Strategies for dealing with forever-overwhelming email

July 6, 2011

Does anyone else constantly feel stressed by an always-overflowing inbox?

I can deal with my bedroom looking like a bomb went off, with clothes strewn across the floor. I can deal with dirty dishes and papers cluttering my desk. But if my digital life is not in complete and perfect order, I can’t think straight.

Which means I spend a lot of time trying to keep my inbox clean. Respond and delete. Label and file away. Respond and delete. Label and file away. My goal is always to be able to see all the messages in my inbox without scrolling down or clicking over to another page, and it feels like a never-ending battle.

Most of the emails we receive are “manufactured emergencies,” Tim Ferris writes in The 4-Hour Workweek. We’ve gotten in the habit of thinking that we have to take care of everything right away, which means putting off the important things we really want to get done.

Here are a few steps I take to keep my email at a manageable level:

  • Use labels obsessively. Labels are Gmail’s equivalent of folders. If there’s an email I don’t want to delete, but I don’t need it staring at me from my inbox, I add a label, which files it away. My entire life is filed away in about 20 labels.
  • Filter the non-essentials. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t use this feature until after finishing Ferris’ book and feeling compelled to make a change. Now emails with a dozen keywords file into a folder I call “not important,” and I check that whenever I get around to it. Examples of emails that bypass my inbox and go directly into that file: HARO queries, Groupon and Living Social offers, notes from listserves, sales offers from my two favorite stores.
  • Unsubscribe religiously. Rather than delete emails I don’t want, I take an extra few seconds to unsubscribe from those lists. Deleting is a short-term solution, but unsubscribing works in the long term.

But you know what? It’s not enough. Which is why I’m considering adopting one of these strategies:

  • Ferris suggests email “batching,” or directing your email client to deliver emails only at certain times of the day, say noon and 5 p.m. This means, of course, that I’d be letting little bad things happen so I could accomplish my priorities; I’d risk missing an urgent email, but I’d probably get a lot more done during the day. Ferris says he uses an auto-responder that tells people he won’t respond until those times.
  • Andrew Warner of Mixergy uses, responding to all emails with three sentences or less. Seems like an effective strategy if I could stick to it.

How do you keep email from taking over your life?

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    7 Replies to “Strategies for dealing with forever-overwhelming email”

    • Recent family trips, encouraged me to be more aggressive about managing my inbox. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve worked on unsubscribing to emails and changing delivery settings for google alerts, Facebook groups, etc. to eliminate a few. My key problem: checking emails in the morning. If I set a firm schedule for checking, I would probably accomplish more each day.

    • Lisa McKay says:

      I star it (use a variety of different coloured stars to denote different topics and levels of urgency). Then I don’t look at my starred list for ten days at a time. Then I have to write a public apology post on my blog (citing pregnancy brain as the main excuse) for being so slack that people have started to have to hassle me to get me to answer them. Not really my best strategy ever. I don’t recommend it. (PS, hope you’re going well).

    • Grace Boyle says:

      Great ideas! I have this weird thing where I have to get to Inbox 0. I manage a few emails, one for work and then my personal email. The personal email filters in blog requests, personal, family, etc.

      My system is far less formal, but I have TONS of labels that really help and I actually really like using the “Tasks” feature in Gmail. It lets me know those are the things I have to get to. The tasks just sit in the bottom corner and I know they’re staring me right in the face if I don’t get to them.

      Now, vacations and time away from the online world are hard to get through the email sift!

    • Peggy Frezon says:

      I need to keep working on this…it is a huge problem. In addition to my personal contacts, all my work for several different outlets is via email. I would hate to miss email from editors, agent, publicist, plus critique requests from a writer’s group. No, the world wouldn’t come to an end. But it does pile up to more than 100 every day. I like the idea of the filter, I’m going to try that. My only other suggestion is to make a decision and take action—save or delete— right when you read it, don’t save it to decide later. Sometimes I do this, and then I am wasting time reading the same thing twice.

    • Sarah Ketley says:

      I do the same thing,
      I have yahoo and i filter into folders

      that way everything from twitter gets delivered to the twitter folder
      all replied to MY blog go to the “precocious scribe” folder and all replies to OTHER peoples blogs to another and so on…

      Means i can check my important mail very easily without getting distracted by the junk and notifications and things.

      Great post


    • Torre says:

      I don’t do any email organsing whatsoever. All of my emails gather in the inbox of my Mac Mail program, dating back to 2005. I know this makes me sound like some sort of hoarder with 1,000 cats, but I’ve never had any problem finding the email I need. I go to the search at the top right and enter a keyword, which always directs me to the exact email I’m after. If I was to sort them into folders and delete the ones that seemed unimportant (apart from spam, of course), then I wouldn’t be able to call on this database at any time I need. While writing my book, I found myself referring back to old emails from/to family and friends, which essentially meant I had a complete day-to-day journal of events. Every piece of communication was in my giant, unsorted database, ready for calling on with a few simple keywords.

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