How to Overcome Email Overload and have More Time to do What is Important 


Parts of this article were gleaned from Peter Bregman’s excellent Harvard Business Review article, A Super-Efficient Email Process.

Email is the black hole of productivity. It is also a paradox. On the one hand, it is a boon to our productivity. It eliminates back and forth missed calls and voice messages, the hassle and time required to schedule meetings, and it provides an easily searchable document trail for future reference. On the other hand, email continually threatens to pull us into the black hole of the incessantly urgent but not always necessary. It can subject us to the constant gravitational pull of the immediate that saps our energy and preoccupies us while we ignore the important. Email allows others to write on our “to-do” list and is incessant; we never catch up.

Taming the Email Beast

Email can be tamed and harnessed. If you follow these simple steps, you can be more productive and reduce stress and distraction in your life.

1. If you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, get rid of them. Do not use your inbox as a reminder or to-do list. Seeing hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox produces mental stress and makes it easy to miss important emails. 

You may need to schedule several hours on your calendar for this project. Start by quickly glancing through the “subject” and “from” lines of the emails in your inbox and immediately delete or archive the ones you don’t want to waste time reading, including marketing emails and email blasts you haven’t requested. I recommend you delete emails that you will never need (e.g., email blasts, newsletters) and that you archive emails that you believe you may need to reference in the future. This step will drastically reduce the amount of email in your inbox. It will also reduce the mental stress that occurs every time you look at an overflowing inbox.

2. Setup rules in your email application of choice. It only takes a few minutes to learn how to create rules so that your email application can automatically pre-process emails for you. For example, I have a rule for emails that are addressed to “undisclosed recipients.” The rule moves the email message to the Archive folder and marks it as “read” so I never see it and I’m never distracted by it. My email client processes the email for me so I don’t have to.  I also have an “out of office” reply rule that sends an email with “out of office” in the subject line directly to trash. That way I don’t have to spend any time processing it. I have 22 such rules in my email client that automatically process distracting emails for me.

3. Immediately mark any email that is junk as junk or spam and create a rule that moves future emails from this sender to the junk/spam folder. Taking a few seconds to do this with junk email will save you significant time in the future. Most email clients “learn” that you have marked such emails as junk or spam and will automatically move them to your junk/spam folder so that they never show up in your inbox again.

4. Schedule time in your day to bulk process email. I recommend 30 minutes two to three times a day, e.g., morning, noon, and afternoon. Do not constantly check your email. Doing so will put you on the never-ending email treadmill and lead you down rabbit trails. Constantly processing emails will cause you to spend your time and focus on urgent rather than the important matters.

5. Bulk write new emails in something other than your email application. I find that writing new emails in volume is more efficient than writing emails throughout the day. I also write many of my emails in something other than my email client. You can write your emails in a word processor, a notes application, or as in my case, in the Drafts application. 

It may sound strange to write emails in something other than your email application, but the advantage is that it prevents you from becoming distracted by new emails when you only intended to compose an email. Referring to the Drafts application, David Sparks writes:

One thing I love about Drafts is using it to send an email. This way, I don’t have to go into my email application and get tempted away by the siren song of the inbox. Instead, I write and send the relevant email and then get back to work.

You can read David’s article on using Drafts for email here and learn more about David Sparks here. Note: Drafts is only available for iPhones, iPads, and Macs but you can use any word or text editor to accomplish the same thing. However, if you use a Mac (1) or other Apple device, I highly recommend the Drafts application. 

6. Respond to all emails that are not junk and that have not been automatically processed by your email application, see #2 above. Do your best to answer every email that is addressed directly to you, even if it means just writing “Thank you.” My rule of thumb is to respond to all emails within 24 hours. I recommend that you start with the most recent and work your way down. Do not click on any links in emails and don’t read lengthy articles; save them for later.

7. Do not leave emails in your inbox. I find that when I leave emails in my inbox, I re-read them repeatedly each time I open my email, and each time I waste time trying to decide how to handle it. So I either delete it or move it to another folder I’ve set up — archive, waiting, read, someday, travel, person-specific, project-specific, etc. if the content of the email will require more than a quick response or more than a couple of minutes to accomplish, I send that email to my project application to deal with later. My goal is to empty my inbox every time I bulk process email. 

8. Know when and when not to use email! Do not to use email to give someone negative feedback or to respond to negative feedback. As Peter Bregman writes, “email is a great tool for transactional conversations (Where should we have lunch?), sharing information (Here’s that file, there’s someone I want you to meet), or showing appreciation (You spoke powerfully in that meeting, I’m touched by your support — thank you). For anything else, you are better off calling or talking to someone face to face.” 

I make it a practice not to engage in an email thread of more than three replies. If the “conversation” takes more than three replies, it is best to pick up the phone and call or to meet with the individual. Good emails take a while to write—save yourself and the other person time by calling or meeting with him or her rather than staying on the relentless email treadmill. 

If you find that email is sucking your time and productivity down a black hole— try dealing with it as outlined above. A little structure and email discipline may be the difference between email being a boon for your productivity or a source of stress and lost productivity. 

Control your email, don’t let it control you!

  1. The Mac version of Drafts is not available as of the posting of this article. However, it is expected by the end of 2018.