Optimize Your Inbox in 20 Minutes

Dear side hustler, your time is precious, but your inbox is stealing hours from your day!

No doubt, email is the most important medium you can use to keep in touch with clients, read your favorite blog posts, and stay on top of that next subscription renewal.

But with so little time as a side hustle freelancer, what are you going to do?

My friend, I have a quick solution for you – optimize your inbox!


It was an idea I got from an article about inbox zero, and while I can’t remember the article I got it from, I tried this technique for a month to see if it worked. And it did!

Here’s how much time I spent before optimizing my inbox (July -39 hours), and after (August 12 hours):

optimize your email in 20 minutes a day
optimize inbox in 20 minutes a day

As you can see, this method has helped me reduce the time I spend inboxing. This is because I'm able to focus on important emails at a time that works for me rather than aimlessly sifting through daily email a few times a day.

If you have 20 minutes (well okay, 27 since it will take you about 7 minutes to read this post), I’ll share 3 ways to optimize your inbox in 20 minutes.

The idea for this optimization is so you can spend your limited time on emails that matter - The ones from clients and potential customers - and leave the rest to manage when you have more time.

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1. Create folders (5 minutes)

Create 4 folders to sit at the top of your inbox folders list.

You’ll need to number them to put them at the top of your folder list. In my case, I labeled them with zeros and Gmail automatically puts them in alphabetical order.

optimize inbox in 20 minutes a day
  • Process Now - For emails that don't require a response but end up as a task
  • Respond Now - For emails that need you to respond to someone ASAP
  • Read Later - Emails you find valuable but aren't ready to read yet
  • Unsubscribe - All the emails you want to unsubscribe from

2. Process emails from your inbox into these folders (10 minutes)

Don’t over think this one or else it will take you more than 10 minutes.

No opening emails!

Instead of opening and answering your emails top to bottom, the only thing you’ll be doing is separating all your emails into one of these folders. It takes very little time to look at the subject line, select, and place in the appropriate folder.

Once your inbox is cleared, you can decide if you have time to work on one of these folders. I’ll show you how to do that in a moment.

I usually work on Respond Now emails every day, at the end of the day (which takes only 20-30 minutes) and I manage the Process Now folder twice a week and leave the other folders for the weekend when I have more time to manage them.

If you have emails that aren’t straightforward as to which folder it should go in, be flexible. Here are some examples:

  • A new comment on your blog should go into your “Respond Now” folder
  • A shipping notice that you want to hold onto until you get your package would go into “Process Now” folder until you receive the package.
  • A webinar reminder from your favorite blogger - must go into your Calendar as a reminder (not an actual folder).

The idea here is not to read through and process your emails at this time. Right now you’re just putting them into the proper folder.

Stop wasting time inboxing. Use this technique to work on important emails at a time that's right for you.

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3. Create a schedule (5 minutes)

Now that your inbox is clear, set up a daily and weekly email schedule that you’ll stick to.

This can be done in Google Calendar, Asana, or Focuster (aff).

I highly suggest you manage emails at the end of your work day.

Trust me, managing emails first thing in the morning will distract you from your most important task and will drain your energy.

Working on client projects when you’re fresh and awake makes the job not only more enjoyable, but you’ll be more productive. Imagine how you'd feel working on the client project after being bogged down by reading emails all morning – no Bueno.

Here is what my email focus sessions looks like:

  • Daily: 5 minutes after my best work is complete, I separate my newest emails into their respective folders - I don't open any of them. 
  • Daily: 20 minutes at the end of my day, I work through the "Respond Now" folder only.
  • Wednesday & Friday: I spend 20-30 minutes managing emails from the "Process Now" folder.
  • Saturday or Sunday: I focus 1 hour managing emails in the "Unsubscribe" and "Read Later" folder.

Most of the time it doesn't take me that long to process these emails so I get extra time or finish my day early.

If your email is full of subscriptions you no longer want, optimizing your email this way and setting focus sessions will help you whittle away unwanted emails from entering your inbox. Eventually, you’ll have a clean inbox filled with only the most important emails.

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What email system are you using?

There you have it, 3 steps to optimize your inbox in 20 minutes. And you can manage your email in about 20 minutes each day with your folders organized like this.

This method works because you stay focused on responding to one kind of email at a time:

  • Things that need a response
  • Things that require you to do something
  • Things that need a leisurely read

I’ve been trying this method for over a month, and I’m happy with the results.

I time block my email sessions to make sure I don’t spend too much time inboxing. This gives me more time to work on projects that bring value to my business.

While this method has worked for me, it may not work for everybody. If you have a different way of managing your emails, I’m all ears!

What email system are you using to get to a more managed inbox?

Bonus Section

Free tools that can help you manage your inbox better.

I’ve tried Unroll, Sortd, and Inbox before and ended up going back to the simple folder technique I just talked about (except I’m still using Google Inbox on mobile). These free tools are worth the try if it means you get back some of your time.

Unroll.me - This one recently got bad press, but I had no problems using it to manage my subscriptions.

Sortd - A really fantastic browser extension that displays your emails in a more holistic pattern.

FollowUpThen - Schedule email reminders right from your inbox

The Email Game - Turn managing your inbox into a timed game.

Google Inbox - A refreshing way to manage your email but I like to use the mobile version.


Hey there! In 2018, I paid off about $65,000 of debt after finally getting serious about it. That led me to becoming a freelance personal finance writer. Here on my blog I like to write about managing money and solo-business topics. Hire me to write informative content for your blog on topics of personal finance and small business. let's work together!