There are a million and one blogs, articles, and more that try to tell you how to not be consumed by your email and the perfect way to manage it. I find that trying to read all of that information can sometimes be as overwhelming as the overflowing email box I’m trying to address. All of these sources are trying to be helpful, but in the end, if you don’t try any of their suggestions it’s not working for you. So, instead of telling you what you should do, this blog post is going to tell you what I did that helped me overcome this issue and my experiences/struggles with it. I’m not perfect and do still have a hard time somedays, but overall, I’ve found that this works best for me. It’s my hopes that by sharing my experiences maybe I can help someone out.
I would like to start and by sharing that, although most people can get overwhelmed by things such as an overflowing inbox, that I have a disadvantage on top of these normal feelings. Although recently diagnosed, I’ve been dealing with ADD for my entire life. When I get to the point things get overwhelming I usually tune out and disappear. Which as we all know, certainly doesn’t help fix the situation. This in of itself has lead to some of the more difficult points I’ve had with addressing this issue.
How Email Began to Consume My Soul
Back in college, I used to have at least 4 or five email addresses, most of them barely received five emails a day ( not counting spam) and rarely did I have to check my email everyday. Of course, at that time I did. Most of them for fun projects, online gaming, college, “work”, or something else. I loved refreshing and constantly checking, and got a rush from feeling important. As I moved into working for Help Desks, started pursuing my career, signing up for online accounts and managing self-made projects, checking email became less and less fun. It reminded me of how when you were little you loved getting mail because it was usually a card or a present and now when we see there’s mail we know it’s a bill or something else less fun.
On top of my job usually requiring I manage a personal email and the team’s email; checking my own email box was given less and less of a priority. I would get to the point that even managing my personal and professional email addresses was just too much. I’d sort things into folders, which were supposed to save me from this situation, and ultimately would get forgotten about. Important things were missed, unimportant emails would get a better priority and all the email did was hide in the folders. None of this was working.
It took several years before I finally got to a point, where I just couldn’t handle this anymore. On top of going through some financial stress, I snapped when I missed an important email from a bill. It happened because I’d spent so much time fishing through subscribed emails that I got too overwhelmed to continue to find what I needed. I also wouldn’t respond back in a decent amount of time and I was frightened that this would eventually effect my new job as the frustration spilled over.
What Didn’t Work
My email avoidance was making matters worse for me financially and professionally. Being overwhelmed and not finding the best system to keep it from getting out of control was ultimately creating most of the headaches. Trying to stick to solutions was difficult and at best, I wasn’t consistent and at worst I never implemented them. Reading through all manners of How-To’s, also didn’t work. I would spend hours saving articles and finding endless suggestions, and less time actually using these suggestions. I had to start with evaluating everything I was currently doing and understand why it was that it made things worse and not better.
Seriously, Folders sound like they will organize everything but all that happened is emails got lost, and forgotten about. “I’ll do this later,” turned into a series of emails forever lost to the abyss of a poorly designed folder structure, never to be seen again.The biggest issue with Folders is that they are nice to hide things away but there is almost no accountability on their usage alone within an email client. You could set a million reminders within something like Outlook or your favorite Calendar app, but none of that is easily done, requires commitment to sticking with it, and you’re hoping that you’ll do the thing you said you would do.
-Outlook/ Desktop Email Clients-
I already use an email client (Outlook) at work, and quite honestly, they aren’t things I enjoy using. For starters, they’re optimal on your desktop computer. I didn’t make time to login to GMail on a desktop before, what are the chances that I’m actually going to do this for use with an e-mail client? Answer: I won’t. Trying to go against your natural habits is counter-productive, and so this method did not help. It required configuration and planning that I already knew I wouldn’t take the time to do.
-GMail’s Tabbed Email-
When this first came out, I was excited to jump on in and try it. It sounded like it could be the answer to my email problems and I’d finally take control of the digital clutter. Here was something that would automatically sort based upon senders/subjects and I wouldn’t have to look at all of my email at once. In theory, I would have less to look at, but the lack of being able to customize the tabs and the awkward accessibility on the phone were not practical for everyday use. I often found that I would forget which tab I placed an email, so I wouldn’t forget about it entirely or hold on to unnecessary emails. Some of the emails from the same sender would get put into the wrong tab and I’d never realized I’d gotten responses on things. Ultimately, this created more feelings of being overwhelmed and did little to help my predicament.
What Worked/Has Been Working
-Reduced Email Accounts-
Seriously, who really needs 4 email accounts? I’m pretty sure there are the rare individual who’s handling a lot more than I am on a regular basis, but I feel those people are probably used to the chaos and have better systems anyway. I really only need a personal email address and a professional one. I could probably get away with one, but I’ve had the personal email address since I was in middle school and GMail was in beta, so I’m pretty attached to the account. I of course have a work email address, but that’s for work purposes only and I can’t combine that with my professional account. But I try to keep both worlds separate and that helps me out dramatically.
Whenever I sign up for online accounts or provide an email, I think very hard on the content I’ll be receiving and to which email address it’s best suited for. This way, if I’m short on time one day, I know that as long as I check my professional email that day, that I should be okay.
