7 Tips to Tackle Your Inbox

I still love the scene from The Office when Oscar (the bookkeeper) is asked to review Michael (the Manager’s) personal finances for advice. Oscar tells Michael he must declare bankruptcy, leading Michael to step out into the open office and shout, “I declare bankruptcy!” Classic.

Sadly, like our finances, we sometimes get overwhelmed by bad habits and poor decisions in other areas of our lives. Email is one of those dark places for many people, both personally and professionally.

You can admit it: You hate the feeling you get when you open your inbox to find hundreds of emails that “need” your immediate attention. It really doesn’t matter who you are or what you do for a living; we live in a seemingly endless flow of emails — enough to give anyone a tension headache. Every day.

Let’s just check a basic test: Are you feeling overwhelmed at home or at work most days? Your email volume may be to blame.

Sadly, this reaction to email should not come as a surprise: a recent study shows 53 percent of office workers prefer to send an email rather than picking up the phone. Yikes!

And here’s the kicker: Managing your inbox is one of the most dreaded activities productive people face. But if you desire to be more productive, you need a plan to cut your email in half. I took action on a plan to reduce my email load, and now I rarely feel overloaded at home, or at work.

Here’s how I did it.

1. Find the culprits of your endless inbox

Seriously. Just take a look at who you’re receiving the most emails from every day. This fact check should include mailing lists as well as how many emails are being sent directly to you by carbon copy (cc). This will allow you to target a few of your potential problem areas.

(Hint: If you’re using Gmail for your primary email, you can monitor this more easily by using Email Meter).

2. Politely ask people to reduce their number of emails 

Yes, seriously. You know the names of your inbox-filling culprits and it’s time to have a face-to-face (or phone) conversation about reducing the email volume. Trust me, you’ll get to the bottom of the problem much faster this way, and they may even thank you for it (they’re probably drowning, too).

Once you meet to discuss a few alternatives to the number of daily or weekly emails you’re receiving you’ll start seeing and feeling a difference immediately. This will motivate you to continue to my next step in the plan.

3. Set ground rules for being CC’d 

This one hit me like a ton of bricks! Honestly, there is no reason for you to be CC’d on every single email sent by your company, a project, or within a group list. Have a brief conversation with those who feel the need to CC you on everything to set some rules for using this basic function.

Remember, in the end you are always going to get a combination of two things: what you create and what you allow.

4. Know when to pick up the phone

Once you have laid your ground rules for your serial email offenders, it’s time to lay some for yourself.

Start here: From here on out plan to pick up the phone and make a call when there are two or more emails in a chain. It’s that simple! If something can’t be hashed out in two emails, then a 10-minute phone call will do the trick. This will not only cut down your email volume, it will also allow you to tackle issues much faster.

5. Stop using email as your only communication channel 

Are you one of the 53% of people who prefer emails to phone calls? Think differently. Email isn’t the answer to all of your communication needs.

If you want to have a quick chat with someone, try instant messaging. For more pressing topics, pick up the phone. For a more personal exchange, schedule a video chat. Mix it up!

6. Un-subscribe from email subscriptions

Today use your social media, not email, to keep you informed. Social media lets you get what you want, when you want it. We all want to know about things we care about, but keep it on your terms. Limit yourself to no more than 10 email subscriptions — that way you only get emails from the senders that matter most.

7. Empty your inbox!

I’ve heard some really great coaching about managing your inbox to zero every day, and honestly, that is my personal goal. But start with a goal you can achieve — maybe your best plan of attack is one day a week you block out 90 minutes to kill it or grill it (delete or take action). If this is your best starting point, consider this: if you first take action on 1-6 you will be able to set and achieve your daily or weekly goal of managing your inbox to zero. Go for it!

There are several other best practices I could offer — folder management, using bcc, cloud solutions, etc. But this week I wanted to give you the best options I’ve implemented to go farther, faster. I hope you will also declare email bankruptcy and start a new fresh plan to remove stress and stop feeling so overwhelmed at home or at work.


This is an updated version of an earlier post, originally published Jan. 5, 2015. 


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