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How To Take Control of Your Overflowing Email Inbox

Dear Justin,

I’m buried in email and I can’t seem to get it under control. Emails mean calendar requests, and calendar requests mean meetings. And meetings mean less time to respond to email. It’s a vicious cycle. If I’m lucky, I scan my inbox every few hours, looking for big issues. But here’s the kicker: the “big issues” weren’t big when they first hit my inbox. Last week I missed an email from a client. I didn’t miss their second email, though, the one where they vented all their frustration. But it’s not my fault, right? What am I supposed to do? The amount of email I get is insane!

Drowning in Emails

Dear Drowning,

This is one of the most common issues I hear from people. They want to get real work done but feel like email is a relentless nemesis that keeps them from their goals. And because of this, most people don’t like email—some people really detest it. I’m not sure I’ll convince you to love it, but here are some thoughts that will help you see that getting your email habits under control is the key to accessing a lot of things you DO love, like fewer meetings, more time for meaningful work, and less input fatigue.

Here are a few reasons why you should care about email, even though it can be frustrating:

  1. “Email response time is the single best predictor of whether employees are satisfied with their boss, according to research by Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist who is now a principal researcher for Microsoft Research. The longer it takes for a boss to respond to their e-mails, the less satisfied people are with their leader.”1
  2. Sometimes you have to process emails to get to the real work. Let’s face it, a lot of assignments and tasks come through email. Which means you have to read the email, decipher the action you need to take, and make a plan to take that action. Emails don’t generally come packaged nicely with a clear action and date for when that action is due. Like the late Peter Drucker said, “Defining your work is your work.” If you don’t take some time each day to process email, you’ll end up with piles of unclear inputs that are hard to prioritize.
  3. If you don’t respond to emails, people will try to get your attention in other ways. The most common is to schedule meetings. So if want to free up your calendar a bit, try unclogging your email backlog.

Quick tips to improve the way you deal with your inbox:

  1. Don’t do work when you’re processing email. The key to having enough time to (1) process email, (2) complete meaningful work, and (3) respond to surprises is to never do all three at once. When you do all three at the same time, you’ll never do any of them very well. You’ll waste time and burn a ton of energy. So when you’re in “email processing mode” don’t do any work. Set aside two to three segments during the day of 30–60 minutes to only do email processing. After a few days, you won’t need as much time because your backlog will start to disappear. This should be a time to read each email, decide what it means to you and then park the results of that thinking in the best place (a list, a calendar, delegate, trash, etc.) I love what David Allen says, “Decision-making when things show up instead of when they blow up is actually a habit that can be developed and enhanced. The trick is to get used to the clean feeling of having decided, instead of sitting on a fence.”
  2. Take the unsubscribe challenge. Take ten minutes each day for the next five days and unsubscribe from all unwanted emails that are sitting in your backlog. If you get fewer emails, you’ll have less to process. Don’t underestimate how many unwanted emails you get each week.
  3. Stop volunteering for things you don’t have time for. This might be the biggest tip of all. Often you and I have more to do than we can do because we care too much. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s not a bad thing to care, but the more you and I take interest in things, the more we commit ourselves. Just be aware of what you “care” about so you can give the right attention to the most important cares in your life.

Try just one of these and I’m confident you’ll make a dent in your email inbox. If you’d like to learn more, check out our recent webcast, “Three Email Practices of Highly Productive Teams.”

Best of Luck,

1Pink, Daniel H. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2019.

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Getting Things Done

4 thoughts on “How To Take Control of Your Overflowing Email Inbox”

  1. Greg Vasquez

    Another way to manage e-mail is to use technology to filter it. For example, filters can be used to flag e-mail from people who are known to send important information, and key words can be flagged too, so you can prioritize incoming e-mail. Additionally, clients can be given an alias e-mail, so their messages can be segregated and identified for prioritization. Your IT support can help you sift through the noise.

    I hope this is helpful.

    1. Lauren

      I also use filtering for UNimportant e-mails. If I don’t want to unsubscribe, I’ll automatically mark them as “read” (in the past tense, not as a to-do) and filter them into a separate box like “Newsletters” or “Marketing.” I never even look at most of them, but if I do happen to need something from a particular agency, I know where to find it.

  2. Joy

    I set due dates for my emails according to priority. In outlook, you can make a setting that shows your flagged due date in your in-box messages and list them chronologically. This way, you can view your emails daily and see what is also due that day. You can set these deadlines according to the contents of the email (meetings, to do , etc) or just set your own deadlines to make sure you don’t forget about them. For example, all my low priorities are set for the slowest day of my week (Friday) so I can clean my in-box up with misc emails that need to be .

  3. Hutch

    Hi, Simliar to Lauren, I set a rule to move all email that has the word “unsubscribe” within it to a separate folder. Though not perfect it has been helpful.

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