How I reduced my email stress by 80%

November 16, 2009 | 17 comments

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 – 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?



  1. Jamie

    What a wonderful and inspring plan, Jen! I am going to add "Email Organization" to my own work AND home to-do lists. 🙂

    It didn't make sense until you used the examples. But now it is all crystal clear.

  2. Katie Alender

    I have about ten different email addresses, and I use them all for different things–work, mailing lists, etc. I was getting really overwhelmed, especially because I checked my email on multiple computers and I never knew what was where, so I had to keep everything.

    A few months ago, I switched to Gmail. I forwarded all of my other emails to the Gmail account. If I wanted to, I could create a filter to separate them out by account or label them specially as they come in. You can also use Gmail to send from other email addresses, and set it to automatically reply from the address it was sent to (and/or change it manually).

    I have a very detailed label system–To Do and Reply are my top-shelf labels, which get their own mini-windows on my main email page.

    Gmail also has a feature called "Canned responses." So if there's a paragraph you find yourself typing over and over again, you can save it and insert it into emails with one click. I currently use this for my signature, but I'm considering using it for a couple of frequently-asked questions. Then you can personalize after the standard response.

    Setting things up this way has made email life so much easier. And I can access my account and all of my archived emails from any computer with internet access.

    Another thing I do is create labels for emails, no matter how vacuous the label sounds. Those "your order is being shipped" emails go right into the shopping folder. Someday I may go through and clean them out, but Gmail has so much storage and such good searchability that it's not even something I'm worrying about right now.

    Hope this helps someone!

  3. Jodi

    I also code emails by color based on whether it's to me only or if I'm cc'ed on it. That helps me know what I should respnd to first.

  4. elizabethe

    Hi Jenn, That sounds like a great system. My system has the same effect, but with a different method. I have about 5 different email addresses (with the same, you know, last part thing, I'm so computer illiterate) through a google mail account and they all come into my Mac mail folder. So I can see the high priority emails are pretty much all going to come into my "work" address, while I make sure my non-stress list and other emails only go to one of my other addresses. All I have to do is make sure I give the right email address to the right people.

  5. Christina

    I think this is something I'm going to start with my gmail account. My work account is OK since I have a solitary type job I get few emails a day and either way I'm paid to work on them. However my personal account quickly gets flooded with random stuff (not quite 45 a day, but since it takes me an hour to reply to one email it might as well be).

  6. Joyful Catholic

    Brilliant! Thank you! Must implement post haste!

  7. Dawn Farias

    As someone who gets excited when she sees INBOX(1), I don't really have this problem! Ha. But I appreciate the information and I'll know where to come for help if I ever make it up to, say, INBOX(10) or something like that.


  8. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jen, first off, loved hearing from you during my fast. That meant a lot to me to see your name, especially given your online overload. (You are so loved!) You were one of those who inspired me to do this even though Lent is quite a ways off. Thanks for the unintentional nudge. My biggest issue is that I have email through laptop and pc and need to figure out a way to coordinate them so I am not managing two email systems. It's the same address (I wouldn't want more than one address, I don't think) but two different computers, so I am double filing. Not good, I know! I'll check back to see if anyone has any tips on that.

  9. Anonymous

    I am so torn about email.

    Never have I ever been so excited to see something ("Inbox 9", say) that I wish I never had to begin with.

    It has its conveniences – but it also has its price – creating yet another obligation.

    I am still torn, and can't even come up with a good last sentence about it for this post.

    I guess maybe it's like plastic packaging, car maintenence, and so on – a kind of downside to the ease it gives.

    Maybe because I didn't grow up with it and can remember how life got on very well without it, and now….I dunno.

  10. Karyn

    I must lead a boring life. I don't have nearly enough emails to require that many subcategories – and I will thank God for that! Good luck with your new system.

  11. Anonymous

    I am completely stressed just reading this! This is way too much electronic life and I am guessing type AAA personalities. I going to take a nap.

  12. Lana

    tee hee. i was thinking I would come over here and post that I never have this problem because Inbox (14) is the highest I EVER get and I am SO excited to see that when it does happen.
    Looks like I am not alone.

  13. Headless Mom

    I have 2 different email addresses. One for personal, family, bank, etc. and one for blog info. That helps me tremendously!

  14. Sebastian

    It really helps to remember what your system is. I set up a bunch of rules to tame my email over the summer. Then I couldn't figure out why my husband's emails were only going to my gmail account. Months later, I realized that all of his emails were going into the folder I'd set up to store his notes.

  15. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience

    Since seeing your tweet about a possible email solution…. I've been waiting for this post! 🙂

    Can you come organize my inbox — for a substantial consultant fee? A far more competent person than I could manage it well, I'm certain.

    I fail email. Miserably.

    To the point that I wonder if I should be online. There are people at the other end of those words, who poured their hearts into those letters. The daily burden of that breaks me, crushes. They reach out — and I want to reach out too.

    Just to whisper: Thank you. With the help of your post here, maybe I can figure this out?

    Indebted… and always grateful for you,


  16. Rebecca

    I too use the folders/filters method to help me with email, makes it so much less stressful.

    2 other things:
    1) having a smartphone/blackberry – I love getting my email throughout the day, that way things that need a quick, one-word answer can be responded to while sitting in traffic (not driving, sitting) or waiting for an appointing, in a drive-through, etc. I have it set, so that it does not interfere with my filters/folders at all!

    2) I was at a time management seminar and the presenter talked about 'managing email' not 'checking email'. I no longer just thumb through my email, if I'm taking the time to log in, I manage it. I attend to it as it needs attended to and then archive/delete/sometimes save what I need. This has made such a HUGE difference combined with the smartphone!


    A very ingenious plan, congrats! 🙂

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