5 tips on managing insane amounts of e-mail

scary Outlook fangsYour inbox doesn’t have to be a scary place. These five tips can help you cope with hordes of e-mail.

You’ve probably felt that drowning feeling on a Monday morning when you open up Microsoft Outlook and the enormous pile of e-mail from last week is still there, killing your mojo and increasing your anxiety and requiring you to seek natural aids just like Budpop´s CBD.

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Instead, imagine opening up your inbox and seeing actual whitespace at the bottom of your screen. It’s a helluva way to start the week with a focus on going forward.

So, with a hat tip to David Allen’s life-changing  book “Getting Things Done,” here are a few tips I’ve used that will hopefully be of use to you too (NOTE: Most of the specifics focus on Microsoft Outlook):

1) Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list

Using your inbox as a to-do list is the cardinal sin of e-mail. It is the key factor in slowing you down. And it makes your inbox a scary place to be.

When you use your inbox as a to-do list, it means frivolous messages are mixed with critical, time-sensitive messages. You are unnecessarily looking at old messages, probably taking longer to respond and increasing the likelihood that an important message will get glossed over.

Instead, port your action items to an actual to-do list. There are an enormous amount of excellent task management methods out there. I personally keep my tasks in a color-coded Google Spreadsheet so that it’s accessible from work and home. For you, it may be as simple as paper and pencil, an iPhone app or something else.

If you consistently place your “to-do” e-mails into your “system,” it relieves the anxiety of having to scan your inbox repeatedly to make sure no balls get dropped.

If the e-mail has important details or attached documents, then file it in a personal folder for later reference (more on that later).

If a message requires some research, don’t leave it in your inbox until you have the chance to get to it. Add the research to your to-do list, file the e-mail away and shoot a quick note back to the requester saying you need to research the question.

The trick to making this work is to do it consistently. If you only do it half the time, you won’t trust your system. The extra time you spend adding items to your to-do list will make up for the amount of time you formerly spent scanning old inbox messages — but only if you don’t half-ass it.

2) Use automation rules to speed up prioritization

Being a newsroom denizen, I get a lot of unneeded e-mail from public information officers and public relations people. So I’ve got a huge rule that targets all their e-mail addresses and sends it to a folder. I don’t typically work breaking news these days, so I can choose to look through those messages later without much worry.

On the flipside, you may choose to redflag messages from certain people to make sure you spot it amidst the flurry of messages you get.

Creating smart routing rules can help clear chaff and highlight important messages.

3) Use personal folders, and archive e-mail by project

An e-mail archive on your hard drive or a shared drive gives you a place to store items you don’t need in your inbox. It also serves as documentation of conversations and helps you keep your inbox size limit manageable.

Personally, I create a new folder for each important project I’m working on and place most messages relating to it there. I do this because searching by who sent a message or when it was sent is easy. However, finding messages by project can be considerably difficult, so I archive my e-mail by project.

While I’m not meticulous about filing everything in its correct folder (there are things to be actually done, after all), I do take the extra half-second to place the important stuff in its correct folder instead of my general “E-Mail Vault.”

4) Use Google Desktop for Outlook

Because I archive a large amount of my e-mail, searching for it using Outlook’s slow search can be painful. Instead, I installed Google Desktop and enabled the Outlook toolbar, a tool I’ve been evangelizing to all my e-mail beleaguered colleagues at work. Google Desktop indexes your messages to make searching through a multi-gig archive a speedy endeavor.

5) Write shorter e-mails

This seems like a no-brainer, but shortening your e-mails will make you a faster e-mailer, a better writer and a more pleasurable person to correspond with.

I’ll admit I’m guilty of writing long e-mails sometimes (I’m working on it!). But I tend to agree with marketing guru Guy Kawasaki, who says five sentences is the optimal length of an e-mail.

Getting your e-mail length under control means people are more likely to actually read the thing. And it means more time spent on projects and less in your inbox.


I’d love to hear about the tricks you use to get your e-mail under control — and so would others. Drop your advice in the comments!

More E-mail Advice:

Guy Kawasaki’s “The Effective EMailer”
Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” series | Video here

Author: Danny Sanchez

Danny Sanchez is the Audience Development Manager at Tribune's Sun-Sentinel.com and OrlandoSentinel.com. Danny has been with Tribune since 2005 in a variety of editorial, digital and product development roles in Hartford, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. He has also previously worked in the newsrooms of the Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald.

18 thoughts on “5 tips on managing insane amounts of e-mail”

  1. Good tips Danny.

    I also recommend downloading and installing Xobni, a free outlook plug-in. It’s a great way to quickly find e-mails and it gives you a quick picture of who you e-mail with the most, etc.

    Do you find that Google desktop slows down your computer? I used to have it, but didn’t re-install it when I got a new computer at work because I was worried it was slowing me down.

    I mentioned many of the GTD tips and Xobni in a column last summer. Of course, I totally haven’t been following my own advice lately



  2. Hey Etan, thanks for the tip on Xobni. I’m going to check it out right now.

    Personally I haven’t noticed that Desktop slows down my machine. It usually eats about 10,000K-12,000K, give or take, which isn’t bad at all compared to things like Firefox, Outlook, Twhirl, etc. I don’t run the toolbar that docks on the desktop though.

    I do wonder if Desktop slows down Outlook though. It’s hard to tell because I just got upgraded to 2007. And, my personal archive folder is enormous 🙂

  3. I use Gmail, and I use my inbox as a todo list. In my defense, I star e-mails that fall into the “Someday/Maybe” category, and archive everything that isn’t actionable. So everything in my inbox is something that actually needs to be done.

