Practice Management

Attack of the Killer Inbox

By Leila Martin

Email is an important part of how you get your job done, but if you’re constantly feeling like your inbox is crushing you, are you really getting the most out of it? Avoid killer inbox syndrome with these strategies and tips:

One of the quickest ways to keep your inbox from clogging is to have some preset filters or rules. If you’re using a client like Gmail you have extensive filtering options, but even in Outlook there are some tricks you can use. For example, creating a rule that highlights emails from people in your contacts list means you’ll be able to spot the most relevant messages right away.

Which is to say, don’t save them for later. Most of the time, your interaction with an email will be one of three things: take action, flag, or delete. Taking action can be answering, forwarding, or filing, but either way, you’re doingsomething with it. And once you’ve answered an email, don’t keep it unless you have to.

You can flag an email if you know you need to answer it but it’ll take some research or you’re waiting on more information (pro tip: color coding can be really useful here), but make sure you set yourself a time limit: if you haven’t answered the email within a week, the person who sent it will either decide it wasn’t important or, if it was, they’ll email you again.

When you do take action, especially in a reply, keep your email short. Think about the last novel you got from a coworker, and how much you enjoyed reading it. If you don’t want to read long emails, chances are neither does anyone else. If you’re having trouble keeping it short, save the email as a draft, take a walk, and come back to it with a fresh eye.

Pro tip: Read emails out aloud. It’ll help you find places you can tighten things up.

Or a to-do list. Or a storage unit. A lot of people treat their inbox as a catch-all, but this tends to be what leads to killer inbox syndrome in the first place. Chances are you’ve got a calendar and either a built-in to-do list or access to a separate one (or, heck, pen and paper, throwin’ it way back), so if an email requires you to add something to your calendar (another way of taking action), do it – but don’t let the email sit there. File it or delete it once the action is taken.

If you’re seeing a lot of the same sender or subject line, sort your inbox by those things to make sure you’re reading the latest message in the chain. It helps eliminate redundancy, and you can always scroll down for more information if the most recent email isn’t enough. (Plus you get to delete all the earlier versions, and who doesn’t love deleting a bunch of emails at once?)

Email can feel like an endless uphill battle if you’re checking in constantly afraid that you’ll somehow burst into flames if you don’t look at every email the second it pops up.

Step away from your inbox and take a deep breath. Most people understand that you’re a human being doing more than monitoring emails, and that you’ll answer within an appropriate, not instantaneous, timeframe. Constant checking in can be distracting, so turn off the push notifications, the desktop popups, whatever you have telling you OMG EMAIL RIGHT NOW!! Unitask, don’t multitask. Schedule a time (or a few slots of time throughout the day) where you’re dedicated to answering emails, and use that time to answer emails. Then move on to something else.

Pro tip: Sometimes things get crazy and you fall behind. It happens to the best of us. But even if the day-to-day gets a little away from you sometimes, do everything you can to make sure your inbox is cleared out by Friday afternoon. Don’t ruin your weekend with worries about an overflowing inbox. Your weekend didn’t do anything to deserve that. Plus, you’re only human. Breaks are vital to keeping your mind fresh and able to respond to the emails that do matter.

Of the emails you see in your inbox, how many do you actually need to deal with? Don’t be afraid to delete emails that you have no ability or no reason to act on. If you’re hesitant to hit the “delete” button, create a “to delete” folder and put anything you’re not sure about in there. Then, in a month, you’ll check that folder and realize you didn’t need any of those emails, and then you can delete them.

Having an online presence means giving out your email address a lot, whether you’re trading it for full access to an article, making purchases, signing up for a seminar, or any of the tons of other things you could be doing online. But sharing your address often results in subscriptions to an avalanche of promotional emails, choking your inbox and your efficiency.

When you give your email in exchange for access, a seminar, or a downloadable, there’s often a little box (automatically checked off for you, of course) that says “Yes! Keep me in the loop” on things the company might offer in the future. Whenever you have the chance, if you’re not interested in further emails from that entity, make sure to uncheck that box. And if those emails still slip by, scroll to the bottom and find the “Unsubscribe” link.

It’s good to have some subscriptions to newsletters or email updates if they’re adding value to your day, but if they’re just taking up space or trying to sell you something you don’t need, don’t feel bad about unsubscribing.

Email is a vital part of what you do, but when it threatens to take over, don’t be afraid to fight back. Your five o’clock self will thank you for it.