We’ve all had that “oh s***” moment when we open up our email inbox and see more messages than we could reasonably manage in a workday; email overload. For some of us, this is a daily occurrence. We simply get too many emails, or at least more emails than can be accommodated with the rest of our busy schedules.
Fortunately, there are various methods you can use to manage email overload at work. Let’s review some of our favorites!
Analyzing Email Overload
Your first job is analyzing your email overload. Why is it you feel this way? Do you get bombarded with emails during a certain day of the week, or is it a single client who’s responsible for most of your email woes?
If you want to dig deeper and see the true culprits responsible for your feelings of email overload, you need an email data analytics tool to help you. That’s where EmailAnalytics comes in; once integrated with your Gmail account, EmailAnalytics gives you a detailed breakdown of a comprehensive number of email metrics, including how often you send and receive emails, your busiest times and days of the week, and even your average email response time.
From there, you should be able to determine the root cause of your email overload problem.
Usually, one or more of these culprits are to blame:
- Workload/volume issues. First, there could be a volume or workload issue. With most of us only working 40 hours a week, there’s a strict upper limit to the number of emails a person can handle. If they’re getting hundreds of emails a day, even the most efficient worker will struggle to stay on top of things. The only solution to this type of problem is to reduce the number of incoming emails you receive, one way or another.
- Organization issues. More commonly, email overload becomes a problem because of our own habits and organizational issues. If you don’t have any kind of organizational system in place, and if you let your emails pile up endlessly, eventually, you’re going to be overwhelmed by the very sight of your inbox. There’s no right or wrong way to keep your inbox tidy, but there are dozens of little tactics that can help anyone get things better organized, such as these Gmail organization tips.
- Personal response issues. You might also be stressed about your email because you have other things going on in your life. Here, even a modest volume of email and a consistent system of organization can leave you feeling unnecessarily stressed. In another blog post, we covered seven reasons email stresses people out.
Now, let’s explore tactics you can use to improve your email life in each of these areas.
Email Workload Management
Let’s start with specific tactics you can use to decrease the number of emails you receive, or decrease your email workload.
How many emails per day do you get from stores and services you haven’t used in years? If you’re like most of us, you procrastinate unsubscribing, or stay subscribed because you might need emails like this someday in the future. But the reality is, most of these emails are wholly unnecessary, and will only serve to stress you out every time you get a notification that one has come in. Do yourself a favor and use a tool like Unroll.me to clear out these unnecessary and problematic incoming emails.
2. Manage notifications.
Next, take a look at your notification settings—both for your inbox and your other management platforms. Getting notifications from your inbox, either in the form of a phone vibration or sound alert, can be distracting, so consider turning these off altogether. If you do, you’ll notice the bombardment of new emails to be far less unsettling. You’ll also want to check things like social media apps and project management platforms, and turn off email notifications where appropriate—it can greatly reduce your stream of incoming messages. This is also one of the best pieces of advice for how to focus at work.
3. Control excessive senders.
With our tool, you can identify people in your contact network who simply send you too many emails. It might be because they split one core message across multiple emails, or because they’re needy or impatient; either way, you can mitigate this issue. Have a polite, direct conversation with this person, and ask them to send you fewer, more concise message. Set expectations with them, and request that they respect your time. You may not see a massive turnaround overnight, but even a slight reduction in sent emails can have an impact here.
One of the most important responsibilities you have is knowing when it’s appropriate to delegate work. If you’re overloaded with tasks and you simply don’t have time to address them all yourself, consider forwarding those tasks to someone else. If there isn’t anyone else, consider hiring a personal assistant, or talking with your team to see who else might be available.
5. Talk to a boss or supervisor.
If you’re getting too much work from the top down and you don’t have the power to delegate, your only option may be having a frank conversation with a boss or supervisor. Meet with them in person, if possible, or at least arrange a video call (here’s how to do a Gmail video call), and explain to them that your email volume is too much to manage singlehandedly. Use the metrics you found in your EmailAnalytics analysis to prove your point, and offer a solution—such as hiring a new person or spreading the work between multiple departments.
Improving Email Organization
Most email overload problems can be mitigated, if not outright eliminated, with a solid, consistent organizational system. Once your emails are better organized, they’ll seem far less overwhelming—even if you’re still getting a lot of them in quick succession.
Labels, also sometimes referred to as folders, are Gmail’s primary organizational system, and they’re arguably superior to Outlook’s folders. You can create as many labels as you’ll ever need, creating a system of categories at your own discretion; for example, you might create labels based on the nature of each project, or each individual client, or you might create labels based on your personal priorities. In any case, you can assign labels to individual messages (as many as you like) to “tag” them, making them much easier to organize in the future. At any time, you can view a label to review all emails within that category, or search based on labeling parameters. You can also use labels as part of your automatic filters, which we’ll get into later in this section. Here’s a walk-through on how to create folders in Gmail.
