You go to check your email and see 25, 50, or even hundreds of unread messages looking back at you. Your heart sinks as you think about how you’re going to get out from under this — and manage your work at the same time.
Nothing sabotages your productivity like an out-of-control inbox. That’s why we rounded up 15 tips that you can use for managing email overload, including techniques directly from authors and productivity experts. You’ll even spot some tricks for preventing email overload from happening in the first place.
So without further ado, here are 15 tips for you to take back your email inbox. Better productivity starts today!
Systems and Technology: Automation, RSS Readers, and More
1. Reduce your total number of email folders
How many folders and sub-folders do you use to store your emails? If that number’s too high, you might be chipping away at your overall effectiveness at work every time you make a decision about where to archive an email.
Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, warns that giving yourself too many options can create decision paralysis and decrease your overall satisfaction. And with the search abilities in your email program, do you really need separate folders for every single topic? (If you’re not persuaded yet, check out Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk.)
2. Get your news from an RSS reader
Instead of getting the news via email, set up a free RSS reader so you can see all of the headlines from your favorite blogs and news sources at a glance…and far away from your inbox. Don’t be scared off by the acronym “RSS” — RSS readers are simple to set up. Usually all you need is an account and the URLs of the sources you’d like to include. Popular RSS readers include Digg Reader and Feedly.
3. Automate your email follow-up
“Automate your follow up by setting up and using the ‘waiting for’ rule,” says Carson Tate, Author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style and founder of Working Simply.
“Here’s how it works: When you send an email where you need a response from the recipient, cc yourself on that email. That email will then be automatically saved in a folder you have designated for all of your follow-ups.”
“As new messages are automatically added to this folder, the numeral indicating how many messages are in the folder will become bold. No longer will you spend hours searching through sent messages or trying to remember if you have followed up on your open requests. Your email program will automatically remind you.”
4. Decrease the total number of newsletters you get…without missing out
With Unroll.Me, you can automatically identify all of the newsletters you subscribe to, unsubscribe from your least favorite ones, and then bundle the rest into a convenient daily digest (automatically organized into categories) called a Rollup. Now you can check out all of your newsletters in a single email each day.
As Josh Rosenwald, CEO of Unroll.Me, has said, “Like many people, we would often complain about how frustrating it is to communicate and connect via email. Our inboxes were overloaded with junk and we realized if we wanted the problem fixed, we needed to do it ourselves.”
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5. Lose the sign-off
How much time do you spend hesitating at the end of a message, debating between different sign-offs? Should you go with “Warm regards,” All the best,” or something more creative? According to a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek,, “You’re Ending Your Emails Wrong,” writers of emails now have permission to go ahead and simply…end the message. As Rebecca Greenfield, article author, declares in the accompanying video: “No signoff. Just end the email.”
6. Write emails that get faster responses
If you send emails at work that don’t get responses, you’re going to end up spending even more time in email — writing even more emails to follow up. In Fast Company’s “The (Not So Difficult) Trick to Get Your Emails Read,” Drake Baer illustrates the difference between an email that’s likely to get a response fast…and one that almost certainly won’t.
The key is to omit the thoughts and ideas that feel cathartic or comforting to include for the writer, but will bog down the recipient. If you’re fastest at composing in “comfort mode” with lots of background information, do that first — and then swoop back in and ruthlessly prune back to the essentials before sending.
7. Go ahead and BLUF
“Have everyone state the intended purpose or reason for the email up front. Don’t bluster on with a lot of details, then put your call to action for the readers at the end. If the BLUF is informational only, the readers can file that away for downtime later. If it requires action, they will focus on the message differently.”
Develop a New Email Mindset
8. Expert Email Tip: Get clear about your priorities
“Email becomes overwhelming when you’re not clear about your priorities.The more clear you are about what’s most important, the easier it becomes to manage email,” says Gayle Lantz, author of Take the Bull by the Horns and founder, WorkMatters, Inc.
“In a leadership role, this is especially important because you’re charged with helping others understand and stay focused on top priorities. You should be the driver of your activities at work each day, not your inbox. When you do this, you’ll be more proactive in managing your team and yourself. You’ll get better business results for your department and organization.”
9. Identify your email inbox style
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just take everything in your inbox and make it just…vanish? On the Redbooth blog, we shared step-by-step instructions for clearing everything out (and remembering to delegate in the process — maybe you don’t have to deal with all of those emails yourself).
