Email overload: here are 6 approaches I’ve found useful for managing my inbox

Information overload image by James Marvin Phelps

Information overload image by James Marvin Phelps

It’s nothing new to say that email overload is one of the biggest problems we face in trying to organise our time. But let’s be more specific: there are, it seems to me, two core problems caused by email: firstly, reaching the end of a day and realising you’ve done nothing but respond to emails; and secondly, finding you are never relaxing because you are getting emails or email notifications on your phone.

I’ve tried various approaches to email management — and there is a whole literature of tips and guidance on the subject. Here are some of the techniques I’ve found work for me in solving the problems above (note: they may not work for everyone).

Email tip 1. Create filters to do some email management for you

I use email filters extensively to help prioritise emails before I even look at them. Here are some examples:

  • Filter by email domains to prioritise internal or external email: at Birmingham City University, for example, students have emails with the student.bcu.ac.uk domain, so I have a filter put those in a ‘highest priority’ folder.
  • Filter by recipient to prioritise emails that aren’t ccd. So much email clutter is messages that you are ccd in — if it’s not been sent to you specifically then it’s probably not a priority for you. Bccd messages are even lower priority.
  • Filter by sender to put mailing lists and ‘category’ material in relevant folders. You might also have individuals who are particularly high-priority. This one has to be done on a case-by-case basis.
  • Use email aliases for different purposes, then set up filters depending on which address an email has been sent to: one useful Gmail tip is that you can get multiple email addresses out of one by using either gmail.com or googlemail.com and using periods (full stops) in different places. I use the googlemail.com version of my email to subscribe to mailing lists (which are filtered accordingly), and put a period in different places if I want to create other aliases.
  • Combine the above: direct emails to me (not ccd) from people in my team, for example.

At the end of this process you shouldn’t have a single inbox: rather, you should have a handful of pre-prioritised inboxes, numbered accordingly, which can be checked in turn. For example, it might be ’01_keypeople’; ’02_directtome’; ’03_outsidemyorg’; ’04_ccd’; ’05_bccd’; ’06_mailinglists’; etc.

Email tip 2. Have one or two set times of the day for checking emails

This is a tip which recurs throughout email management literature. If you respond to email notifications on an ad hoc basis and repeatedly check to see ‘if you’ve had email’ it can be easy for your day to slip away. You are effectively delegating control over your time to email, which can lead to feeling frustrated and out of control.

So take control: set one or two times to check email — think about the times when you are least effective at other tasks and when it is less likely to interfere with other work. I check email on my morning commute (when it’s the most efficient use of time), and early afternoon (when I’m most sluggish), for example.

Email tip 3. Take one of 3 actions: respond, archive/delete, file for action

This is one thing I took from the Getting Things Done (GTD) time management approach: when checking emails you should take one of 3 actions:

  1. If the email needs a response which will take less than a minute or two, respond
  2. If the email can be deleted, delete it — if it just needs filing, archive it.
  3. Those emails that are left — they need an action which will take longer than a couple of minutes, or are waiting for something else to action — put to one side for action or follow-up (you might have a folder for each).

I have an important caveat to this: remember that responding to any email will generate more email. This is why it is so important to only check your email once or twice a day.

Once you’ve been through your emails taking these actions, you should be left with those that need some sort of action or follow-up. At this point you can turn your attention to the emails that can be actioned right now — but for those which need to wait…

Email tip 4. Don’t use email as a to-do list

I’m terrible for leaving emails in folders because it represents a ‘job’ I still need to do.  Email is a poor task management tool, so it helps to have a separate to-do list and instead keep your email clear.

I use Trello to create and manage to-do lists instead.

Email tip 5. Accept that inbox zero is an unnatural state

One email management technique I don’t subscribe to is Inbox Zero: this is an approach whereby you end the day with an empty inbox and I think it has some major drawbacks. The first is that it perpetuates a core problem of email identified above: it puts email in control, not you (there is no limit to the time that can be spent on email).

Secondly, it can exacerbate the problem: replies to emails lead to more emails. There is never an end.

But most of all, any positive feeling in having an empty inbox is short-lived, and the broader psychological impact is instead a feeling of dissatisfaction as the inbox inevitably fills up again.

For that reason, I think it’s important to accept that your inbox will never be empty and this is a natural fact of life, not something to be solved or fixed.

Email tip 6. Accept that your techniques won’t always work (unless you’re very good)

Every email filing technique that I’ve used has stopped working after about 6 months. Inevitably, any low-priority folders start to go unchecked and I have to reinvent the system all over. That’s fine.

Sometimes there will be days when email management has gone so astray that you need to spend the whole day ploughing through and sorting out the mess. That’s also fine, and actually quite a productive day in its own right.

Do you have any other email management tips? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @paulbradshaw

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