5 Tips for Managing Email Overload

With press releases, Evites, news stories, coupon codes, client communications, and internal messages all arriving electronically, most of us get about a gazillion emails a day. For awhile, I managed several email boxes so I could keep newsletters and group discussions separate from my main inbox. Big mistake! Now I have over a thousand unread messages in one email account, and I’m tempted to declare email bankruptcy.

Since then, I’ve been focusing on one email account that I check consistently and keep organized. I’ve found that it’s more efficient for me personally to manage one inbox than it is to jump around checking multiple accounts. Here are several strategies for staying on top of email:

Use email filtering

Repeat after me: “filters are my friend.” This handy tool can help you stay organized and control the flow of email. I use filters to automatically mark certain emails as read if I want to keep them handy but don’t want to be bothered when they reach my inbox. For instance, I subscribe to emails that offer discounts on office supplies, but I only refer to them when I actually need to order something. I can click on that filter to easily locate the newest discount code and ignore the emails the rest of the time. You can also use filters to keep track of emails pertaining to certain projects or coming from certain people. Here’s how to set up filters (sometimes also called “rules) in Mac OS X mail, Gmail, Yahoo! mail, and Outlook.

Use the email search function

Aside from filtering unimportant (or unwanted) emails, you don’t have to go too crazy with filters as long as your email program has a decent search function. As a Google product, Gmail is probably one of the most search-friendly email programs around. However, you don’t necessarily have to have a Gmail address to take advantage of its search capabilities. Here’s how to switch to Gmail without changing your email address (Gmail works for Outlook or your own domain-based email). If you must use Outlook, Xobni offers a free download that apparently makes it easier to search Outlook (full disclosure: I haven’t tried this product myself).

Disable email notifications.

That little icon in Gmail or Outlook that announces a new email message may seem convenient, but it makes it more difficult for you to focus on other tasks and encourages a Pavlovian response to emails. Few messages are truly that urgent and in most cases, if someone needs an immediate response, they’ll know how to reach you by phone or other methods. Waiting until you’ve finished a task instead of constantly clicking back to your email program will allow you to get more done and feel less enslaved by your inbox. Here’s how to disable Outlook notifications.

Delete (or unsubscribe to) emails without mercy.

I used to read every single email that crossed my inbox. Then I got a Blackberry and discovered that it’s much easier to mass delete unimportant emails than it is to wait for them to load and squint at a tiny screen trying to figure out if I should respond or flag the email or what. How do I know if an email pertains to me? I scan the subject line and the sender’s name. Most press releases, mass emails, and email solicitations get deleted en masse unless there’s something special that catches my eye. And if it’s really off-topic, then I’ll unsubscribe to save myself the trouble of deleting them in the future.

Don’t use email for everything.

Not everything requires an email. Some discussions are better suited for a quick phone call to clear up confusion or confirm details. If a phone call isn’t practical or you’d prefer to have a paper trail of who said what when, then consider using a Google Wave. This tool is now open to everyone and allows users to track tasks, share video and photos, and archive discussions, making it ideal for collaboration.

What about you? Do you use one email account or several? How do you keep emails organized?

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Susan Johnston is a freelance writer/blogger who has contributed to publications including The Boston Globe, Mint.com’s blog, WomenEntrepreneur.com, and Yahoo! HotJobs. Her own blog, UrbanMuseWriter.com, covers tips on productivity, brainstorming, and more for fellow writers.


  1. Susannah on the 3rd June

    Is there a how to on how to create filters?

  2. Joshua Eckblad on the 3rd June

    Susan, I enjoyed reading your advice for email.

    In the end it’s very much about seeing things inthe right place at the right time. It’s hard to know which criteria to use since the way we communicate shifts endlessly – different on the weekend from the workweek or when we’re on one assignment for part of the week and on something else another part – yet email keeps flowing in. Things to do now. Things to do later. So we try and create views via folders, for example, that allow us to sort the bins. But it’s hard to keep up.

    Gmail search is indeed very powerful but it’s still rather difficult to see & remember which emails in the list truly contain worthwhile information even from the people we communicate often – since subject lines are often not carefully composed.

    Filters are difficult to get right. In the end, they’re especially useful for moving unimportant newsletters, etc… out of the Inbox automatically when the Inbox is used as a ToDo list.

    You might be interested in Kwaga which let’s you not worry so much about organizing emails into neat views and still lets you know which emails you should answer and which one’s someone has forgotten to reply. Full disclosure, I’m part of the team working on this and we’re really excited about letting people go about their business and the tools getting smarter – rather than asking people to bend to the tools.

    In any case email is worth getting right. Look forward to your readers’ views.

    • Mike Vardy on the 3rd June

      Joshua, thanks for your comment. More importantly, thanks for the disclosure.

    • Susan Johnston on the 4th June

      Thanks for the heads-up on Kwaga! We’ll look into this.

  3. Kyle on the 3rd June

    Good article. For search functionality in Outlook, may I suggest Google Desktop’s Outlook Integration: http://desktop.google.com/features.html#additional

    Xobni provides some additional functionality, but for pure search Google Desktop works better in my opinion.

  4. Rhodes Davis on the 4th June

    For Outlook, I disabled new mail notifications BUT I set up a rule to notify me when I get an email from the executives or my accounting system manager. Go to the Rules Wizard, choose “Display mail from someone in the New Item Alert Window,” choose their email addresses, then choose “display a Desktop Alert.”

  5. Marsha Egan on the 5th June

    Great article. To be extremely productive in managing your e-mail, I like to suggest that people check their and inboxes in the longest intervals possible. For the average business person, five times daily works. By avoiding all those interruptions, you can really get a lot done. The receipt of e-mail messages breaks concentration, and many people don’t realize how costly those breaks in concentration can be.

  6. Freek on the 6th June

    Susan, great post. Nice and to the point.

    I’m using XOBNI in Outlook. Indeed, it improves search capabilities slightly, but
    it’s still not very fast, nothing compared to the search in Google.

    I would advise to use that or the Google Desktop integration as proposed above, works like a charm!

  7. Jon Spooner on the 16th May

    Hello- I just clicked back to this article and have to share a great tool/game/find that I recently started playing with:


    It is from the same folks who have created the very useful Boomerang (a FireFox based tool for Gmail allowing for email timestretching)

    And I gotta say I tried Email Game this morning and whew it totally worked! I flew thru all of my emails rather than getting sucked into one email early in the order and losing track of the task (getting down to 0 new msgs)

    hope this helps someone else-

    Jon Spooner

  8. Jared Balis on the 12th September

    Susan, I have been unsubscribing from every email that comes through any of my email inboxes that isn’t productive/I don’t need/I don’t want. I’ve been doing it with no mercy for almost a week now. It’s a great tip in your article. I am finally to the point where I’m surprised to see junk mail when a piece does come through. It’s cut down on how much I look at my phone, only to delete email after email from marketers. I finally feel like I have my inbox under control. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Irish Park on the 2nd October

    We commuters need true email inbox management that’s eyes-free and hands-free and safe for the road. There’s a new smartphone app called Talkler —billed as “email for your ears.” Talkler is a free smartphone app that’s voice-controlled, and reads your emails aloud to you. There’s more at Talkler.com.

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