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How to tame your email inbox as a software developer

Written on June 23, 2022

“I get so many notifications from Jira, I rarely check my email because I get so overwhelmed. Slack me instead.”

Ever find yourself saying something similar to a co-worker?

You don’t want to touch your work email because it’s a water hose of useless information.

If something is urgent, surely you’ll be notified of it in Slack.

But you’re missing emails from colleagues about questions only you can answer.

You miss a meeting with your manager because you didn’t see the calendar invite.

When you finally do check your email, you spend hours filtering through emails causing unnecessary anxiety.

In this article, I wanted to share the system that I’ve used to tame my inbox as a software engineer.

As a result, I rarely miss out on important emails, I’ve never got more than 5 messages in my inbox, my inbox doesn’t give me anxiety and I’m in and out of my email in less than 10 minute intervals of my choosing.

Create filters to reduce the noise in your inbox

The reason why your inbox creates anxiety is because there’s a lot of unnecessary noise.

Clean noise is the messages that are important to you—emails from co-workers or your manager.

Bad noise is Jira updates, service emails…just about all the service notifications you get.

In order to get clean noise, you need to filter out the bad. To do that, utilize filters.

Here are instructions on how to create filters in Fastmail and Gmail.

Filter settings

These are some settings that I choose when setting up filters.

For the emails I’m filtering, I have the filter archive the email, what that does is, it prevents it from hitting my inbox.

I then apply a label to it. This will create another “inbox” of sorts where I can check later.

There are a number of other useful controls, play around with them on different types of emails to fine tune your needs.

Start with a clean slate

Now that you’ve diverted the fire hose of useless information from you inbox, let’s clear it up so you can start fresh.

There are two options to creating a clean slate.

Option 1: Select all messages in your inbox and archive.

Archiving removes the visual clutter in your inbox, but if there’s something important you need to reference, you can search for it because it’s in your archive.

Option 2: Select all messages created a month ago and prior.

This option is less hardcore than option 1. Perhaps you don’t want to remove all messages from your inbox but you do want to reduce it.

You can choose any period—a week ago, a day ago.

If you can’t decide, then go for a month.

Go to the most recent email you got a month from today’s date. Then select all the emails prior to this email and archive all of them.

Rinse and repeat

It is likely for the first few months upon using this system, you’ll fall behind and your inbox gets out of hand again.

If this happens, do another clean slate.

Take quick actions with all new emails

Now that you’ve got clean noise—only the emails you care about—coming into your inbox, you want to make sure that you take action on each and every email that comes through.

For every email, you can take four actions:

  • Reply: If the email requires your reply, send a reply and then archive the thread immediately.

  • Create a task: Sometimes an email requires you to take action outside of your inbox. Don’t let your email become your to-do list, instead capture the task into your external to-do list, then archive the email.
    • What I like to do is also grab the URL for the email and add it as a note to my task in my to-do list app. That way, I can reference the email later when I’m working on the task.
  • Archive: Are you seeing a pattern here? Archive as much as possible. Most emails you get are to keep you informed. For emails like this, read it, then archive it. This way you can reference it again later.

  • Delete: If the information is not useful to you and you don’t need to reference it later, DELETE THE EMAIL 😀

Remember, the process is to be quick and not keep you in your inbox.

If you find yourself in your inbox for too long, that means you’re working out of it.

Pause, then remember to take one of the four actions and move on.

Set time for email

Look at your schedule and slot in at least two designated times throughout your work day to check your email.

I like to check once at the beginning of my work day and then a few hours prior to the end of day.

Email isn’t for urgent information.

If it’s urgent, there are more synchronous forms of communication likely at the disposal of your co-workers.

For this reason, you decide when you check your email.

Work happy

🥳 Celebrate!

Your email should be in a much better shape now.

I hope you’re able to communicate better with your colleagues.

I hope your email gives you the information you need to do your job well.

With your email tamed, more than anything, I hope you’re able to work happier.

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