total mess and the number of “unread” notifications makes you want to run and hide. You might think getting it from where it’s at now to inbox zero is a total impossibility, but trust me when I say you can do it. All it takes is one big organization overhaul (or maybe two), the implementation of a maintenance system, and you’re good as gold!
First things first: you cannot organize your inbox if you don’t know what’s in it, so you have to start by getting straight on what’s in there.
Do you have a bajillion unread subscriptions or resources from other business owners? What about emails from clients, be they prospective, former, or current? Or are you always ignoring those random inquiries from people who “just want to pick your brain” or “have a quick question”?
This doesn’t have to be a super deep dive, but just do a scan to get a feel for what you’ve got going on in there overall and what’s in there that you’re constantly avoiding dealing with.
Once you’ve done a general assessment and figured out what’s in the inbox, it’s time to start with the most basic organization system — piles.
With physical paperwork you can create literal piles, so with something digital like an inbox, create a folder (or label if you’re using Gmail) for each “pile,” but keep these piles super general. You’re not getting into the nitty gritty of your personal organization system yet, you’re just trying to group like things together so it’s easier to organize later in the process.
I recommend starting with four main piles — one for subscriptions or resources, one for client emails, one for those general inquiries, and one for administrative emails. Depending on exactly what you do, adding an additional pile for something like professional inquiries (speaking gigs, etc.) may be necessary, but these four categories help you get a better handle on what’s there.
After you’ve moved everything into its respective pile, you should now have a completely empty inbox. If there’s even one email left, stick it in its respective pile so you’re starting with a clean slate.
Now you get to come up with an organizational system. This can be done however you want, so long as it fits the way you work and will actually aid you in keeping things organized and under control. If you’re at a loss for how to get started, think about how you have other areas of your life, like your paper or digital files, organized, and consider how you could mirror that same system with your emails.
For example, if you organize photos first by year, then by month, then by event, consider organizing your clients first by year, then by type, then by individual. Whatever system you come up with, there will ideally be a natural flow to it that would make it easy for someone else (like a potential future assistant) to figure out where everything is as well.
Write this whole organization system, with all of its folder and subfolders, out on a piece of paper so you can tweak and adjust and rearrange things until it’s absolutely perfect. Once you’ve got it all figured out, go in and create all of those folders and subfolders (labels/sublabels for Gmail users) in your inbox.
If you’re a Gmail user, you have the option of designating a color for each label and sublabel, which can be helpful for seeing what’s in your inbox at a quick glance, based on the color a particular email gets flagged with.
Once you’ve created all of your folders and subfolders (and color coded them, if that’s how you roll), it’s time to take those four “piles” you created earlier and actually organize them.
I suggest starting with whatever one’s smallest and working your way up. This creates a sort of snowball effect, as your momentum and excitement will grow when you’re tackling those piles quickly because you started small and thus make progress faster.
For the actual organization of the piles, you can do it the short way or the long way.
The short way is to just look at the senders and subjects and move them to their respective folder without examining the content. This helps get things organized, but not necessarily under control, because at the end of the day, you still have a ton of unread emails sitting in your inbox…they’re just in folders now.
The long way is to look legitimately go through each email, scan the content, and either move it to its respective folder or delete it.
Yes, I said delete. Not archive, for you Gmail people, actually press that delete button. Because the truth is, just like with the mail that comes to your house each day, not everything needs to actually stay in your inbox. If it’s a communication with a client, an inquiry that still needs a response, or a particular conversation with a fellow SBO you want to hang on to, by all means, stick it in its proper folder and keep it for future reference.
But what about those subscriptions you read once and know you’re never going to touch again? Or those inquiries that were clearly sent out to a ton of people and you simply aren’t going to respond to? Don’t feel bad about hitting the delete button.
After all, it’s your inbox. While someone can figuratively knock on your front door by sending an email, you’re the one who ultimately gets to decide if they can come in.
Once you’ve worked through all of your piles, go ahead and delete those folders or labels you had for your piles, because it’s all nice and organized now!
By now you should have all of your emails nicely tucked away in beautiful folders and subfolders, and a totally clear inbox as a result.
You’re probably breathing a sigh of relief, thinking how lovely it is to look at your inbox, know exactly where everything is if you need it, and not feel completely overwhelmed by the mess that’s in there. The question now becomes how the heck do you keep your inbox like this so it doesn’t become a business owner’s worst nightmare again?
Two words: maintenance strategy.
Most of the big, often overwhelming things we have to do in life and business aren’t actually that big or overwhelming. Most of them come down to daily habits and if we were diligent about maintaining some of those big things instead of only tackling them when they get overwhelming, it wouldn’t feel so crazy all the time.
Just like your organizational system, your maintenance strategy is going to be unique to you and will be determined based on the kind of business you run, how you run that business, how your brain works, and more.
However you decide to do it, be sure to define when and how often you deal with your emails, and how you flag or track the emails that still need an action or response. Once you’ve got that figured out, your inbox nightmares will be a thing of the past!
If you’re looking for some practical inspiration, be sure to check back next week where I’ll be sharing my own personal inbox management strategy!