Too Many Emails, Not Enough Time
When I started my internet fast last month, email had become the bane of my existence.
I had 1, 046 unanswered emails in my inbox — none of it spam — and new emails flooding in every day. I constantly worried about events or to-do items I might be forgetting because they were lost in the abyss of my inbox. Something had to give.
The situation seemed hopeless because the root problem is that I just don’t have as much time as I need to stay on top of email, and unless God finally answers my prayers to institute a 28-hour day, there’s nothing I can do about that. But after a lot of thinking and praying about all this during the fast, I came up with some ideas to help me minimize my email stress, even if I still don’t have time to reply to them all. I’ve been trying out these ideas for more than a month now and they’ve worked wonders for me, so I thought I’d share my new system in case anyone else has similar struggles:
Creating Space for Lingering Emails
I’ve always used folders for filing old emails I want to keep, but I realized that I needed a new category of folders. I already had ones like RECIPES for recipes people emailed me, CONTACT INFO for emails that contained people’s contact info I wanted to keep, etc. but I added two more that really helped me clear a lot of items out of my inbox: ADD TO TO-DO LIST and TO-DO LIST REFERENCE.
ADD TO TO-DO LIST is a folder where I move emails that have an action item on it that I have not yet dealt with, e.g. if I get an email that I need to update my credit card on an online account but can’t do it right then. Then, when I do my weekly planning each week, I take a moment to glance through that folder and see what needs to be added to my to-do list.
TO-DO LIST REFERENCE is a folder where I put emails that contain information I might need to access in the short-term to get through items on my to-do list, such as directions to an upcoming party or the registry info for someone for whom I need to buy a baby shower gift. I usually move emails from ADD TO TO-DO LIST to this one after I’ve written them on my weekly to-do list.
Both of these folders have been a great help in keeping my inbox from getting bloated.
The Big Breakthrough: Creating Low-Stress Inboxes
This was the big breakthrough for me that changed everything: Creating separate inboxes to take low-stress emails out of my main inbox. Here’s what I mean by that:
As I was glancing through my 1, 046-item inbox after the fast, I noticed that a larger percentage of them were emails I didn’t need to worry about too much for various reasons: Some were from good friends and family members whom I could easily pick up the phone and call to see if I was missing anything; others were just email lists I’m on that require no action from me; and others were from blog readers which, while they were very important to me, I didn’t need to stress about because I’ve alerted readers to the fact that it’s hard for me to keep up with email.
Based on this, I created new, separate inbox folders according to the following rules:
- Anyone from whom I often receive more than three emails per day whom I know well enough to have a quick phone call with gets his or her own inbox. (This does not include friends or family whom I might be close to but haven’t spoken to in a while and therefore would feel rude calling without a more lengthy catchup conversation.)
- Groups of people from whom I typically get more than two emails per day and know well enough to have a quick phone call with get their own inbox (e.g. local friends).
- Groups from whom I typically get more than two emails per day and don’t need to stress about too much get their own inboxes (e.g. lists I’m on, blog email).
I then created rules so that incoming emails would be filtered into the various inboxes.
How it Works
To see what it all looks like in practice, let me walk you through my old way of dealing with email: Let’s say I checked my email at noon on a Monday. I’d look at my inbox folder to see something like this:
- INBOX (47)
In addition to the zillions of other emails lingering in my inbox, I’d now have 47 new emails from that morning deal with (I have a good spam filter, so none of that would be spam). I’d know that not very many of these emails were high-stress, but with them all mixed together — and new ones coming in all the time — I’d start to feel overwhelmed immediately. I’d delete a few, move a few to folders, but end up leaving most of them in my inbox either because I hadn’t had time to reply to them yet, or because I needed to keep them around as a reminder to do something. It was a perfect recipe for ending up with more than 1, 000 emails in my inbox.
Here’s how it looks now. Let’s take this same scenario of checking my email where I have 47 new items. Here’s what I’d see with my new system:
- INBOX (9)
- INBOX – BLOG (5)
- INBOX – DAD (5)
- INBOX – FRIENDS (9)
- INBOX – HUSBAND (7)
- INBOX – LISTS (6)
- INBOX – MOM (3)
- INBOX – YAYA (3)
Now I can see at a glance how many emails I have in the various low-stress categories. It’s helpful to me to have all the individual inboxes, rather than having one inbox called INBOX – LOW-STRESS EMAILS or something like that, because I can immediately see if there’s anyone whose emails I’m getting behind on, and can deal with it accordingly (e.g. if my INBOX – DAD folder starts piling up with new emails, I can just pick up the phone and call him to ask if there’s anything urgent I’m missing).
Now I can use my very limited email time more wisely. In this scenario, I might see in my main INBOX a couple of semi-urgent emails, such as an important question from my agent, a “nice to meet you” email from someone whom I met at a recent get-together whom I’d promised I’d send some information, and an email from an aunt asking for help with something. I’d reply to those immediately. Then, as my email time slips by all too quickly, I could hurry through the other inboxes and move any action items to my ADD TO TO-DO LIST folder (e.g. an email from my husband asking me to call his student loan provider with a question), and reply to as many as possible.
Inevitably my time would run out before I could get through all the emails, but with this new system I won’t stress about it as much because I’ll be able to see that most of the un-dealt-with emails are in low-stress categories.
I’ve been using this system for more than a month now, and I cannot believe how much it has reduced my email stress — and therefore my general stress level. I still face the problem that I’m bad at decision-making and therefore it takes me a long time to go through emails, and that I just don’t have the time I’d need to really stay on top of it all, but I would say that this system has reduced my email stress by at least 80%.
I use Microsoft Outlook as my email program, but any of this could be done in all the main email systems like Gmail, Yahoo, etc. To find out how to do any of the things I mentioned above in your email program, you could Google something like create folders in [name of your email provider].
I hope this is helpful to others who might also be fighting the email beast. Anyone else have any good email tips?
- 12 Rules for Getting a Grip on Massive Email (ProBlogger)
- An “Inbox Zero” presentation for Google employees (Lifehacker)
- From 10000 to 0 Emails in an Inbox in 24 Hours (ProBlogger)
- five.sentenc.es (I’ve seen people add this URL to their email signature to explain why their emails are short)
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