Overwhelmed by Email? Try a New Approach

Every day millions of people wage war with their email inbox. The average email account gets 47 emails per day, while this number increases to 108 when considering business accounts. Dealing with that much communication can quickly devour a typical 8-hour workday. We accept this as a necessary evil because email is still one of the best ways to send and receive information. Surely, however, there is something that can be done to keep email from ruining your life.

Overwhelmed by email?

As a web professional for over 18 years, I developed an email management strategy that works very well for me. It allows me to deal with messages from countless clients on top of the electronic communication from my primary job. I’d like to share some of the techniques and tools I use to keep the mountain of email at bay. Knowing that everyone works differently, I’ve also added some great tips from power users and efficiency experts to give you different perspectives.

“Take action. When I open an email, I make a quick decision: delete/archive, act now (if it takes a minute or two) and then reply/archive, send a quick reply (and then archive), add to my todo list to do later (and star and then archive). In none of those cases is the email left sitting in the inbox.”

- Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Manage your inbox

Your inbox is the epicenter of your email’s stranglehold on your time. Establishing efficient and sustainable inbox management practices can go a long way to freeing up your time and reducing your stress. I have a pretty simple method of dealing with my inbox that can be broken down into a few short rules.

  • Answer simple requests immediately
    I check my email at regular intervals throughout the entire day using both my laptop and my phone When I see a new message come in, I quickly scan it. If it is unimportant or uninteresting, I delete it. If the email requires a response, I immediately respond if it takes me less than a few minutes.
  • Flag things for later and use that as a todo list
    If a message requires a longer response or some other action, I mark it and then go back to my other tasks. This list of flagged messages becomes a todo list for me. By periodically scheduling time to go over these emails, nothing ever falls through the cracks.
  • Consider Inbox Zero
    My method is essentially a lightweight version of the Inbox Zero strategy. This New Yorker article describes some of the history and benefits that Inbox Zero can provide. I subscribe to a more “zero unread messages” philosophy as I like seeing the list of read messages in my inbox, but I still recommend exploring Inbox Zero to see if it is a good fit for you.

Note: Many efficiency experts, like Tim Ferris of The 4-hour Workweek fame, preach that is better to only check email once or twice a day. That method did not work for me as it left too many messages to handle at once, but it is worth trying to see if it could be a good solution for you.

“When I worked at a much larger company, managing 175 people, I never responded to emails sent to a group of people. I only responded to emails sent just to me, and then only to a question, never to an update.”

- Stephen Belomy, Jimdo U.S. CEO

Pick your battles

Inbox management techniques can do wonders for eliminating day-to-day email stress, but there are times lately when I’ve still been overwhelmed like when I got back from a recent vacation. At that time I decided to implement some new strategies that you might find useful.

  • Unsubscribe from everything
    I use the internet for everything from shopping to dating, and consequently receive a ton of newsletters and promotions. Realizing that I rarely act on any of these communications, I made a decision to start unsubscribing from everything that I wasn’t regularly reading. Tools like Unroll.me can plug directly into most email services and take care of this for you.
  • Send less email
    If you try all these things and are still overwhelmed, simply try to write fewer emails. This is the top tip from LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner. Decide if you really need to send that email or not. Remember that everything you send out has the potential to come back to you in a much greater quantity.

“I use my smartphone much more. (This is the “half” tactic.) While most of the published advice I’ve read on managing email urged me to avoid relying on my phone, I’ve found that it helps me craft quicker responses that get right to the point (in case you haven’t noticed already, I have a tendency towards the verbose). And since it says “sent from my phone” in the signature, people aren’t as likely to be offended by brevity.”

- Sarah Green, Harvard Business Review

Use Gmail… really

A new tool can really help you turn the tide in your fight with email. Making the switch to Gmail in 2007 was the catalyst for finally making email work for me instead of the other way around. I can honestly not recommend this service enough.

Gmail

There are several things that make it great in my opinion:

  • Fast, free, and easy
    Gmail is a rock. I never have problems with their service and it is so easy to use that I was able to switch my technophobic mother to it a few years ago. There are ads on the sidebar of the browser version, but they are not intrusive at all and I am able to completely ignore them.
  • Threaded email chains
    Gmail was the first email system to combine your back-and-forth messages into a “conversation” thread. This instantly made my inbox much easier to sift through as a conversation with 20 responses suddenly only took one line rather than 20.
  • Amazingly powerful search
    I have dramatically cut back on my own folders and labeling because the search on Gmail is so good and fast. I just need to remember a single word from any message that I’m searching for and I can find it in no time.
  • Filtering and labeling
    When I do need to sort messages, I normally have Gmail do this for me automatically. I get a lot of email that I just need for future reference. I simply create a filter that marks the message as read, assigns it to a particular label, and archives it so I don’t have to see it in my inbox.
  • Best-in-class spam filtering
    Gmail handles spam more efficiently than any other system I have tested. My personal gmail account has automatically marked about 50 messages as spam and hid them from me within the last hour. I have over 8,000 messages in my spam folder from the last 30 days. Most importantly, I did not have one message get incorrectly marked as spam within that timeframe.

Note: I’m very particular with my email and make sure that I always view Gmail in the browser using the “compact” view and I disable the newer multiple inbox tabs and the auto-generated “important” flags.

Conclusion

Email management is a very personal subject as everyone works very differently. I found something that works for me but completely understand that many of these strategies may not work for you. Hopefully everyone can find at least one or two tips from this post that can help email from ruining your life.

Please share your best email management strategies in our comments or send them to us on Twitter!

 

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Brent Gummow

Multi-talento at Jimdo
Brent Gummow has been building websites for small businesses, non-profits, artists, and educators for the past 17 years in both Ohio and California.

He currently serves as the Multi-talento in Jimdo's San Francisco office, solving problems, educating users, and helping to grow awareness about Jimdo, the easiest website builder on the web.
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