An Expert's Guide to Curbing Email Overwhelm

valeriedenisephotos-17Everyday I hear stories of clients, friends and co-workers being overwhelmed by distractions, unrealistic to-do lists, and a growing email inbox.

Smart folks are drowning in digital clutter.

The good news? There’s an easy way out. The hard part is turning off all the noise and knowing that you are better without it. I’ve talked before about how physical clutter can affect our creativity - and digital clutter is no different. A lot of us can power through our workday with a messy desk - it’s much harder with a maxed out email inbox. The reason is this: Carving out time to work on a project that needs your attention is sometimes a task in itself. You might have been procrastinating on the project or just too swamped to even dive in. And then, you get interrupted by an email. Or a phone call. Or a text message. You might even self interrupt by checking in with social media. Statistics say that it can take 16 minutes to return to the task at hand after getting interrupted by an email. That’s heavy stuff. Especially when you think about how often you check your inbox. It’s no wonder we are having trouble getting real work done. So let’s talk about how to make a real change.

Statistics say that it can take 16 minutes to return to the task at hand after getting interrupted by an email.

Turn off notifications.

Starting with your email inbox, turn off the ding. There’s no reason to get notified every time someone emails you. This will also help set boundaries on your response time with clients, friends and co-workers. Chances are, if you are prone to replying immediately, folks start expecting a quick answer. That leads to stress in the long run for the times that you can’t get back to a client right away. Do yourself a favor and start building in time throughout your day to check in with your inbox. Try this out : use an app to schedule your email replies and set them to go out when you’re not at your desk. That way, you’re not getting interrupted when you really need to be working. I recommend Schedule Later for Gmail. Once you get the hang of checking in at specific times with your email, go ahead and turn off notifications for text messages and phone calls. You will soon find that your working hours will be peaceful and productive which equals winning in my book.


If you are wondering how it will ever be possible to separate yourself from your email inbox, you are probably using it as a big ole to-do list. This is a problem for a few reasons:

  • You can’t prioritize your emails. Sure, you can star them but an email signifying a large project might be sitting next to one that will take two minutes to tackle. An email inbox essentially gives all emails equal weight–which doesn’t help you know what needs to happen today.
  • The subject line is a terrible indicator of what is inside the email. You probably find yourself opening up the same email over and over to remind yourself what you actually need to do. This is a huge time waster.valeriedenisephotos-19

So if emails don’t live in the inbox, where should they live? Your to-do list.

With a to-do list, you can prioritize each task and write out exactly what needs to happen. Let’s take an email that I received earlier and break down the process. This particular email is titled ‘ Permissions Form .’ With this subject line, you can probably see how emails linger. ‘ Permissions Form ’ doesn’t really tell me much and doesn’t incite me to take action. So let’s take it out of the inbox! This email is somewhat of a large to-do that will take me at least 1-2 hours. I don’t necessarily need anything within the body of the email but I do need the email attachment. Here’s what I’m going to do with the email:

  • Decide when I have time to take action. Does it need to happen today? Tomorrow? Next week? Once I have determined when I’m going to tackle it, I write the task on my to-do list for the date that it’s going to be started.
  • Do I need the content of the email? What about any attachments? If I do, I’ll archive the email and search for it later. I could also file it in a ‘To-Do Reference” File in my email inbox and go fetch it when I need it.
  • Once the email is out of my inbox, I move on to the next email.

valeriedenisephotos-24As you process your email inbox, you can determine what needs to happen to each email. Does it need to be replied to, deleted, archived or filed? Giving your emails a home will ensure a clean and empty inbox. It will also alleviate your need to refer back to it constantly –trying to figure out what needs to be done for the day. The goal is to work completely off of your to-do list so you only have one place to look for your tasks. It’s my favorite way to stay sane during the busiest times of the year and get my best work done.  

Do you have any email management tips you swear by? Share with us in the comments below! Would love to hear from you!


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