Box of Crayons Blog


WorkHacks to Amp Up Your Week #1: 19 best ways to handle email overwhelm

WorkHacks to Amp Up Your Week #1: 19 best ways to handle email overwhelm

This is the month for changing how you get things done.

This is the week for getting charged up on how to do it.

This is the blog to show you how.

Today? The 19 best ways to handle email overwhelm

(Just pick one to work on, OK? I know you can’t implement all of these. So imagine a matrix that had as one axis “likelihood of doing it” and another “size of impact”. What’s the action in the top right hand box?)

Admit it’s costing you

1. Start by not confusing “doing email” with “doing the real work”. It’s no great boast that you’ve worked your way back down to the mailroom. (And how long are you spending there? Two hours a day at least I’d bet.)

2. Know that by starting the day doing your email (41% of us, according to a 2005 survey) you’re using the high-quality fuel in your brain for what’s mostly an exceedingly mundane task. Jim Collins doesn’t look at electronic input until after. (This is a piece of advice I’m singularly unable to follow … but it’s still good advice.)

3. Realize that “staying on top of my email” in a Sisyphean task of hopelessness. It’s like digging a hole in the beach by the ocean. No matter how fast you scoop, water keeps coming in. The good news in that is that “freedom,” so says the bard “is when there’s nothing left to lose.”

4. Decide to actually do something about email. You’ll likely never conquer it, but the lesser of two evils is still the lesser of two evils.

Improve the output

5. 80% of email gets deleted within 3 seconds. So if you have to send email, make it consumable in 3 seconds.

6. Start by making your subject line awesome. Useful. Compelling. Spend 37.4% of your time on this.

7. Then keep your emails to three sentences.

8. If action is required, but it clear that actions is required.

  • What needs to be done? (Action up front)
  • By when? (Deadline)
  • How will you let me know? (How will you communicate competed?)

9. Stop being polite. Stop sending emails saying “thanks” or “got it’.

10. Don’t Reply All. Don’t BCC. Too much and too secret.

11. Don’t send the email.

Control the input

12. Create a code of email conduct with your 50 most regular communicants. They’ll be as happy as you are. When, how long, etiquette for replies, TLAs you will use, etc

13. Filter, filter, filter. Your inbox is not a defacto To Do list. Get a to do system that works. (I’m a fan of Flow, infused lightly with the principles of GTD myself, but each to their own.)

14. Getting copied on CYA emails once? Shame on them. Getting copied on CYA emails twice? Shame on you.

15. Start asking “Why are you sending this to me? Or more bluntly, “I don’t need to see this. Stop it.”

16. Refuse to accept emails while you’re on vacation. Send an auto reply that tells people you will delete all emails unread when you’re back, so if it’s important enough send me the email on [insert date of return].

17. Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe. (Except for my newsletter and blog feed of course.)

18. Delete anything more than 30 days old that’s in your inbox. Or archive it. Or turn it into an action item.

19. Declare email bankruptcy and just delete everything. Or at least, move everything into a folder called “The folder formerly known as InBox” and start afresh.

So there are so ways for battling the email dragon. What other weapons do you have in your arsenal? And which ones do you actually use?

By the way – if you’ve enjoyed this post, you’ll love the Great Work Provocations, a nifty Monday – Friday email series.

4 Responses to WorkHacks to Amp Up Your Week #1: 19 best ways to handle email overwhelm

  • fjr

    May I share my greatest challenge rather than my solution? I get too many communications from people who have dramatically more free time than I have. I admit that I always try to reply because I don’t want them to feel abandoned by me. But this practice is no longer sustainable.
    I do get some subscribed-to communications that I have time to read sometimes but not regularly. When I don’t have time for them, I delete without reading, which takes essentially no time.

  • Rich Litvin

    Great article, Michael. I love your line about not starting your day with email: “This is a piece of advice I’m singularly unable to follow … but it’s still good advice.”

    Personally, I used to think that email was the “problem”. Now I am realizing that it is actually just a “symptom”. When I am constantly checking email – its a sign that my thinking is cloudy. And it’s time to go for a walk, do some exercise, or dive into that project I have been avoiding.

    I recently came across a really cool app called AwayFind I just put in the names of those few people where it is important that I respond to them quickly (for me that’s my family and my clients – that’s it).

    Then, if THOSE people contact me, a message pops up on my phone with the text of their email. So cool. Everything else isn’t urgent, so I don’t even see it. It’s really helping me let go of that urge to constantly check email.

  • Jared Goralnick - AwayFind founder

    Love these tips, Michael! I’m just coming across your blog after seeing Rich’s AwayFind mention (thanks, Rich!). As the founder of a company that focuses exclusively on email productivity and a productivity trainer for 8 years, these tips are huge.

    I love the tips around controlling the input, in particular. Like Rich and you mentioned, so much of the problem with email is how we deal with it, not the email itself. Whether that be how often we check email, the messages we force ourselves to stare at months after they’ve arrived, etc.

    If I can help at all with any of your readers regarding my own approach to all this (, I’d be happy to reply to their comments–I personally believe the biggest problem is email INTERRUPTIONS. It takes us about 4 minutes to get back on track from every interruption, so I believe we need to spend less in our inboxes. It’s just ridiculous that many of us spend 4 hours every day in our email when that’s not how anyone sets out to spend their day.

    Thanks again for spreading awareness and sharing your insights here, and I’ll be following all the rest of your productivity tips in this series. Great work!

  • Pingback: Email overwhelm: getting over it · Corporate offsites

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