7. Stars and markers.
Gmail also comes with multiple marks you can apply to individual emails, including an importance marker and a series of different-colored stars (you can unlock different colors of stars in the Settings menu, under the General tab). Again, you can use these however you’d like; for example, you might use an importance marker to designate emails that still require a response or action from you, and use stars to categorize emails based on their topic, or urgency.
8. Categories (tabs).
By default, Gmail sorts and organizes your emails into three categories (the tabs at the top of your inbox): Primary, Social, and Promotions. Emails determined to come from social media networks are sorted into the Social tab, marketing and sales emails are sorted into the Promotions tab, and everything else winds up in primary. You can also enable tabs for Forums and Updates, sorting emails from forums and any platform that provides automatic notifications. Depending on what kinds of emails you typically receive, these extra tabs can substantially declutter your primary inbox.
9. Read vs. Unread.
You can also stay better organized by paying closer attention to your read and unread messages. Most people don’t think much about this feature; they read emails as they come in, and let the automatic settings apply themselves. But you can also use this as a manual system to track emails that still require a response or action; for example, you can mark read emails as unread if there’s still more you need to do with them. This is a trick I personally use and it has vastly helped me reduce feelings of email overload.
One of my favorite features in Gmail is the “snooze” option. When opening an email, you can click the clock icon to “snooze” it—basically, this means you’ll temporarily remove this item from your inbox and resend it to yourself at some date and time in the future (which you’ll choose). This is a great way to clear your inbox of messages that are not yet relevant, and get reminded of future events and priorities at the same time. At any time, you can review your snoozed emails using the clock icon on the left-hand side of your desktop Gmail app—so don’t worry about losing track of them.
Remember the labels we created earlier in this section? Now you can set up filters to automatically apply these labels, as appropriate, to incoming emails—saving you the manual effort. We’ve written a full, comprehensive guide on creating filters in Gmail, but we’ll recap the basics here. If you start conducting a search using the search bar at the top of your Gmail inbox, you’ll be able to define specific parameters for emails, like sender, recipient, date sent, whether it has an attachment, and so on. When you’ve set the parameters you desire, you can click “Create filter” and create an automatic algorithm for Google to follow when you receive messages like this in the future. For example, you can automatically apply a label to them, or send them to your trash folder.
Managing Email Stress
Even with lower volume and a good organizational system to help you, it’s natural to be stressed by email. You can better manage your feelings of stress and reduce your email overload with these tips. Be sure not to miss our big post on stress management techniques!
12. Limit your email time.
If you’re often stressed about email, you’re probably spending too much time thinking about it and managing it. Email is a valuable communication method, but its instantaneous nature makes some people feel compelled to be on top of their inbox 24/7. In most cases, you can afford to create boundaries for yourself; for example, refuse to check your email after, say, 7 pm, or before 7 am, or refuse to check your email on weekends. It’s also a good idea to spend some time during the day away from email; for example, you could designate 2 pm to 3 pm as a “distraction-free” hour, where you refrain from using communication platforms. Removing or reducing notifications can also help you here. You’ll be surprised how much more manageable your email overload seems when you’re not constantly on the platform.
13. Work on messages in batches.
If you’re already dealing with an inbox that’s flooded with messages, try working on those messages in discrete batches; if you try to do everything at once, you’ll easily get overwhelmed. Instead, focus on a reasonable goal, like clearing out any new emails plus 10 old messages each day until your inbox is reorganized.
14. Exercise daily.
Physical exercise may seem entirely disconnected from email, but it’s one of the best ways to relieve and prevent stress. If you spend just 20-30 minutes exercising each day, you’ll be far less likely to get overwhelmed by your work-related responsibilities. You can also use some light midday exercise to clear your head if your inbox is overpouring; take a few minutes to go for a brisk walk around the block.
Meditation is another general strategy that can significantly reduce the stress you feel—and help you think more clearly about your current situation. There are many different schools of meditation, but straightforward mindfulness only requires you to focus on the present moment, concentrating on your breathing or some other consistent element of your environment. With enough practice, you’ll gain much greater control over your thoughts and emotions, and simple things like email won’t be able to fluster you.
If you feel overwrought with email stress, make sure you take some time to analyze that feeling. Why do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel like you won’t be able to get to all these emails in an appropriate amount of time? Are you unsure how to respond to someone? Are you dissatisfied with your balance of responsibilities overall? Think about the worst-case scenario; what’s the worst thing that could happen as a result of this influx of new messages? And think about this: how much of this situation is under your control? If you slow down and think critically about your email problem (as well as your personal response to it), it will likely seem smaller and more manageable.
Once you understand the nature of your email overload, and you start executing the strategies you need to minimize it, you’ll feel much better about your email inbox—and about your place in this organization overall. Everything starts with an introductory analysis of your email activity, courtesy of EmailAnalytics. Sign up for a free trial today, and learn how you can become a better emailer!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.