Smart influencers give their best email management tips, tools, and hacks

Two things I’ve learned: No two people treat email the same and if you dig deep enough, almost everyone has something interesting or helpful to share.

As the editor of The Gmail Genius, a monthly newsletter to help users get the most out of Gmail, I’ve gotten to peek into the deepest recesses of one of the most personal of digital spaces: the inbox. Each month, I chat with people about their approach to email for an interview feature in the newsletter. I’ve spoken to podcasts hosts, serial entrepreneurs, journalists, tech executives and many others. Some have evolved systems and are quite methodical, while others admit to having more unread messages than they’d care to acknowledge.

Two things I’ve learned: No two people treat email quite the same way, and if you dig deep enough, almost everyone has something interesting or helpful to share about this ubiquitous part of our business and personal lives.

After a year of interviews, here are the most interesting takeaways so far:

Forget inbox zero

Journalist Ann Friedman says Inbox Zero shouldn’t be the goal. “If I hit Inbox Zero and stay there, that’s when I’ll know my career is over,” she said. She prefers to think of email as a “constant flow to be managed rather than something that can be zeroed out.”

It’s like good dental hygiene

Michael McWatters, director of experience design for TED who created the email strategy for TED’s tech team, has tried dozens of different email clients and utilities over the years but says there’s just no substitute for diligently going through your inbox and deleting, archiving etc. “It’s like a simple housekeeping ritual or good dental hygiene: if you stay on top of it, you’ll avoid a mess … and dental disease.”

Quit the inbox shaming

Margot Boyer-Dry, founder and author of the Lorem Ipsum newsletter, suggests that if all else fails, maybe you need to come to peace with your unruly inbox. “I’m a creative person, therefore I get to have a messy inbox. I don’t lose stuff; I’m a responsible responder, and I think it’s okay. Welcome to the club– no more inbox shaming.”

Keep it off your phone

Sol Orwell, a popular blogger and founder of examine.com, doesn’t have his business email inboxes on his phone. Instead, he just has a personal inbox for calendar invites and movie tickets. “I may read email, I may check it, but I do not respond to emails on weekends,” he adds.

In praise of slow email

Sarah K. Peck, a 20-time All-American swimmer who runs the media company Startup Pregnant, believes in slow email. “I can take two to four weeks to reply, which can be insane for some industries. I only answer quickly for things that are already on my schedule or are easy enough to do and fit in my allotted email times.”

Podcaster Jordan Harbinger says he uses the tool Send Later so that he can go through his emails as he gets them, but avoid the expectation that he’s always going to respond right away. “I’ll write the reply while it’s fresh, but then I’ll schedule it to send in a few hours or day. I don’t want my inbox turning into instant messenger,” he says.

The best time really is now

Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’ll have more time for email at some point, says Saya Hillman, the founder of Mac & Cheese productions. “Stop believing in the Perfect Time Unicorn and his siblings Better Time and More Time.” The ideal time is never coming, so don’t put things off, she advises. “Your future self will have the same time as your current self. It’s about prioritizing and what you deem important enough to actually do.”

Personalizing = more human

If you really want your message to get noticed, take a cue from how some of the best networkers do it. “A lot of super-connectors find ways to bring back humanity to the inhuman,” says Scott Gerber, co-author of Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships that Matter. They “will actually create a video. They’ll literally shoot a 30-second video … the fact that they mean what they say and not just put words on an email, the fact that they took time, and they can show they took time out of their day to make this introduction because it’s that important.”

The right tools can help

PR Powerhouse Peter Shankman, the founder of HARO, says his favorite email trick hands down is Follow Up Then, a free tool to schedule email reminders.

Ryan Robinson, the host of The Side Hustle Project podcast, says his “savior” tool is Inbox When Ready for Gmail, which hides your inbox so you don’t see incoming messages. But you can still search and reply to emails. “It’s kind of like a mental hack — out of sight, out of mind.”

Susan Shain, a freelance writer specializing in travel, food and personal finance, says Pocket helps her manage her inbox. “As a writer, I subscribe to a lot of newsletters — but rather than reading the articles from my inbox, and, 90 minutes later, ending up on a story about Justin Bieber’s latest tattoo, I control-click to add the stories to my Pocket. Then I read them on a lazy Sunday morning or, more likely, on a plane.”

Apart from her work on The Gmail Genius, Jaclyn Schiff is a strategist who loves getting her feet wet at the intersection of media, partnerships, and content. Her writing has covered topics ranging from healthcare innovation to travel budget tips to digital nomads. She’s had bylines at NPR, HuffPost, AllAfrica, Thought Catalog, The Muse, Modern Healthcare and others.