    I have a folder for all my listserve emails, a folder for job-related emails, an archived folder for old school emails, and a few others. I’ve tried using more folders for individual projects, but it just turns into this horrific list of folders on the Gmail page. THAT’S scary.

  4. Hey Megan, some e-mail gurus sort e-mail the way you just described — by triaging them into action items, followup, check later, etc. That might work for some folks.

    Personally, I find it less stressful to keep a separate to-do list. That way, I know EVERYTHING on that list is something I have to do. I sometimes even put a to-do reminder in the case that I’ve asked an important question to someone that needs a followup. So, yes, I sometimes to-do list my Sent E-Mail also 🙂

    To keep the project folders manageable, I make sure to retire old folders that I don’t need any more and just stick them in my general “E-Mail Vault.”

  5. Hi Danny!

    For me, managing email effectively is a gradual process because it involves changing work habits. This is the post on Unclutterer set me on my journey: http://unclutterer.com/2008/03/31/simple-strategies-to-clear-email-clutter-from-gina-trapani-of-lifehacker/

    And moving from Outlook to Gmail, I’ve realized that keeping up to date on Gmail developments is essential. They’re regularly rolling out new things that makes managing mail a lot easier.

    I’m not there YET, but my Gmail isn’t nearly as intimidating as it used to be.


  6. Great tips.

    One caution I would add to tip Number 3 — Use personal folders, and archive e-mail by project —

    Be sure you know you’re employer’s purge policy on folders. I was creating folders and putting stuff in them to be organized. But I found out the hard way that my newspaper’s purge date on folders was quicker than in my regular inbox. Lost a bunch of stuff.

    Anyway, it’s a great tip, but wanted to pass on my experience.

  7. I can’t say I know many people who use their inbox as a to-do list. Then again, perhaps folks wouldn’t admit it…

    I’ve got to organize my inbox better. Right now I just have the general box.

    And my personal rule: Why send an e-mail when a phone call would suffice? Or an IM.

  8. OK, OK, I admit it, I kinda use my inbox for a to-do list. In gmail, you can turn on multiple box views in Labs. I show just starred items in one view. So when I need to follow up on something, I star it and it’s at the top of that box.

    Gina — Good point about admin purging of Outlook. Setting up the personal folders feature moves mail off the server and onto your local hard drive. It’s a beautiful thing!


  9. That’s a great tip on using Google Desktop for Outlook when performing searches on Outlook. I do find myself searching often in Outlook, but it takes forever especially when you have so many emails! Thanks!

  10. Great tips – here’s a few more:
    * turn off notifications – that way you get on with work and aren’t annoyed by visuals, bells and whistles
    * make sure you open up in calendar, not inbox
    * if you need a response within 24 hours – pick up the phone


  11. I use app called Lookout for the indexing of my Outlook data – It has since been bought and molested by Microsoft, so luckily I kept a copy of the original install file to share and reinstall when needed. It is quick, user-friendly and does NOT consume a noticable amount of resources….unlike the product it was turned into.

    My 2 primary weapons in managing the endless influx of email are: Rules and the Favorites folder.

    I set up my folders by department – so, if John from Corporate marketing is emailing me, the rule sends his email to the Corp Marketing folder.
    The same situation exists for emails from my boss, however, in addition to the rule that sends his emails to his folder, I also have his folder in my Favorites folder lilst. I also changed the attributes on his folder to show me the “count of unread mail”. That way, if an email from him is in his folder, the font is bold and a number of unread emails is shown.

    I have to be intentional about who gets added to my favorites folder…as not everyone’s needs are both urgent and important.

    From time to time I may add a rule that puts project-oriented emails into a specific project folder. Once the project is over, I revert back to the original configuration of filing emails ‘by department’.

    And, oh yeah….the most important tool: DELETE. For the simple fact that I have a finite amount of time I can devote to email management. If the request is not from a “high priority” person or department, the odds are, they will come back to me with another request if I fail to respond to the first. Again, I use this with discretion.

  12. Hi Tom, that’s interesting that many of your rules are based on the person or department from which it’s coming. That’s an interesting system, especially if there are multiple “problem people” to be dealt with.

    On the having people come a second time with requests, I’m personally on the fence about that. Doing that could conceivably lead to a reputation for not being responsive, which can be a career killer.

    I’ll have to check out Lookout. Good call keeping the original install file with you.

  13. Danny,
    Good point regarding the potential career damaging side-effects. I definitely use that tactic as a last resort and probably should have been more clear about it.

    The “rules by people/department” logic is that it is hard to control the rule by subject line…unless there is an existing email thread with definable text. Hence, its hard to automate the control of email by project. However, doing it manually is possible.

    Truth is, I’ve really been intentional about trying to learn how to effectively deal with the data saturation via email. I haven’t found a truly reliable solution yet…so I guess I’ll just keep trying things until I’m at least 80% satisfied with the results.

    If you have an interest in the lookout add-in for Outlook, I’d be happy to send you the original install file I use. Just email me at tom.mcgee@sage.com

    Thanks again for the reply.

  14. Oh yeah, I almost forgot….I really took to heart the tip on keeping emails to 5 sentences or less. I tend to be long-winded and know that is a huge “growth edge” for me personally.
    Good reminder of how to be more a more effective communicator…and better coworker.


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