Conquering my email, one step at a time

Categories: Balancing Act, Career Talk


If you have total control over your email and it doesn’t stress you out, please stop reading now. For the rest of you, fellow overwhelmed-by-email readers, this will sound familiar:

I am in a constant struggle with my email.

There is too much of it. I feel overwhelmed by it most of the time, and just barely in control of it on the best days. I spend too much of my day answering and reading email and while I know it’s something that I have to do — for work and for life — it’s not something that makes me feel good or productive enough.

Over the years I’ve tried to develop email habits that will help me tame the animal. Here are a few of them:

  • Don’t check email first thing in the morning. This is my favorite one. When I manage to stick to it, I am more productive, my day goes better, and I am much more focused.
  • Check email at set times throughout the day. My worst email days are those when I leave my inbox open throughout the day. Then I can’t avoid the temptation of checking new mail when I see I have some and it just completely kills my productivity.
  • Have a process for going through your inbox. The first thing I do is clear out spam or the too-numerous emails from the various places I’ve shopped online. My second step is to skim through content emails - those that I would just read, like newsletters from sites I’m interested in - to see if I want to read any of them. I delete all others and leave the few to read later. (I leave them in my inbox while I’ve also seen advice to put them in a separate Read folder). Third, I go through and reply to emails that require a quick response. I leave emails that require more work for later and try to have one dedicated time a day when I respond to them.
  • Take an email hiatus. I’ve only done this once, when I went on vacation for 5 days and literally didn’t check my email once. I had an outgoing message on my personal email as well as my work email to let people know and I set my own expectations accordingly. I literally made myself take a mental email break and it was awesome. A friend of mine has taken a hiatus like this before but went a step further. His auto-reply to anyone who sent him email during it was to let them know that he would be deleting all email for a week of his hiatus. If it was important, he asked people to resend it. He said it worked amazingly well.

Few other recent pieces of advice around email that I’ve read and found useful are from Zen Habits and Boston Mamas.

Do you struggle with email? What are your favorite ways of taming the email monster?

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3 comments so far...

  • I still struggle with email but gmail Priority inbox (cutomizable too!) and filters help a lot. The priority inbox allows you to see what’s important first.

    Filters are great for promotional emails from stores I have shopped at (they go straight to a special tag-folder and I only check it when I want to shop), for emails that announce cultural events (similarly has a dedicated tag), or for stuff I may want to read (e.g. newsletters). I find this saves you a lot of time.

    Ioana  |  April 30th, 2012 at 1:38 pm

  • I’ve just finished a book called “Take Back Your Life” — a little dramatic with the title, perhaps? — but it had GREAT strategies for zero-Inbox working. I schedule 1 hour every morning to process and organize emails, and I use a folder system to file them. If they are action-items, I create a Task and attach the email to it, for reference.

    And like you, I only check emails at specified times of day (or… that is the goal… I’m still getting used to it).

    This is only my work email; my personal email is still a huge mess, I have to admit! Baby steps.

    el-e-e  |  May 2nd, 2012 at 10:19 am

  • Emails are a BIG time waster but essential for communication. Batching emails works for me to conquering my inbox!

    Beau  |  May 18th, 2012 at 1:06 pm