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Useful Practices for Dealing with Too Much Incoming Email

Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.     

Who isn’t experiencing email overload?  Everyone on my project teams has the same complaint: too much email!  Certainly part of the problem is the high volume of email traffic (and the first two articles in this series introduced methods of reducing those email volumes), but this isn’t the whole of the problem.  This article recommends a method (“Getting Things Done”) for handling your email, and also presents a few tips for becoming more proficient at processing your incoming emails.


Article Summary

Have only 60 seconds to read this article?  Here are the highlights:


My Story: Email Overload – Too Much in the Inbox

Just got to work and checked email.  Nuts . . . there are already twenty emails awaiting me – I glance through each message, quickly dispatching nine of them only to discover that four more have already arrived.  It seems that if I stop doing email, even for an hour, that the onslaught of email will defeat me.  Even by doing email while on conference calls, I know that by day’s end my inbox will once again have grown in size.  I’m disappointing those who need to hear from me and I’m stressed about the backlog of email messages needing my attention.


Then I took a day of vacation.  Returning to the office I was welcomed by an overflowing inbox and immediately a feeling of despair overcame me.  I hadn’t realized just how many messages had been arriving each day.   It’s was time to bite the bullet and put in some extra hours to clear my inbox.  But from now on, I need a method of efficiently handling my email backlog along with all of the new arrivals to my inbox.


This story is all too common.  Your story might differ in the details, but the general theme is probably familiar.

Almost all of the problems with email overload are experienced by the receiver, yet these problems are almost universally caused by the sender.  Being constantly overloaded by the email that unrelentingly continues to arrive in your inbox isn’t any fun – indeed it can impede project progress and increase underlying frustration levels.

Here are some tried and true methods that may work for you.  Some of these require learning a new discipline that may not feel natural at first, but they can help.  The “Getting Things Done” approach, even if only partially adopted, can help in managing the excessive volumes of incoming email that many of us are experiencing. 


Coping with Too Much Email

How have we adapted as email volumes have grown?  For the most part, each team member has independently made discoveries about email tools and time management practices.  Because this has been a private journey, it is rare that the members of a project team would share common methods and be equally effective in handling email.

Some of the approaches to handling an overflowing inbox unfortunately weaken the efficacy of email:


Delve Into Your Inbox

Why are so many emails demanding your attention and action?  Simply recognizing that there are different types of emails can help in determining how best to act on an email and might even indicate a wider project problem to be resolved.  Look through your own inbox and see the various types of email messages you receive.

For me, a scan through one day’s arriving email surfaced these types:

See what you can learn about your email traffic by inspecting your inbox.  Your findings may point to some problems you can address.  This examination of my inbox confirmed some things that I already knew, but also surfaced a few surprises.  In particular, I was astounded by the large number of attached documents that were arriving in my inbox – and each arrival carried with it an implicit request that I retain and file the document for retrieval at a later time. 

One other revelation was contrary to my assumption: relatively few of my emails required action by me or actually expected a response.  Intrigued by this, I looked at email messages (that had been read, but were still sitting in my inbox) from two weeks prior and discovered that most of those messages were no longer vital and could be deleted without any repercussions.  (Another data point: a few years ago, I mistakenly deleted all emails that were older than 6 months; to this date, not a single problem has arisen because of that error).  These findings have convinced me that I’ve been too cautious in avoiding the delete key – I should be more amenable to deleting an email after reading it for the first time.


6 Tips for Managing Your Inbox

How mail is too much?  Some of my colleagues consider 30 emails in one day to be excessive, while others receive hundreds – interestingly, both groups complain about email overload and can benefit by employ helpful yet useful practices when handling incoming email.  Here are 3 practices that can help you in managing your inbox effectively, along a few other suggestions that may also prove helpful:

  1. Delete, delete, delete.  Some of my co-workers are sitting on email folders that are excessively large, filled with detritus that will never again be needed.  Sadly, most email messages fit this profile.  Don’t become the repository for everyone else’s information and documents – that is part of their job.  Sure, you have some email messages that you need to keep for a short while; but be sure to delete all the rest promptly.  One test: ask "What is the next action upon this email?"  If you can't conceive of a reasonable immediate or near term action, then in most instances you should get rid of that message.  (I retain my 'deleted messages' for a week or so, giving me a second chance to get to an email should it be needed).
  2. Resist the urge to check email first thing in the morning.  You probably have some important items from carried over from yesterday that could use your attention.  Why let someone else’s email set the agenda for your day – spend some time on the work that you need to be completing.  (Here’s another consideration: you might be one of those individuals who is most alert and productive first thing in the morning.  With a habit of going straight to email first thing in the morning, you’ve effectively given the best part of your day to processing email – most of which will not be all that important.  An “email first” habit could postpone, or even prevent, giving attention to your backlog of high priority actions.  It is far better to get into a routine of delaying your visit to the inbox until a time later in your work day, after you’ve made progress on your most important tasks.)
  3. Curb your addiction to reading each email as it arrives.  Compulsively checking email in hopes of receiving a critical email that requires your urgent and immediate attention may occasionally help validate your importance, but most email messages just aren’t that important.  Is there really a need to glance at each email just as it arrives?  This distraction can prevent you from giving proper focus and attention your work.  Change the alerts on your email devices (e.g., your computer, your Blackberry) so that email does not give an alert for new email messages.  Check email at scheduled intervals or in lulls.  With these changes you can now focus on your primary activity.
  4. Stop doing email while in a meeting or on a conference call.  Multi-tasking shortchanges your participation in that meeting while at the same time preventing you from giving adequate attention to any significant email topics. (As well, it’s just plain rude to pretend to be in a team meeting when you are really focused on email.).  More on the myth of multi-tasking is here: article; book.     
  5. Get stuff out of your inbox.  Understand the 'next action' needed for an email and do it! You can probably find meeting agendas, reminders, action items, contact information, reference information, files you are saving, and maybe even some bookmarks all stashed in your inbox.  It's a wonder that you can ever find the information you need!  Clear all that junk out of your inbox and you'll find it is much easier to find those email messages that need your attention.
  6. Remove yourself from irrelevant distributions.  Remove yourself from email threads and distributions lists that are no longer important to you.  If you have had a change in responsibility or have realigned some of your priorities, you may find that you are still on email threads or distribution lists that are no longer germane.  Cut that link to your old work and have yourself removed from that source of email, eliminating one source of extraneous email messages


