Inbox zero: 5 email hacks and keyboard shortcuts from an email expert

  • Professionals spend an average of 28% of their workday on emails, according to a McKinsey analysis, amounting to almost three hours every day.
  • The entrepreneur Rahul Vohra has spent most of his career trying to improve email and launched the email app Superhuman in 2014.
  • Vohra gave us his five tricks to get to inbox zero and boost productivity.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Professionals spend 28% of their working day reading and answering emails on average, according to a McKinsey analysis. For the average full-time worker in America, that amounts to 2.6 hours and 120 messages per day.

Rahul Vohra is the CEO and founder of Superhuman, a subscription email app that promises a faster, streamlined experience. Superhuman is popular in Silicon Valley, counting execs from firms such as Slack, Spotify, and Dropbox among its clients.

Vohra is a two-time founder in Silicon Valley and has been figuring out how to make email better since 2010, when he launched Rapportive, an earlier version of Superhuman that sold to LinkedIn in 2012. 

While working at LinkedIn, Vohra noticed many professionals didn’t read most emails to save time, he said. So in 2014, Vohra launched Superhuman, raising a total of $33 million in funding over four rounds. In 2019, the email software quadruped its business and hit $20 million in revenues, according to Forbes.

Read on to see Vohra’s five tips to boost email productivity and get to inbox zero.

Learn email keyboard shortcuts

It’s worth Googling for the most common email shortcuts for whichever software you use. Gmail and Outlook, for example, have pages dedicated to shortcuts. “You need to use an email client that has world-class keyboard shortcuts,” Vohra said. 

Free software won’t have a vast set of shortcuts, but most have ways to quickly star, archive, and delete emails.

For example, with Gmail, if you activate your keyboard shortcuts in its settings, you can press R to reply to an email and F to forward the email. You can also add copy recipients by pressing ⌘/ctrl + shift + C.

Use follow-up reminders

Instead of going through your inbox to follow-up on an email, check for a reminder or snooze icon in your email and use it — it can save a lot of time, Vohra said.

Most free services have the icon with multiple options, from “later today” to “pick a date and time”.

Don’t use email folders

People who use folders take more time to find emails compared with those who search and aren’t more accurate in finding what they want. Using folders wastes about 67 hours a year, according to an IBM Research study of 345 people. 

Keywords are more efficient and searchable than folders, Vohra said. Learning to rely on search can save over an hour per week, except when you need to link disparate emails that would otherwise be hard to find with any one search, he said.

When there’s a group of emails that a single search would not be able to find, then labeling or adding it to a folder such as “taxes” is useful, but it’s rare for the most part, Vohra said.

Archive instead of marking as ‘unread’

When an email is important, but you have no time to check it right away, don’t mark it as an “unread”; archive it instead, Vohra said. Because every time you go into your inbox to read it, you may have to mark it “unread,” wasting time.

So simply archive it and turn multiple actions into just one. While resisting to open emails continuously might require a mental shift, archiving email is a good start to save time. 

“Your unread count is pointless: It doesn’t matter how many things you have read or unread, the only important count is how many things are in your inbox,” Vohra said.

Get to inbox zero every day

Allow two or three hours at the end of the workday, or one in the morning and one in the evening, to check your emails and get the inbox to zero, especially if you are a manager, Vohra said. 

“If you jump on a problem immediately, it’s bad for two reasons: You’re not letting your team learn how to solve problems and flex their muscles, and you’re just wasting time because half of those problems could actually be solved by the team,” he said. 

“It’s crucial to get to inbox zero every single day … It’s a standard piece of advice I give to every founder,” Vohra said.

Skim reading and deciding not to read based on the subject line might also help you to get to inbox zero, he said. And avoid emails in which you aren’t included directly, like when your email address is part of a list or copied.

Focus on one task and close the email window

Look at emails once or twice per day to boost your productivity levels: It takes an average of about 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption, according to a research of the University of California, Irvine, which studied the behavior of 48 university students. 

“If I start my day with emails, and I get 10 unhappy emails from a customer or any kind of distraction, I’m now distracted for the rest of the day,” Vohra said.

Don’t leave the email window always open and focus on your daily tasks one by one: “Focusing on one thing is the key to getting anything done,” Vohra said. 

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