several bundles of envelopes held together with rubberbands on a white background

managing information, the email inbox

How do I manage all the data and information that crosses in front of me every day? Honestly, some days are better than others. This post will explore how I keep my email inbox from becoming overwhelming.

Overview of my email setup

I juggle 4 active email addresses and prefer to use a unified/integrated inbox. Yes, that means that it’s possible I’ll see a personal email next to a business one. That’s my preference – work and life don’t exist in silos. While I keep separate accounts, this is how my life is.

While “inbox zero” is an ideal (and one I once followed), it’s not one I think is beneficial because it’s both impossible to keep for more than a moment and doesn’t fit how I work. A tidy desk is, however, more critical to my work well-belling. I use my email inbox as the folder where I store messages I need to act on. Is this against what some of the gurus suggest? Yes.

What do I believe? You do you. However, we’re all curious how others work. This is my method:

I create rules (also known as filters) to keep what appears in my inbox to a manageable level. Then I process it throughout the day and act or schedule as needed.

Two other items of note: first, my email application only checks for new messages every 30 minutes. If I’m waiting for a response, yes, I actively refresh the inbox. Second, I do not have notifications on my tablet or computer that alert me to new mail. I always have new email. Notifications create clutter and distraction. By contrast, I do allow notifications on my phone, since it is useful to know about new emails if I’m not at my desk.

Processing the inbox

First, I open my to-do list. Then, I’ll skim the senders and subject lines of unread messages and act based on that. Here’s a tip, “urgent” is not way to grab my attention. Descriptive subjects help me evaluate each email.

By looking at messages every few hours throughout the workday, I’ve found I then only need to deal with a handful of new messages at a time. This helps keeps everything manageable without overwhelming.

The first messages I respond to anything that only needs me to read it and send a quick response — these sorts of messages are confirmations of meeting times or approval of part of a project. If necessary, I update my calendar or client notes.

Next, I go through the other emails. I’ll read and decide if I can deal with the request right then or if some research is needed first. If it needs more time and I am unable to deal with it soon, I’ll send a response that confirms I received the email, that I need some time, and when I expect the reply will be sent.

The filters often break due to changes of different variables and despite efforts, my inbox can get cluttered with extra emails. Every so often, after I notice that certain messages are slipping back into my inbox, I’ll rewrite those rules.

Processing other folders

Some of my other email folders include the security cameras on my house, software update alerts, package/mail tracking emails, and various newsletters.

I schedule different times throughout the week to go through these folders. I have folders for the types of newsletters — news organizations, client/friends’ businesses, general ecommerce, authors & publishers, etc. These have different reading frequency. I like to read the newsletters from news organizations with my morning coffee, while it’s different from holding the paper in my hands I’m less likely to have newsprint on my face at the end. Other folders have more variable schedules, often I’ll work through a few while I’m cooking dinner or watching TV at night.

The general ecommerce one (I’ve named it clutter) can easily became overwhelming. Some send daily emails — depending on why I subscribed in the first place, I try first to switch to a less frequent schedule or unsubscribe.

3 takeaway tips

  1. Take it in steps. It’s not practical to try to get through all of it at once. Try setting a goal of “5 minutes or 10 messages”.
  2. Filter, sort, search. This helps you control what messages you see at one time. Maybe you want to review different books that NYPL recommended over the past week, create a search, then read them all together.
  3. Accept there will always be more email.

Is this a perfect system? No! Does it work for me? Yes, most of the time. By sharing my method, I hope you’ll feel less alone and that my story and tips can help you learn to form a healthy relationship with email.

If you’d like to have a sounding board as to what changes you need to make to better manage your email — both in how you manage your inbox and how you manage your habits, please feel free to reach out and schedule a consultation.

several bundles of envelopes held together with rubberbands on a white background

Full disclosure: Today (2021-11-12) as I’m polishing this post for publication, my inbox is at 217. The average (since January) is 129.

This post was first published in 2011 and was rewritten for 2021.