“Getting Things Done” - A Method to Manage an Inbox

Learn about Getting Things Done (GTD).  It is an approach to managing your commitments, not just a method for handling email.  While I’ll briefly summarize some aspects of GTD here, your best source of information is the book.  For those that want immediate gratification, you can get a complete set of GTD process diagrams, notes and templates from David Allen’s web site (register, order your free set of PDFs, and pick them up with the URL they will send to you); this is an excellent set of information from the creator of GTD, and is enough for getting a very good understanding of the method.

You can find more information online here: Wikipedia article,   WikiSummaries chapter-by-chapter summaryanother chapter-by-chapter summary on The Simple Dollar,  and 43Folders.

For me, the starting point of GTD is recognizing that:

GTD brings a structure to handling your “in” box (which includes your email inbox as well as other sources of “stuff”). In essence, you process your inbox by handling any action that can be completed quickly (e.g., in less than two minutes), deleting/trashing unneeded messages, delegating emails to others, or putting the email into the proper work queue. GTD is for ‘list people” (i.e, people who can manage their work using lists).  To me, the method is a bit over-to-top (every action is recorded and prioritized), but I suppose flexing points like that can retain the power of the system while making it viable for people who don’t need to control every minute of their day.

GTD is not the only method that can help manage the deluge of email and incoming 'to do' items that come to you.  Sally McGhee has a similar method (not surprising, since she worked at one time with David Allen) under the banner of "Take Back Your Life!"  More information is available on her web site, and by reading her version of the information processing workflow.

Getting Things Done - in Action

Effective inbox management might be an entirely new way for you, or it might just be a tweak on your current methods.  The principles of Getting Things Done can help you manage your inbox effectively if you are able to map GTD concepts into practices that work for you.  Your practices will minimize each email touch, organize & prioritize emails requiring action and properly handle each email.

GTD has multiple, inter-related processes for handling your backlog & incoming work, coupled with reviews to ensure that your work decisions are consistent with your goals over various time frames.

As applied to email (recognizing that this is only one source of work for you), a GTD implementation would look something like this (you can see a graphical GTD flow here): 

  1. Collect your email backlog, including newly arrived email currently in your inbox.
    • Process each email message. This is the ‘first touch’ of an email message. Is it actionable?
    • If it is not:
      • Trash - toss it,
      • Incubate - tickle it for possible later action, or
      • Reference - file it for use.
    • If it is actionable  – decide the very next action:
      • Do - if less than two minutes,
      • Delegate - track on a “waiting for” list, or
      • Defer - put on an action reminder list or in an action folder.
      • Project - If one action will not close the item, then is a “Project” - put it on a reminder list of projects.
  2. Organize the results of your Processing.
    • Group the results of your processing into key action categories.
      • Projects (projects are two or more actions, which you have a committed to finish)
      • Calendar (actions with deadlines)
      • Next Actions (ASAP actions)
      • Waiting For (projects or actions that you’ve delegated to someone else)
      • Some day or maybe (these indicate “on-hold” for possible actions at a later date)
      • Reference (has no action, but needs to be retrievable)

The Process step essentially clears your inbox of all email messages – some are easily handled immediately.   Those messages that still require action are then organized, and then you’ll follow a discipline in pulling the work items that you have organized.  Your inbox is no longer the source of your action items; rather it is the organized work categories that define your pending work.

To some degree, GTD may sound similar to how you already handling incoming email – handle the quick messages right away and leave the rest for later.  The difference is this: those emails that cannot be handled immediately need to have a distinct queue (called ‘folders’ in GTD-speak) to join, and you need to have a process for managing those queues of email.  This is the GTD Do process, and is the method of extracting pending work from a ‘folder’ for immediate action.  Indeed this key aspect of GTD frequently is omitted in discussions of how to handle an incoming stream of email (or work).  This is the heart of GTD.

GTD has a strong following, has thousands of web sites advocating its use, and appears to be a logical approach to handling incoming and pending work.  However, GTD is not without its critics who point out that the method is overkill, requires too much discipline, suggests that incoming work will be processed several hundreds of times each day, and is too complex with all of the work categories and interlocking processes.

Set aside the criticism for a while and recognize the beauty of the approach as applied to your inbox: you can triage new arrivals, properly handling no-action email messages, and then categorizing the remaining, hard-to-do emails so they can be prioritized with other pending work.  If you stick with this approach, you will:


What’s Next?

These improvements can dramatically increase your overall effectiveness in approaching email and handling more important emails properly.  Use this article as a framework for a project team discussion. You might exchange information like:

Most significantly: make a commitment to experiment with new practices and email handling methods.  For the next month, reinforce continued use of these new practices.  After a month, assess the impact and map out next actions that might help with your email overload issues.