On the other hand, if having lots of emails doesn’t bother you, you’re in good company as well. In The Atlantic’s “Inbox Zero vs. Inbox 5000: A Unified Theory,” Associate Editor Joe Pinsker digs into the research and confirms that while loose ends and unfiled emails drive some people bonkers, others don’t mind a bit.
10. Be brutal!
“The vast majority of email is transient, repetitive communication,” she says. “Be brutal.” When you go back to your email and find yourself hesitating, remember these words!
Choose the Right Tools for the Job
11. Get more control over the process
“Want a cleaner inbox, but don’t want to lose track of important messages?” asks the website for Boomerang. Well, yes!
Boomerang (designed for Gmail) effectively lets you send away distracting emails until later, when they’ll reappear. You can also reply to emails when you have time, whether that’s at 5pm on a Friday or 11pm mid-week. Once you have it installed, you don’t have to send the emails at that time (or think about them again) — just set them to send at times that you choose and schedule in advance.
Bonus: Boomerang also frees up mental space with its reminder feature.
12. Pick up the phone and make a call
“To RECEIVE less email, send less email. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, told me this at an event in New York City three years ago,” recalls Jason Womack, author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More and Founder of Get Momentum and The Jason Womack Company.
“More than 50% of the time we handle what needed attention, I file the email, and we move on to bigger and better things.”
13. Get out of email with a collaboration platform
At Redbooth, we’re passionate about helping teams to work more efficiently — and that means that including direct messaging, virtual workspaces, and much more into our collaboration software.
Redbooth’s VP of Marketing, Charles Studt, discovered that he had fewer emails to review over cereal and coffee in the morning soon after joining the company. In “How a VP of Marketing Got Out From Under the Crush of Email,” he describes what it was like to wake up to fewer emails — and how he got his breakfast back.
14. Know when face-to-face communication is necessary
In “5 Reasons Why Meeting Face to Face Is Best,” Craig Jarrow, author of Crush Your Procrastination: The Best of Productivity From Time Management Ninja, explains the benefits of being able to actually see the colleague you’re speaking with. The number-one reason: the ability to see (and read) body language, facial expressions, and even posture.
An unproductive email exchange can go back and forth for days without identifying the source of the underlying issue. When you can see a colleague react and respond in real time, you can skip the infinite emails and get right to the heart of the matter.
15. Change What Your Inbox Says About You
If you look at your inbox right now, what story does it tell?
What’s in your inbox right now? Do you have emails or do you have none? Do you know exactly what emails are there? More importantly, why are they still there? Are they there as a to-do list or for future reference? For your info? For follow-up? Or are they marked ‘I really need to answer this when I have time’?
During my work as a consultant I have seen many inboxes, of different managers, at different companies, in different countries, and on all organizational levels. I once said to a manager that if she showed me her inbox I could tell her what kind of manager she was. She didn’t believe me, so she challenged me to try. When I went through her inbox I noticed several things.
First of all, her inbox contained a lot of emails with requests for things that weren’t under her responsibility. Because of this, I could tell she was either a very nice person who found it difficult to say no, or that she lacked clarity about what her real job and job responsibilities were and how she could best contribute to the organization. Secondly, her filing system was arranged in a very detailed way, with about 300 folders in trees of four to five layers deep, many folders containing only one email. This told me that she found it difficult to make decisions. It also suggested that she probably wasn’t proactively looking for ways to prioritize her day, but rather reactively waiting for what her inbox would tell her to do.
That’s a lot of information from just looking at an inbox. And I wasn’t far off with my conclusions.
Now if you look at your inbox right now, what story does it tell? What kind of emails do you see? Personal, business, spam, newsletters, relevant, irrelevant? Or a mix of everything? And if you look at the time span between the oldest email in your inbox and today, is it days, weeks, months or years?
Are you in control of your day, or are you being controlled by the emails you receive? Are you empowering your team members, or do you micro-manage them by asking to be copied on everything? Are people around you clear about the things they should and shouldn’t contact you for?
Make your answers factual. Don’t feel bad about them. Face the reality. The only valid question at this point is: do you want to keep it this way?
And if you don’t like the story so far, I’ve got great news for you. It’s YOUR story! Not only you’re one of the main characters, but you’re also the author. You can rewrite the story and change the plot. So you can become a proactive business builder, rather than a reactive email fire fighter.
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