Do you struggle to keep on top of your inbox? Do you dread your first day back at work after a vacation? Is your inbox always full? If so, let me show you how to manage email overload at work and get you organised in just 21 days.
Twenty-one days is all it takes to get organised. Just 21 days to manage email overload. That’s how long it takes to form a habit.
On workdays, 53 percent of business users check e-mail six or more times a day, while 34 percent of users check e-mail constantly throughout the day. On average, business users spend 49 minutes per day managing e-mail accounts. – Gartner
Table of Contents
How to Manage Email Overload at Work
Email overload is frustrating. A full inbox is a distraction and will divert your attention from what is important if you don’t take charge and do something about it.
In this guide I show how to manage email overload. This method is proven and works. Try it for 21 days and see how it makes a difference every day.
Get Organised in 21 Days
This approach breaks with traditional ways to manage email. The goal is to effectively manage email as it comes into your inbox. And, to do this effectively, your inbox shouldn’t be cluttered.
Okay, let’s get started …
1. Can’t see the wood for the trees?
Although this step is really easy you may find it counter-intuitive. However, please stick with me as everything that follows builds on this preparatory step.
I have written How to Manage Email Overload for Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Outlook users since these are widely used at work.
However, the instructions that follow will help you get organised whatever email software you use.
First, let’s forget about all those nested folders you use to store email. They’re unnecessary and pretty useless when you want to find something quickly.
Instead, do this:
- Create an archive for the current year and create two folders:
- Now set-up a filter that copies every new message to
Copy Inboxand every sent message to
- Check that your filters are working. Google Mail users may skip this step: these folders correspond to
Finally, select every message in the
Inbox and copy them to
Copy Inbox. Do the same for your Sent items; copy them to
2. Last in, first out
The first thing we are going to do today to manage email overload is get more organised and take control of your inbox.
So, to begin please filter all messages by date received starting with the most recent at the top.
In 2010, the typical corporate user sends and receives 110 messages daily. – The Radicati Group
Next up we are going to get rid of a lot of messages quickly.
Depending on how comfortable you are with my suggestion, how many messages are in your inbox, and how much time you have I want you to do the following:
- Select every message that’s older than 1 week, 2 weeks or a month —
- you chose — and delete them. That’s right, don’t bother reading them, simply get rid. If there was something really important the sender would have been in touch already or you should have taken some action.
- Now, feel liberated since your inbox is a fraction of the size it was a few moments ago! Keeping a low number of messages in your inbox is the first step toward managing email overload.
- And, remember you still have a copy of every message received in your
Aim to have less than 300 messages — the fewer the better — remaining after taking this step. On average, that’s four day’s worth of mail.
3. Let’s get sorted
Today’s challenge to avoid email overload. So, I want you to clear out every email message received in the past 24 hours in just 45 minutes!
- To make this a less daunting task, first create a new folder in your
Inboxand call it
- Next move every message received in the past day to this folder. Switch to the
Actionfolder and filter by date received in ascending order.
Now you’re going to do one of the following with each message:
- delete it,
- deal with it — take action,
- delegate it, or
- defer it.*Based on The MPS Four D’s for Decision Making by Sally McGhee.
- Scan your messages by title, sender and recipient (a message may be sent to many people.) But don’t open any.
- Identify messages that aren’t relevant to your work, are from unknown senders (including spam), or of no interest to you. For example, a newsletter you don’t have time to read or a message from someone trying to sell something. Simply delete them!
- Similarly, delete all messages bar the most recent sharing the same subject; usually you can follow a thread using a single message.
- Get rid of those out-of-office messages. Delete them all.
Now you are left with a message list that needs closer attention.
- First, deal with meeting appointments.
- Next, open anything you’ve received where your name appears in the CC field. Typically, you’ve been sent the email for information only. Read it and delete it.
- Open the remaining messages, read them and decide what needs to be done. But don’t close the message. Either delete it, deal with it by replying (in less than a couple of minutes) or send it to someone else for action (delegate it.) If a more considered response is needed defer it.
Sometimes you can prepare a reply but you can’t send it because you’re missing some information. In these situations, prepare your reply and save the message in your
Drafts folder. Then write another message requesting the information you need. And, before you send it include yourself in the CC field (the reason for doing this will become clear later.)
If a message involves an action that can be done by someone else delegate it. Forward the original message, changing the subject to something meaningful to you, and write an email delegating the task — in less than two minutes. And, once again, before you send it, include yourself in the CC field. Now delete the original.
Sometimes it’s not possible to deal with an email in less than two minutes. For instance, a request to review a business case or an action to prepare a report for senior management.
To defer a message simply forward it to yourself (as an attachment so you can easily reply to the original message later) after first changing the subject to something meaningful and setting a due date (if needed.) Finally, delete the message.
Ta da! The
Action folder is now empty; don’t delete it though as it was created for a purpose. In a couple of days your
Inbox will also be clear.
For now, simply check new email and process it using the approach described above.
4. Make Life Easier
Today I want you to resist the urge to check your email throughout the day. Instead check it once in the morning (as described in Day 3) and again in the afternoon — without using the
Action folder this time.
Schedule some time to check and process your mail twice daily; time when you’re not likely to be interrupted. And work through your backlog. However, before you start, move all the messages you sent or CCed to yourself to the
Action folder. And for each message set a flag:
- High – High priority action,
- Medium – Medium priority action,
- Low – Low priority action, and
- Follow-Up – Follow-up (actions you delegated.)
Also, to make life a little easier I suggest you create some more filters: colour code all messages sent only to you in green and those where you only appear in the CC field grey.
Finally, create a filter that moves all messages sent to self straight to the
5. Clear the rest of your Inbox
Spend the last day of your working week clearing your inbox using the techniques described to get organised.
Enjoy the Weekend
Think how great it will be starting on a Monday morning with hardly any messages in your inbox. This is how to manage email overload and reclaim your inbox!
How to Manage Email Overload, part 2
How to Manage Email Overload: Get Organised in 21 Days continues in Part 2.
Creative Commons image courtesy Farid Iqbal.