How’s your inbox looking these days? Do you suffer from email overwhelm?

If you’re like most people, I’ll bet the thought of what’s lurking in that inbox has you ready to hide under a rock in the fetal position.

We tend to use our inboxes as a repository for all the stuff we don’t know how to manage just yet. It’s like that room in your house where you stash all the stuff when people are coming over. (We all have that room.)

Email overwhelm is an insidious thing. We may leave messages in our inbox with the intention of coming back to them later, when we have time. The next thing we know, there are so many open loops sitting there that we don’t know what to do.

Email Overwhelm Paralysis

Tackling my own email overwhelm has been a long process, but one that I feel is mostly under my control. But every once in a while when things get really busy the emails pile up.

This happened again recently and is what prompted me to write this post. I’ve been doing such a good job of keeping control of my inbox this year that I had forgotten what it feels like to have so many open loops sitting there, waiting for action.

I was struck by that feeling of paralysis that comes from seeing a huge list of messages, each of which requires some sort of action. Some need to be read and stored somewhere, some are a trigger to more complex actions like reports or reviews.

My productivity really took a hit because I noticed I was spending a long time just staring at all those messages, wondering what to do first. It was not a good use of my time and made me feel anxious.

The problem with an overflowing inbox

We’ve just talked about action paralysis. If your inbox if full of open loops, it’s really hard to get anything done.

In my personal attempt to figure out how manage work-life boundaries I realized email was the thing that was taking up most of my work time. It was just email during work time either.

Start to pay attention: how often do you check your work email when you are outside of work time? Be honest with yourself.

Is your email easy to access on your phone? Do you get notifications for your work email either on your phone or on your desktop?

This is what is so insidious about unmanaged emails: it takes over so much of your attention, and you don’t even realize it’s happening.

Have you tried the thing where you vow not to check email outside of work hours? If you left an inbox full of unattended messages, were you able to let it just sit there? Or did you feel dragged into it?

Be honest. I’ll bet you couldn’t keep your nose out of your inbox, and this pulls away your attention from those around you, or creeps into your personal down time. Those messages stick with you once you’ve read them.

How it feels to manage email overwhelm

First, know that it IS possible to manage email overwhelm, and the feeling is incredible when you know you have that inbox under control. It wasn’t until I managed to get to the elusive “inbox zero” that I was finally able to protect my work-life boundaries and truly, honestly, keep my nose out of my email on evenings and weekends.

Yes, for real. This is my new normal, and it can be yours too.

I first wrote about this in reference to clearing inbox clutter so that I could concentrate on practicing piano. Once I became a department chair I found it impossible to concentrate on the music when all I could think about was what’s sitting in my inbox.

Check out that article here: Clear Your Inbox, Clear Your Mind, Go Practice.

The first time I got to inbox zero I couldn’t believe the emotional lightness I felt. That was the start of a whole new lease on life-work boundaries that has been key to the preservation of my sanity.

How to tackle email overwhelm

I highly recommend a free training called The Stack Method. Yes, it’s completely free and there are zero strings attached. To say that this one training has changed my life would be an understatement.

Here’s the basic idea. You create a series of folders that become the holding tanks for the various types of actions that are typically required of an email. Then your job is to triage the emails out of your inbox and into their respective folders.

Then, when you have time to focus on a batch of emails, you open up one of the folders and get to work. So, it’s not that you do everything required of your emails, but that you file them into actionable categories.

This allows you to do a preliminary prioritization of urgency and importance. Then, within each folder you can prioritize further.

The psychological impact of having nothing in your inbox is really powerful. You might argue that you haven’t actually done anything by just shuffling around your emails. If this is you I urge you please to give this a try.

Why inbox triage is important

When you open your email, the view defaults to the inbox. Even if you just intend to pop in and check your email for whatever purpose, if you’re seeing all that unfinished business sitting there you get pulled right back into all that work.

Maybe you have a spare moment while making dinner on the weekend, and out of morbid curiosity you look to see if there’s anything new. Perhaps there’s a new email from someone who is a trigger for you.

We all have those people in our lives. What happens when you see an email from them? That rush of cortisol, perhaps? Then you drag all that junk into your home time with your family.

