When it comes to distraction in the workplace, email overload is public enemy #1. A new study of 1,000 knowledge workers found that employees spent an average of 4 hours a day processing their email.
The state of our inbox addiction is so bad, in fact, that the Washington Post created a calculator that predicts how much of your life you could waste on email. Their projection for how many hours the average worker will spend on email over the course of their career? 47,000 hours.
Given these disturbing stats, it’s pretty clear that we need to change our approach to email—and quick!—if we want to find time to focus on the work that really matters. I tackle this problem head-on in my new book, Unsubscribe, which looks at the psychology behind our email addiction and how we can build healthier email habits based on our creative and career priorities.
Along the way, I made some big changes to how I handle my own inbox and went down the rabbit hole researching which apps and tools are truly useful when it comes to managing email overload. This is a roundup of my top picks:
This killer free email app for mobile lets you snooze messages with one swipe; groups your travel, bills, and packages intuitively while sharing key details in the message preview; and—best of all—makes it dead simple to unsubscribe from unwanted newsletters without ever leaving your inbox. This is the app that I personally use at the moment and highly recommend.
If the DNC’s recent email hacks have sent you into an anxiety tailspin about email security, ProtonMail—a free, open source, super-secure email service—is the place to find solace. Based in Switzerland, home to the world’s strictest privacy laws, ProtonMail requires no personal info to set up an account, automatically uses end-to-end encryption on all messages, and stores your information in “Europe’s most secure data center, underneath 1,000 meters of solid rock.”
If just looking at your Gmail inbox stresses you out, this Chrome browser extension allows you to hide your inbox entirely—both incoming messages and existing ones—while you calmly go about your other email-related tasks. Just click the “hide inbox” button and all of your messages vanish, leaving you free to compose new messages or search existing ones, without having to be distracted by everything else percolating in your inbox. It also has a nifty “inbox lockout” feature that allows you to prevent yourself from checking your Gmail again until a designated time.
Scheduling appointments can be a huge time suck when it comes to back-and-forth emails. And this, sadly, is not a problem likely to be solved by AI any time soon. (See what happens when two AI assistants try to schedule a meeting over email.) Calendly allows you to seamlessly share your available meeting times with colleagues so that they can book and confirm an appointment without ever having to email you back.
This nifty service that provides free temporary email addresses that allow you to quickly sign up for a service and “confirm” your email address without getting on their promotional mailing list. This is ideal for when you need to submit an email address to get access to something but you don’t actually want to subscribe to yet another email newsletter.
But what if you still want to receive promotional emails even though you find that they’re really cluttering up your inbox and distracting you? Another option for streamlining the newsletters coming into your inbox is Unroll.me. It scans your inbox for subscription emails and then allows you to unsubscribe en masse or have them rolled into one single daily digest email. So now you get one promotional email a day instead of twenty.
[Update: I no longer recommend this app because Unroll.me was revealed to have sold user’s data (without their permission) to companies like Uber and others. But I’m keeping it on this list so you can see this warning!]
Research has shown that “batching”—that is, checking your email at, say, 2-3 designated times each day and ignoring it the rest of the time—makes you more productive and less stressed than constantly nibbling on your inbox throughout the day. If you use Gmail and want to commit to checking your email only at specific times, Batched Inbox can help you do it by “hiding” those incoming emails in a separate folder until a set time each day. (If you want to be able to pause your incoming mail without committing to a set time, try Inbox Pause for Gmail instead.)
If you can’t be bothered to set up folders and rules to filter your email and would prefer to just wave a magic wand and make it all go away, SaneBox could be the answer. It’s basically a paid deep-learning app for your email that uses algorithms to identify what emails are important to you, while sending everything else into a SaneLater box. Nifty additional features include a “blackhole” folder that unsubscribes you from emails and annoying people, a quick filter to see all emails with no reply, and built-in reminders.
This Gmail “smart skin” allows you to organize your inbox into a flexible set of lists with labels that you create. So rather than having one massive heap of emails, you can sort them into, say, a To-Do list, a Needs Follow-up list, and a To-Read list. You can also drag and drop emails within those lists to prioritize what needs to get done, putting your most urgent and important emails at the top.
Believe it or not, that ancient email dinosaur AOL has a 2.0 update to their Alto app that puts it on the cutting edge of inbox management. Alto 2.0 combines all of your email addresses into one inbox (no, you don’t need an AOL account), and presents you with a daily dashboard of relevant details: That package you’re expecting today, the location details on the restaurant for your breakfast meeting, what the weather looks like, and so forth. It also has stacks, which suck your photos, attachments, and flight details out of email and organize them into quickly searchable lists.
One of the biggest distractions in email is all the “randoms” who show up in your inbox with unvetted opportunities or asks. This app scours the internet and places a little card at the bottom of each new email that gives you a quick stat sheet on the sender: how many Twitter followers they have, their LinkedIn job title and bio, and so forth. It’s great for a quick, glanceable summary of who’s getting in touch.
Another handy app for Gmail, Boomerang allows you to write emails in advance and schedule them to be sent later as well as set up automatic reminders to follow up if you don’t hear back. The app developers also just added on an advanced new paid feature called Respondable that uses AI to predict how likely your email is to get a response based on rankings like reading level, politeness, and number of questions included.
This new app offers personalized artificial intelligence for your inbox. The idea is that Notion gets smarter the more you use it, automatically surfacing the most important emails and allowing you to quickly swipe to archive all the unimportant messages. It also has “smart” notifications that give you push alerts only when emails really matter, built-in reminders to follow up on emails that need it, and insights on the relationships you’re cultivating in your inbox.
If sales are a key part of your job description, Streak is an app that turns your Gmail inbox into a CRM engine. It allows you to track and manage dealflow, share contacts and messages with teammates, create custom snippets for frequently written emails, and send personalized e-blasts using Mail Merge, among other things. It’s a paid app, but if sales is the lifeblood of your company, it could well be worth it.
This paid app allows you to have any number of templated responses at your fingertips across your desktop and mobile devices. You just type in a short abbreviation keyed to the snippet or message and—voila!—it is automatically filled in. It’s a great way to make sure that you always have responses to frequently asked questions at the ready whether you’re at your desk, or on the go. It also has some great features for sharing message snippets across customer support teams and code snippets across dev teams.
If you’re addicted to using Google’s “canned responses” but find yourself up a creek when you need to respond to common questions on your smartphone, Canned Text is a simple, free solution. Basically, it allows you to stash all of your canned responses in a clipboard stored on your phone phone or tablet. When you need a particular message, just pop open the app, copy the canned response you need, and paste it into your email. It’s not as seamless as TextExpander because you have to leave your email client to get the snippet, but it is free.
Do you have a document that you need someone to sign? For goodness sake, please don’t send an email with a PDF that they have to print out, sign, scan, and reattach to send it back to you. This is the digital age, and some things—like signing documents—should be easier. HelloSign is a painless, Gmail-friendly solution for e-signatures on binding legal documents. You can request signatures from multiple people (and in a specific order), quickly send encrypted contracts based on templates stored in Google Drive, and get notifications when signatures happen. It’s free for 3 documents a month, and paid after.
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For more insight on the psychology behind email addiction, actionable tips on managing inbox overload, and word-for-word scripts for pitching, negotiating, and delivering criticism via email, check out my book: Unsubscribe.