How To Effectively Manage Email Overload

Email is convenient and quick, but we’re drowning in it. And until Artificial Intelligence sorts it out, it’s up to you to get a grip. Alex Van Tol, who works with organizations to focus their brand story and writes about business for Douglas magazine, examines how to manage email. 

Remember when email wasn’t a thing? From those halcyon days of the late 1990s to now, everything has changed. Chances are you’ve felt agitated, scattered and unproductive at the end of a day when you spent too much time in your inbox.

In 2012, McKinsey Global Institute published research showing that up to 25 per cent of an average worker’s day is sucked into the email vortex (that may not have been McKinsey’s exact language).

According to psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman in his newest book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, email may not only be a time sucker, it can erode our focus, and that leads to other problems.   

“The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy shortcuts, like triaging emails by heading, skipping voicemails and skimming messages and memos,” he writes. “It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less attentive, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean.”

Your attention is the most valuable thing you have. Apportion it accordingly.

How to Save an Hour a Day

Make Your Ground Rules Clear

You teach people how to treat you by the way you interact with them. If you respond immediately to an email — or late in the evening, or on Sunday — you’ve just shown your recipient that you’re available at those times.

“The only reason people are going to expect me to get back to them right away is if I set that expectation,” says Ashley Bauman, senior project director with Rennie Marketing Systems.

Since Bauman’s day is typically spent working face-to-face with clients or her team, Bauman puts an hour into answering emails before she gets to work, another hour after her workday is finished, and again before bed. “I’ll also check when I have gaps in my day,” she says.

For some people, it works better to devote 10 minutes to email every hour. Whatever frequency you choose, avoid leaving your email app open all day. That makes it too easy to fill those transitional moments between tasks with a quick check.

If the content is something your team members need a response on, ask them to tell you that up front.

“I have my project managers put in the subject line Priority, Please read or Need feedback by end of day,” says Bauman, who receives over 100 messages every day. “It helps me break through the clutter and see what my team needs first.”

And if a team member needs to connect with her on something that’s time-sensitive, she tells them to pick up the phone. “I find in this day and age we are so resistant to just calling,” Bauman says.

Find a System to Help You Stay Organized

If you want to feel less inundated, it’s up to you to take action. For Kevin Albers, CEO of the M’akola Housing Society, getting to a place where email wasn’t overwhelming took time.

“Up until this year I used my inbox as a way to drive and schedule my work,” he says. “I spent a lot of time opening emails, reading them, closing them and marking them unread because I hadn’t dealt with them.”

Sound familiar?

When he finally recognized how much anxiety this was causing him, Albers looked for another solution. He spent some time researching, reading white papers about best email practices. Now Albers makes a decision on every message he opens: Can I deal with this in two minutes? Then I’ll do it. For items that will take longer, he puts it into his schedule. “By the end of the week,” he says, “my inbox has to be empty.”

Ah, inbox zero. Imagine?

There’s Probably an App for That

Still find you can’t do it all yourself? Or maybe you’re not so excited about waking up at 5:30 a.m. just so you can wade through your inbox. Look around in your current email program for filters to sort your incoming mail; Gmail and Outlook have them, and it’s easy to find instructions online.

Taking it up a notch, you can try a dedicated email management program. Google Inbox lets you process each incoming email as a task, and it works on both desktop and mobile. The Sortd app lives inside your Gmail, like a skin, expanding your inbox into list-like columns that let you prioritize your emails; you can also add to-dos. And if you’re up for a challenge, The Email Game (for Gmail) actually gamifies the work of emptying your inbox.

A Few More Tips

Unsubscribe from promotional emails or newsletters that you don’t actually read. This lessens the psychic burden of a stack of emails in your Updates folder. is a free tool that will handle all of your unsubs for you.

Ask that you be left off CC loops unless you need to have your hands in something. (And for your part, don’t CC or “reply all” if you don’t need to.)

If you’re really getting washed out with email, hire help. When franchise consultant Angela Coté recognized she was drowning in email as she built her business, she brought an assistant on board. “At first it felt uncomfortable to have someone in my inbox,” she says. “It’s like letting someone be in your bedroom!” But the peace of mind — plus her assistant’s reassurance that everyone feels that way in the beginning — has proven worthwhile. “Email is so distracting,” says Coté. “It’s like, ‘Oh, look, SQUIRREL!’”

And finally, let go of the idea that you need to have everything under control. Give yourself permission to not get it all done. As Richard Carlson wrote in his 1997 bestseller Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, your in-basket will still be overflowing on the day you die.