How to Manage a Never-Ending Flow of Email

How to Manage Your Email Inbox
Photo by @lira_n4 for Twenty20

For most of my professional career, I’ve felt on top of answering emails. However, in the past six months, the amount of emails I receive and must respond to has spiraled out of control. For the first time in my life, I am overwhelmed and exhausted by the constant arrival of emails. As more and more communication happens digitally versus the old-fashioned telephone call or in-person meeting, I can’t be alone in feeling like I’m drowning in emails. If you’re feeling a case of email fatigue as well, you’re in luck. I’ve decided to face this problem head on and tackle my intimidating inbox once and for all. I’ve scoured the web for the best tips on how to manage email—read on below.

Don’t keep your inbox open all day. Getting in the habit of quitting email when you’re determined to get actual work done is essential. Close the email application or the Gmail window. Give yourself a break from email and don’t feel guilty about not being constantly available.

Inbox zero is a myth. There will always be more emails coming in, so stop putting pressure on yourself to get your inbox down to zero unread.

Set up systems. A series of folders will keep emails more organized and make important threads easier to find. Arrange folders in alphabetical order and give them simple one-word titles like finances, health, travel, etc. When you’ve completed an email’s task, file it in the appropriate folder. For example, say you’ve booked a trip for six weeks down the line. Immediately file your airline confirmation in the travel folder. When it comes time to check in, you’ll be able to find the information quickly. Another way to organize a cluttered inbox is by creating folders with deadlines, so: today, this week, this month. File accordingly as to when something needs to get done. Whatever system you decide to go with, it’s crucial to stick with it. Maintaining is key!

Use email management apps. There are all sorts of apps to help people manage emails. The one I use the most is Unroll.me. It allows one to automatically unsubscribe from any emails. Each time I log into Unroll.me, I’m shocked by the new subscriptions that have been added to my account. There are so many that I didn’t sign up for.

Delete vacation emails. There is nothing worse than coming back from vacation to discover that your inbox is filled with hundreds of emails. According to some experts, you should delete or ignore these emails altogether. The majority of emails will likely address something that has already passed, so it’s a waste of time to read and delete each one. When you set your out of office reply, make it clear that you won’t be replying to any emails sent while you are away. If someone needs to get ahold of you, they will send a followup when you are back from your trip.

Write scripts. If you feel like you’re constantly writing the same emails over and over again, create a script that you can copy and paste into the email. People regularly ask for my mailing address, so I have a template email set up with my address ready to go. Likewise, I’m invited to a lot of events and several times a day have to RSVP. I have two scripts—one that says, “Yes, I would love to come!” and another that says, “Unfortunately, I am unable to attend.”—that easily facilitate responding to these emails.

Send fewer emails. The fewer emails that you send, the fewer replies you’ll have to deal with. Make an effort to call or text someone if it’s urgent instead of firing off emails.

Set aside time to answer emails. Only focus on responding to yesterday’s emails. Ignore new emails. Reply as quickly and concisely as possible. This is a technique known as Yesterbox, which was popularized by the founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh.

Don’t be afraid to delete things. You don’t need to hold onto every email. Delete unnecessary chains and threads immediately after reading them.

Cut yourself some slack. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t immediately reply to an email. Remember there is more to life than your inbox.

How do you manage your inbox?