How to Love (Or At Least Not Hate) Your Inbox Again: A Case Study

Photo credit: "You’ve Got Mail" by    card karma    is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Photo credit: "You’ve Got Mail" by card karma is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Many of us suffer from email overload. Between e-marketing campaigns, auto-subscribe newsletters, and rampant abuse of the “reply all” option, it’s not uncommon to receive several hundred messages a day –- often across multiple email accounts.

 Because of this explosion in email volume over the past decade, effectively managing and responding to emails requires more and more effort, taking time and energy from other important business or personal activities. As a result, many people just give up on trying to manage their inbox, and instead just watch the messages accumulate with a persistent feeling of dread.

 I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. Read on to learn how I helped one client reclaim control over and start managing his personal inbox once again.

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 Background:

Over dinner a few months ago, a friend and fellow small business owner was venting to me about how much he’d grown to dread checking his personal Gmail account. The ever-growing inbox was becoming a source of stress and anxiety for my friend, as his email had grown to be too much to keep track of.

 The Challenge:

Every time he looked at his phone, my friend saw that tens of thousands of messages were competing for his attention, each one reminding him of a commitment he was falling short on. Messages included:

  • Group discussion threads from awaiting his input or decision.

  • Messages from friends or invitations to events that were well past the socially acceptable response window.

  • Newsletters and links to articles that he had every intention of reading, but that now totaled up to more pages than a Tolstoy novel.

  • Pleas for donations from nonprofits and fundraisers that tugged at all the right heart strings.

 The high volume of both incoming and saved unread message made it hard distinguish the relevant from the junk and to ensure action on time-sensitive items. Although my friend had somewhat resigned himself to the fact that he was likely missing out on useful information, he was worried about dropping the ball on something important and causing an even bigger problem.

 The Solution:

When I mentioned that I’ve helped people set up practical and sustainable systems to manage their inboxes, my friend’s eyes lit up.

 Fixing the email box problem was a two-phase process: First, we needed to tackle the mountain of already-accumulated messages that dated back at least 5 years. Second, we needed to establish a new, easy-to-follow system to allow my friend to prioritize, read, and organize his emails going forward. 

  1. We started by taking a rough inventory of the current inbox, looking at the different senders and types of content and putting them into rough categories (for example, News Alerts, Friends and Family, Purchases).

  2. We deleted en masse all the messages from senders and categories that were no longer relevant, and unsubscribed from dozens and dozens of lists. 

  3. For each category of relevant emails, we developed rules for what to keep, archive, and delete.

  4. We created folders/labels for each of the categories, and sorted the keeper messages accordingly.

  5. We came up with a set of rules and procedures for how to handle new incoming emails going forward, such as: assigning labels to certain senders so emails automatically went into a specific folder; setting rules about how long to keep unread news alerts before deleting; setting aside 30 minutes each week to reply to, sort, and clean out messages.

 Results:

When I saw my friend about a month after we finished working together, he was extremely excited because he system we came up with was working. Here are highlights from the testimonial he sent me!

 “…Alex put together a strategy to quickly clear out my cluttered inbox and to ensure that I would never face the same issue in the future. Alex was patient, attentive to my needs as a client, and made sure to follow up with me to check in on my progress in following her strategy to unclutter my inbox. I am happy to say that thanks to Alex's help, I have achieved a better email management system that I can sustain.”