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How to Handle Inbox Craziness

Dear David,

I’ve heard of people who get their inbox to zero. That seems crazy to me. I can’t imagine that ever being a reality for me. I have a huge backlog of over 500 emails and each day I get at least 50-100 new ones. How can having zero emails be realistic in this age of digital, fast-paced communication?

Overloaded with Input

Dear Overloaded,

Do you empty your garbage or physical mailbox at home? Why? Is doing so crazy? No, you empty those buckets so they don’t back up and become a burden or problem.

What’s the difference between your garbage can or mailbox and email? Volume—and the capacity of your computer to store an almost infinite amount of volume. If your physical mailbox was as big as a swimming pool, you’d be prone to keep a swimming-pool’s volume of mail in there. If your garbage bin was equally as big, you might let an equally large amount of garbage pile up before you did anything about it. And that’s the challenge: your email inbox can hold more mail than several swimming pools combined!

Perhaps the garbage bin analogy doesn’t work because stuff that goes in the garbage bin has already been clarified as “garbage.” Hence, there’s no sorting to do (unless you recycle glass, aluminum, paper, plastic, etc.). So, let’s stick with the mailbox analogy. On any given day, you might receive in your mailbox bills to pay, an invitation to a wedding, a book you ordered, a brochure about the upcoming symphony season, some junk mail, and a handful of other communications. After receiving your mail, I presume you then sort it and determine what actions you’ll take next—pay a bill, RSVP, buy tickets, mark your calendar, or throw away and disregard junk.

Your email inbox works like your physical mailbox and contains a similar variety of inputs—inputs you need to discard, organize for later reference, respond to, and so forth.

With this in mind, there are three (or four) things you can do to transcend your dilemma:

  • Decide whether or not you should be receiving the emails that you do. If not, get them off the list. Ask yourself: Does this communication relate to my job? Is the information useful? Mark senders as spam if necessary. Unsubscribe. Create rules in your email app to sort and discard messages based on sender or subject and so forth. This will reduce the number of unimportant but attention-sapping inputs you might be receiving.
  • Clarify what each email message means to you and organize them. Delete messages that no longer need your attention, create folders based on next actions or context, and file messages accordingly. Set aside blocks of time where you respond to and organize email messages rather than reacting to each as they arrive. Turn off notifications so you aren’t constantly interrupted. Again, this is where making use of the features of your email tool can go a long way. Not sure how to leverage the features of your email app? Perhaps that’s your next action: Watch a YouTube video on how to create email folders and rules and sort incoming messages.
  • Stop avoiding steps 1 and 2 above. Complete step 1 today and then consistently apply step 2. It may sound time-consuming to effectively set up your email app and tedious to think about and organize each message so deliberately, but it’s in better thinking about your work that you can more efficiently complete it. Are you so busy hacking away at email that you can’t dedicate a couple hours to improving your process—which could save you several hours a week? If you allow yourself to become so preoccupied with driving that you forgo stopping for gas, well, you’re bound to stall and get stuck.
  • If you’re not willing to do the above, it might be time to forget about email and find a cave in which to meditate on the meaning of life.

Your volume of email is an issue because each message contains potentially relevant information. Until you come to grips with this and organize each message appropriately, you will be at the mercy of your inbox instead of appreciating and leveraging the opportunities contained therein. Getting your inbox to zero isn’t crazy. What’s crazy is the method that most people employ in managing email. Think about your problem rather than of it and clarify the next steps you must take to solve it. The steps I’ve outlined above should help you tackle your email problem.

All the best,

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7 thoughts on “How to Handle Inbox Craziness”

  1. Jeff Grigg

    And when all else fails, make a new “in box” folder, and move everything into that folder.

    “But I might lose track of something important!” you might object. Well, you probably already have. And having a mound of messages in your inbox is not going to help you find that needle in the haystack, is it?

    I figure that if it’s really important, the other person will ask or tell me again.


    I use a whole “mountain” of folders, and a great many rules to automatically shuttle most messages by priority. Once or twice a day, I skim through the folders holding cataloged unread messages to pick out the few that I should do something about. And I move them to prioritized “action” folders and/or topic-based subfolders.

    To be most productive, ignore email as it arrives, and work it in batches.

  2. Alan Janak

    Great e-mail advice! One other thing that works for me is having two–and only two–email accounts: One for work, and one personal. You can then apply the same rules to each as listed above (unsubscribe spams, etc.). So you probably check work email every workday, and just have to remember to check personal daily to. Good Luck!

  3. Allison Conrad

    My inbox is basically emptied out each day which gives me is a huge satisfier for me. I make good use of adding a flag for reminders or creating descriptors in the category key and using those if working on a team project and need to keep related emails together until the project, invoice, communication string whatever it is you need to keep in front of you and track is done. I also love creating standard responses in my Signatures for answering emails that call for the exact same response. It saves so much time to just insert the standard Signature response instead of retyping it each time.

  4. T Sykora

    Good suggestions. I also color code my emails so if it’s to me directly vs. a group or if it’s from my boss it shows up in a different color so I know it needs more immediate attention. I also file my email by month and year so I don’t spend too much time filing. When I need to search for something I usually can remember which month I received it and can quickly find it.

  5. Sandra S.

    I think it’s much more important to find ways to flag “action required” emails and to file some emails into meaningful folders than it is to focus on clearing out one’s inbox. Yes, one should unsubscribe to emails that aren’t useful and yes, one should set up rules to automatically file emails with just “nice to know” info (like newsletters you subscribe to, etc.). But I don’t think it’s worth stressing over having a “clean” inbox, especially if you already have thousands of emails in there, nor is it always worth going through and filing everything.

    However, I do recommend filing things that neatly fit into a category…for example, I run a SIG at work and I put everything related to that SIG into one folder, but I don’t worry about filing away every email “conversation” I have.

    Also, if you need to find an email, you can always sort by one of the column headers or use the Search feature.

    Inbox Zero is just another guilt trap for many folks….in the end, is it really that important? The important question is whether what you’re currently doing works for you…if you’re not having a problem noticing important emails that come in (another vote for color-coding emails from certain senders, like your boss!) and you’re not having a problem finding emails when you need them later, then I think that’s all that matters.

  6. Jess T.

    David, you offered some really sound insights to a problem that plagues so many of us out here. I’d tried many methods to master email overload and they fell short. Michael Linenberger’s Total Workday Control is an easy to understand and apply methodology. And yes, I am able to accomplish zero emails in my inbox at the end of most workdays!

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