Three steps for fighting the chaos in your email inbox

If there is one thing I am genuinely afraid of it is my email inbox. Every time I am getting too busy to keep my inbox in check, my Unread Emails counter immediately grows three digits big. And I am not even important! How can we deal with the flood of emails from advisors, colleagues, professors, students, administrators, listservs, and RSS feeds? Here are three steps for taking control over your inbox.


Put your email inbox on a diet

One of the most obvious solutions is to reduce the amount of emails that are coming in. Do you really need to see all these updates from facebook and amazon? When was the last time you clicked on a link from that particular listserv? Is that email subscription to blog X really helping you in your daily life? (Tip: for the academiPad blog, the answer obviously is “yes”.)

I would like to challenge you for a week-long email inbox diet: Over the next seven days, unsubscribe to every message service that you don’t read, don’t find important, or you could have lived without. We often don’t do this because we are lazy. However, if you commit yourself to this inbox diet for one week, you will soon see the difference.

And what better way of committing yourself to something than telling everybody about it? Retweet this if you are with me!

Often, it is not even so difficult. One great example is facebook: You can bash it as much as you want, but at least unsubscribing from its status and discussion updates is damn easy through a link at the bottom of each email that goes out.

Other message services require more work to unsubscribe from. Challenge accepted! Make it your personal quest to never get any email from that list again.


Manage your emails as if you were doing sports

While the first step is all about reducing the amount of emails you have to process, the second step is all about processing those emails that make it through more efficiently. Bryan has written an excellent post about the Inbox Zero principle that I highly recommend checking out.

In short, the idea is to check your email inbox less often, but once you are in the box, you take action vigorously! Such actions include deleting emails, delegating tasks, writing responses, defer longer replys, and doing the actions related to an email.

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How is this like doing sports? Because you do it for a short time, you fully focus on the game, and you expect to get sweaty. Once you have left the gym (aka: email inbox), your mind is clear to do other stuff.


Organize, organize, and organize your emails

So, now that you have less emails to process (step 1) and you process your emails like a Judo fighter (step 2), what can you do to organize your emails? And is there a tool that can help you?

One thing to keep in mind about the inbox zero principle is that it’s a methodology to increase productivity. However, it doesn’t say much about how you can manage all the information that comes in with the email flood. For example, some emails don’t need to be followed up by an action immediately, but you might want to check back on it later, when you are working on that new research project or you are hunting for your first job. For finding that email 28 days later, you need to have a good information management workflow in place.

The standard Mac Mail app already comes with a couple of features that help you to organize your emails. You can use smart folders to collect emails from certain people you work with, to show you all unread emails, and to display emails that contain certain terms. While smart folders leave your emails in the inbox, you can use rules to automatically move emails into special folders. Last, you can use differently colored flags to highlight important emails.

However, if you are serious about extending your information management workflow into your email inbox, I suggest you check out MailTags.

MailTags fully integrates with Mail and expands its capabilities in a couple of ways: You can assign tags (like Gmail’s Labels) and projects to emails, color-code and highlight emails as important, and you can add notes to emails. In addition, MailTags improves your task management by letting you set a date when you want to see an email again, and it allows you to create events and tasks in iCal without ever leaving Mail.


Recap: Three steps for fighting the chaos in your email inbox

In short, you can take control over your email inbox by reducing the amount of junk coming in, by opening your inbox seldomly but always with purpose, and by extending your information management workflow into your email inbox. With these three steps, you can battle down the chaos in your inbox and say good-bye to information overload.

The only problem is that once your students/colleagues know about your email ninja tricks, you won’t have any excuse left for not answering their emails. Use at your own risk!

Disclaimer: Image source unknown.

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  1. Generally it is a good idea to keep distractions down to a bare minimum as every time an email pings in, or any other form of distraction disrupts your work flow it takes you away from your task at hand. Once you have been distracted research has shown that it can take up approximately 24 minutes to fully disconnect after reading your email - so you will never focus if you have continuous distractions.

    One of my colleagues has written a piece which supports this blog post well and has some advice so try this too –

  2. Julie says:

    I use the program “Sparrow” to keep updated on incoming emails; as such, I receive a notice as soon as I receive an email. I find this mostly useful because it allows me to see important information right away. However, it also pressures me into responding to emails that may not be urgent. Would you recommending uninstalling this application so I would check emails less frequently? Thanks.

    • Jo says:

      Hi Julie,

      I am with Christopher (below) on this one: these instant notifications are a huge distraction. Bryan, academiPad’s resident productivity ninja, has written an article on Inbox zero which might be a good read as well in order to improve inbox habits (

      Not sure if you have to go to the extreme and uninstall Sparrow. If you like its minimalist approach, then by all means keep it in your workflow, but check the settings whether you can turn off the instant updates – I would be very surprised if there is no check box for that.

  3. Bryan Sippel says:

    Your third point is a great one and would like to offer some suggestions based on your idea of “organize, organize, and organize your emails”. My guess is that if you are the type that is reading this post and comment you are very interested in personal productivity and will also guess that you may be the type that can sometimes get carried away with organization methods. I certainly fall into that category, so offer these suggestions:

    – Search, search, and search your emails: I will talk anyone’s ear off about my love for the search functionality in Gmail. Putting all email into the same folder and then searching for a particular message can be a very powerful organization method. My current Gmail workflow is Inbox –> Archive. That’s it! Sure I have some tags, but to be honest I never use them. Check this post for some Gmail specific search tips:

    – ROI: Make sure to monitor your return on investment (ROI) on your organization methods. Years ago I had a crazy email folder structure, something like: areas of responsibilities > year > projects > project phase > … After stepping back it quickly became evident that the amount of time I was investing organizing my email was not providing a great return on my time finding my email. When using your email organization techniques – step back and think – is moving this email to this folder or applying this tag really going to help me find my email faster?

    • Jo says:

      Good point, Bryan! I am glad to see you that have gotten your compulsive ordering of the world under control :-)

      But seriously, you are right, and your comment made me reflect on my tagging approach: I think the best tagging occurs when you are tagging task or project based. For example, I might tag some email with academipad if it has to do with this blog, or I tag another email (or anything really, as tagging is just another way to order the world with a little bit more flexibility) with IndCom, which is the historic code for my research topic on object agency with the engineers here at Queens. I think tagging this way makes sense, because these words most likely won’t show up in the email or file I am tagging. Also, it helps me to group bits of info together when I am working my way back into a topic.

      I can’t say that I am always tagging files, or that I am very efficient in doing so. But your ROI comment (buzz word alarm!!!) will keep me on my toes to further improve my tagging habits – thank you for that! Once I am feeling good about my tagging workflow, I am sure I will brag about it here on academiPad 😉

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