Overwhelmed By Your Inbox – Here’s What To Do

Email has completely changed the way we work. Most managers we talk to consider themselves to be enslaved by the keyboard, unable to accomplish their daily tasks because of the amount of electronic, as well as paper, mail they receive.

What’s the best way of dealing with this? How can you proactively manage your in-box so it serves you, rather than the other way round?

Firstly, does it matter how many emails are in your in-box? Well, yes it does. If you have dozens or hundreds of emails in your in-box, you run the risk of losing sight of the importance of some of the messages, and will find it difficult to find something at short notice. Yes, you can use the search box, but that only proves you have too much information there, because you can’t find it easily.

Also, by not pruning your in-box, and your colleagues contributing as well, you add pressure to your company servers,causing the well-known and ill-timed message from IT that the servers have crashed again. Don’t moan…you added to the problem!

So here are some tips to deal with this dilemma:

Prioritise your in-box. Check the sender’s names…how quickly do you need to deal with their email? Check the subject…is it urgent or just for information? Is it your responsibility or can it be delegated on? Check the priority given by the sender…do they really mean it’s urgent?

This initial scan can help you identify those emails that need immediate attention, and those that can wait until you have more time.

Reply in stages. You may wish to send a brief acknowledgment to the sender first, following up with more detail later. This means you take control of when you deal with it, and the sender isn’t wondering what’s going on. This is useful when you need to get more information before replying or when you’re angry, upset or confused about a message and you need time to compose yourself.

Set specific time for dealing with incoming mail. That way, you control it rather than the other way round. Resist the temptation to check every email the moment the tell-tale sound alerts you to a delivery. Most managers tell us that checking first thing in the morning, again around lunch and again later in the afternoon gives them time to deal with other stuff in their day, too.

Use a filing system to manage your messages. Check what the archiving policy is for storing emails, and if you have to keep them for a certain time period. If it’s a central facility, utilise that rather than filling up your own memory. Create your own filing system arranged by customer name, project name, date of receipt, research project, etc. Then use subtitles in the files to determine what still needs to be done.

For example, you might have a folder for ABC Ltd, then subtitles in the folder for invoices, projects, work in progress or items still to be done. The pending items can be marked ‘unread’ so they still stand out in the subfolder.

Many people find it useful to set up day-folders, just like a diary. Make five folders corresponding to days of the week, then when an email comes in and you want to deal with it on Wednesday, simply transfer it to the Wednesday folder. That way, you have your to-do list for next Wednesday.

You need to practice good housekeeping with your in-box. Set time limits for how long a message will stay in your in-box. (Take a look now and see how old is the oldest message in your in-box…surprised, huh?). Decide what you are going to do with any messages that are there…file it, delete it, delegate it, action it…do something with it! If a response was necessary, make sure you’ve done it. Send unwanted messages to your ‘deleted messages’ file, then cleanse that file regularly.

Offer alternatives to email. Remember, there are practical and effective alternatives to email, like instant messaging, text, voicemail, teleconferencing, and (a communication method that seems to have gone out of favour recently!) actually talking to someone in real-time!

Check who your mail is coming from. If you find that much of your overwhelming email is coming from old subscriptions to sites you no longer have any interest in, purge the lists so you only get stuff from people you are actually going to read. Ask yourself…how many emails do I get that I delete without reading? Maybe they are from senders you can unsubscribe from.

So, remember to avoid these common mistakes:

Don’t react immediately to every email that comes in

Don’t let your in-box become another storage folder

Don’t become overwhelmed with too much clutter


That way, you reduce the risk of being overwhelmed by your inbox, and you can spend time on more important things…like running your department!

Thanks again


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training   

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Updated on: 13 August, 2010

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