6 Inbox Management Tips from Experienced EAs

No doubt the email inbox can be a source of frustration. If you’re constantly trying to achieve inbox zero and not seeing much progress, try leaning in with an inbox reset! With this method, you can get your leader (and yourself!) back on track with a well-managed and stress-free inbox in a matter of days – with minimal upkeep. Keep reading as we share six brilliant tactics EAs at Base use to reset their Exec’s inbox and keep it efficient, clean, and organized for the long run.

6 Inbox Management Tips from Executive Assistants

1. Listen before diving into managing your leader’s inbox

Before you dive into your leader’s inbox and start making changes, first pause and listen. Ask questions and listen for what is really driving your Exec’s inbox stress, their desired outcome, and their openness to change. Email is very personal and while some leaders can jump right into a new system without hesitation, other leaders may approach email inbox management cautiously. Remember, you are their primary support, so the best way to support them may be to take it one change at a time.

If you’re having trouble identifying their pain points before starting the inbox reset process, try asking these questions: 

  • Is there too much clutter?
  • Do you find yourself reading an email and then forgetting to respond?
  • Are there too many subfolders? 

Once you understand what causes them the most frustration in their inbox (it may be multiple things!), communicate that you have the skillset to do the heavy lifting for them – they might respond with a sense of relief! In identifying your Exec’s inbox pain points, you’ll also be able to identify the natural outcome that guides your customized inbox reset.

2. Complete the first inbox reset

When you’re ready to reset your leader’s inbox, give them a heads up! Provide a quick overview about the process and how long you expect it to take. In most cases, Inbox reset is best completed while they’re occupied with meetings or deep work. Also give them an opportunity to ask questions or raise concerns. Some leaders may still be hesitant about the process, but keep communicating the benefits and how resetting their inbox will help them in the long run. Once you’ve established a timeline and course of action, get started!

Here are some email management best practices to get started:

  • Move anything one month or older to archive (reminder: they aren’t deleted!)
  • Check subfolders or labels for any current items and move them to the main inbox
  • Create new sustainable subfolders or labels (more on this below)
  • Move current items into the new folders
  • Create rules for newsletters, meeting invites, etc.
  • Create rules to flag high priority items as they come in

Always check with your leader if you aren’t sure about a proposed action. For instance, “When you get personal emails, would you like me to manage them differently than work emails?” 

3. Daily inbox zero is possible

Once you’ve completed the email inbox reset, you are ready to implement the new and sustainable inbox management system. The simplest system is from The Productivity Ninja. This system keeps the inbox simple, easy to search, and most importantly, gets your leader to inbox zero each day!

In short, create three folders that all emails will get filtered into: Action, Read, and Waiting. As the emails start flying in, you can move them to their appropriate folder using these categories as a grid:

  • The Action folder is for emails that require your Exec to respond, make a decision, follow up, etc.
  • The Read folder is for emails that your Executive needs to read but do not require any action (most of the time they are copied on these emails).
  • The Waiting folder is for emails that are waiting on someone else. For example, your leader is waiting for a team member to finish a report before they can respond.
  • The rest of the emails? Send them to the archive or trash!

Inbox zero does not mean a completely empty email inbox. What it means is that when your Exec shuts down for the day, their main inbox is clear and the stress that comes with a full inbox is alleviated. When they open their mail app the next morning, they can easily identify which emails require their attention – now that’s great inbox management! 

4. Use search instead of scroll

A big concern EAs hear from their Executives when discussing inbox reset is “I don’t want to lose anything important!” A continually clean email inbox may require a mindset shift for your Exec. As their assistant, you may need to manage up to teach your leader that searching is better than scrolling. It’s so much easier to search for one specific email than to scroll endlessly in frustration.

Search bars are one of the best features of any email app. Identifying this and nudging your leader to it will increase their productivity. This may also help calm their fears about losing important emails because you can search deleted and archived folders – nothing is ever really lost thanks to the search bar!

5. Check in and adjust as needed

Even the best kind of change can be difficult and disrupt normal workflows. Remember to proactively support your leader as they adapt to their new email inbox management system. If you are active in your Exec’s inbox, you may be the one filtering the emails. In this case, it may be as simple as reminding your leader to check the new inbox folders, instead of scrolling their primary inbox. Be vigilant about checking in during the first two weeks so that you and your leader can establish positive inbox habits!

Here are a few more tips when checking in: 

  • See if anything needs to be adjusted as they become familiar with the new look
  • Ask clarifying questions to understand if they need additional organization
  • Keep encouraging them to try the new system and give it a chance

Remember, email inbox management strategies are not one size fits all. Be ready to flex and switch things up if something isn’t working – your Exec will appreciate your adaptability to their needs as you work together to create a great inbox management system!

6. Trust the system and provide routine maintenance

Did you know that on average, it takes about two weeks to build a new habit? Keep this in mind when you implement a new inbox management system for your Executive. Remind your leader to use the new folders and to move items from their inbox to the appropriate folder as quickly as possible. It’s likely that as soon as your Exec ends their first day at inbox zero, they will be absolutely thrilled and do their part to keep the momentum going. 

You’ll also want to consider working with your leader to manage the folders so they don’t become cluttered and stressful again. A best practice is to designate a day each week to review each folder. Fridays are ideal because most leaders are wrapping up their work week and reviewing things that need to carry over into the next week.

More inbox management resources

Need more inbox tips? We’ve got you covered.

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Written by Sara Altuna

Sara Altuna (she/her) is the Lead Content Strategist for Base. She believes in empowering assistants to be confident leaders who know the value of what they bring to their role.