I’d say a large chunk of my emails were blogs updates I was subscribed to and email lists. So essentially, the largest part of why I was feeling overwhelmed were emails that I had signed up to receive but had no time to actually read or enjoy. I began to carefully consider each email as it arrived and thought about when the last time I’d read them and whether I actually paid attention to them. This helped me think about what I actually needed versus the unnecessary and I began unsubscribing. I don’t do it all at once because it’s just too hard and I’ll never remember anything. This is the most flexible for me to personal review each thing to make sure I don’t need it. ( which BTW, I don’t)
I also hold myself accountable for the email I do sign up for. I make sure to carefully read any website I make an account for to unchecked the subscribe button. If I’m making the account, chances are I don’t really need an email to tell me something, I could just access the site for the information. Most of the time, there is no coupon that is that amazing that I have to sign up for those emails. If they are, I make sure to unsubscribe afterwards.
Because I started doing this, I am no longer wasting my time with swiping a ton of emails to the trash. Speaking of that time, I had discovered that before making these changes I had been wasting at least 30 minutes over the course of a day and more on busier email days. That’s at least a whole lunch break at work or a workout devoted to deleting emails! In over a month and a half of implementing this, I’ve seen the huge decrease in the amount of emails I receive during the day and increase in time to do many other things.
-Make time to Prioritize-
I now have a specific window of time where I manage my email by prioritizing and reading/responding. I try to do this daily for my professional email and every other day for my personal email account unless otherwise needed. In the beginning, as I had so many emails piled up I needed a half hour or hour to do this, which seems like a lot. The payoff is that now it only takes five to ten minutes a day, if that really. The more you keep up with it, the less you’ll have to actually manage.
I start by finding email from any important senders ( family, bank, etc) and then these become Priority 1. These ones must be dealt with today and I do not allow myself to respond or read any other mail beyond these until they’re all responded to. All other emails go into the other category to be prioritized after these are completed.
Once my Priority 1’s are done, I move on to organizing everything else. I quickly delete unnecessary emails and unsubscribing to those I don’t need. With that done, I’m guaranteed more time in the future and by not putting it off till another time, I know it’s done. I prioritize everything else appropriate to the necessary response time. I mark in my calendar any event related events and make to do lists appropriate to any of the emails I’ve received. ( i.e. Sale on an item that’s already on the shopping list).
-Do the Things You Said You Would-
Once you decide something is important and you should do it, now it’s time to do it! If I say I’m going to address an email or set of emails over this weekend, I need to make sure that I stick to what I’ve planned. I schedule specific time during the week and weekend so that I always have the ability to manage these things. By putting it on the Calendar, I know I mean it and will stick to it.
To succeed at this, I’ve been using a mail app that not only helps me manage multiple accounts and feel less cluttered with emails, but it also gives me reminders on following up with emails. Mailbox, is an app available for Apple and Android to manage email made in part by some of the same team which created Dropbox. The thing that I love the most is the simple controls for managing emails ( archiving and deleting for instance are manage by long and short swipes) and how easily integrated lists and reminders are to the product. This easily helps me set reminders of when I want to deal with emails and to make sure I actually do follow through. It will keep putting the email back into your inbox with a yellow indicator that’s hard to miss but not super annoying to the point where it gets ignored. I plan on doing a review post of Mailbox to further give you an idea of how I use it in the future, so look for it soon!
Seriously, I don’t archive anything that’s not super duper important. Most of the time I saved these emails, where I could better document the information outside of email. Then later, when trying to find something where I did need to archive or document, I cannot locate it.
Email is meant to inform you of something, not to be a permanent storage. I suppose you could use it like that if its your personal preference, but I often find that my using it like that only causes me to hoard emails like some people hoard antiques. I make it a regular habit to bookmark specific websites, add specific tasks to my to do lists, or even write down information in my various notebooks. Once documented elsewhere, I delete the email. This one I have the hardest time because this habit is one I’ve been doing the longest, but I’m finding as time goes on I’m getting better at it. It makes me feel better at the end of the day because I’m not holding on to everything.
Ultimately, I do not have it all figured out. There are times where my email stacks up again and I get those familiar pangs of worry or I CANNOT HANDLE THIS EMAIL. Guess what, no matter how awesome I get at this whole thing, I know I’m destined to go through this again. What I do find, is that I now have a way to keep it in control and to be able to handle it. No longer am I the victim with no way of being able to address it. So this often gets me past these feelings and keeps me going. The other thing that helps is actually having a few days during the week when my email is empty. It’s not an every week occurrence but it’s more than I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime before. I’ll take it. Now that I’ve shown myself how I can do it for my personal and professional emails, my goal is try to find a better way of managing my Work email as well. I haven’t quite found a system that works as well because I unfortunately have to use Outlook at work, but I’m sure I’ll get something that works better.
Please share any experiences you’ve had with either fighting the email pile or vanquishing the evil foe! If you have any suggestions for work email with Outlook you’d like to share I’d love to hear from you!
If you have any questions about my strategies, I’d be happy to clarify and show you as well.