Then maybe you know you’ll feel better if you can just blast off a response before you forget, because you know you’ll forget to do it during work hours.

That’s no good. Your family doesn’t need that, and neither do you.

In the managed-inbox scenario, even if you do happen to see an email from a trigger, you can confidently just slide it over into a folder to manage the next work day. Sure, you’ve been in your email, but you no longer feel the need to deal with it right then.

Filing that email into an action folder gets it out of your inbox where you’ll see it again the next time you open your email. It also gives you the peace of mind to know that you won’t lose it, because it’s lumped in with other emails that require responses.

Stay out of your inbox in the first place

Have you tried to stay out of your inbox outside of work hours? It’s not an easy thing to do if you’re used to doing this.

The first time I successfully stayed out of my inbox for an entire weekend it took a lot of effort. I hovered over the app on my phone, my finger shaking as I willed myself into moving onto something else.

I was desperately afraid that I would return to my inbox on Monday morning and there would be an explosion of nuclear proportions, leaving me with a horrible mess to manage.

Do you want to know what happened? Nothing. I checked my email on Monday morning, there were maybe 15 new emails there, and there was nothing urgent. It was totally fine.

So then I tried it again the next weekend. And the next. Still, everything was manageable. Eventually I got to the place I am now, where I don’t check email outside of work hours, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

If there are reasons to be in my inbox, oh well, no biggie. I’ll just either ignore what’s sitting there, or I’ll file the messages away for attention the next workday.

Manage those notifications

I read somewhere that we get a dopamine hit every time we see a notification. Our devices are set up to make us addicted to checking them. Here’s an interesting article about how this works: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/

The article is mostly about social media but the idea is the same. When we’re tethered to our inbox notifications, we can’t help but respond.

Even the best of intentions to stay out of your inbox will go astray if you get a “ding” everything something new comes in. Check out that article linked above. We simply cannot ignore those notifications.

Start paying attention to how your devices grab your attention with your work emails. How do you have your phone set up? Don’t forget your desktop notifications, those are just as bad.

Set a VIP list

There are people whose emails I don’t want to miss, but that list of people is very small. There are three people on my work email VIP list. Those people get a notification whenever they send an email, and everyone else has to wait to get a response from me.

The three people with that status are partly there because they don’t typically send emails at all hours. They already manage their email habits so they don’t drag people into work during their personal time.

Also, those three people are my bosses, so there’s that. But they rarely need anything form me after hours, and if they do, I want to make sure I can get a quick answer back to them.

Honestly, I don’t get emails from them very often outside of work hours, which is partly why they stay on my VIP list. Sometimes I’ll try out someone else on that list, and if I get too many unimportant emails outside of work hours, off the list they go.

Manage expectations

One of the things I really respect about my VIP list, as mentioned above, is they don’t typically send emails outside of work hours.

When I made the transition from “on all the time” to “only available during work hours” I chose to let my department know that I would be making this shift. This way they knew not to expect a response from me until the next work day.

I had a chair colleague once who bemoaned the fact that their faculty would send them emails regularly in evenings and weekends. Their approach was to plead with his department not do send emails outside of work hours.

But this doesn’t work. People are going to email when it darned-well suits them and their schedule. This person didn’t want to take responsibility for their own email habits.

If you don’t want to read people’s emails after hours, then you need to keep your own nose out of your inbox. Period.

But one thing you can do is make sure you’re also not emailing anything out from your own email outside of work hours either.

If you haven’t discovered the “send later” feature in your email provider, I highly recommend that you do. This way, if you do need to work after hours to catch up (because who doesn’t), at least people won’t expect you to be working.

Wrap up the email overwhelm

I hope this post has given you some ideas on why you might want manage your email overwhelm, and some strategies on where to start.

The most important thing here is to understand that it really is possible to manage email overwhelm. Yes, you really can get to inbox zero. And yes, you really can keep your nose out of your email on evenings, weekends, and (gasp!), even holidays.

Please try it. Your emotional health with thank you.

Report back

Have you gotten to inbox zero? How did you do it? How has it affected your work-life boundaries?