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Tips for Taming Your Overflowing Inbox

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Overwhelmed by your email inbox? Have thousands of messages that need responding, but don’t know where to start?

Email is one of the most useful tools we have at our fingertips – and the most insidious. It both helps and hinders our ability to execute great work. Consider all of the time you spend emailing each day. Wouldn’t that time be better spent on more important projects?

Here are some email tips that will help you tame that inbox:

 1. Stop sending unnecessary email. Don’t send emails if you don’t have to. Think hard about pushing “trash” instead of “send,” or not creating that new message to begin with. Just like other people are flooding your inbox, your email is cluttering someone else’s. If we all stopped sending unnecessary email, imagine how clean your inbox would be.

The next time you create an email, review Seth Godin’s checklist. Do you really need to send it?

 2. Write better emails. Here are a few ideas:

  •  Use subjects effectively. Great subjects communicate what, why and when. Examples of bad subject lines include “Thursday” or “Agenda” or “Catch-up.” Here’s a good subject: “Marketing Meeting Wrap-Up Notes + Follow-Up Items.”
  • Get to the point. Be concise. Brevity is a sign of respect.
  • Think “Action Item.” End emails with an action item. Find this difficult? Check out the 3-sentence strategy. It might help you pinpoint your requested action.
  • Put important information first, not last. Action items should go in the first paragraph or even the header. Get right to the point.
  • Eliminate attachments. This includes logos or graphics under your signature. Attachments make email more complicated, when we’re all shooting for simple.
  • Be specific. Creators of the Email Charter suggest quashing all open-ended questions. Try to avoid responding to emails that end with, “Thoughts?” Likewise, don’t ask open-ended questions in your own correspondences. Ask questions that require direct answers.
  • Respect etiquette. Check out this work-smart strategy by Behance that’s doable even if you’re super busy.

3. Improve your inbox organization. You may think you’re organized already, but there are always ways to improve.

  • Use filters. They’ll help you send messages for certain projects, people, or topics to different folders. Then set a schedule for checking these folders, so you get to them in a timely manner but they won’t interrupt more important work.
  • Turn off notifications. Don’t be a lab rat, responding to every ping on your computer screen. This will ruin your productivity. Control your email and messaging – don’t let it control you.
  • Set priorities. Some email systems let you mark particular people or messages as important and shuffle them to the top of the stack. Take advantage of tools like this that help you become more efficient.

 4. Fight the addiction. 

  •  Create systems. Be proactive about when and why you check messages. I open communication channels three times a day, and I close them during my most productive work periods (8 a.m. to 11 a.m.) to concentrate on important work. Creating positive habits can help you steer clear of addictions.
  • Try the 90-minute method. A great way to wean yourself off Twitter, email, Facebook and text messaging is to go into what I call “airplane mode” for 90-minute segments. Check out, pick one task, turn off your phone and network, and work on that task uninterrupted. An hour and a half later, return to the stream.
  • Timers. Set a timer that reminds you when it’s OK to enter the stream. It’s fine to be a part of the online conversation, so long as you limit your time in a conscious way.
  • Turn off the internet. Use internet blockers like Freedom or Rescue Time to turn off the network and protect you from yourself.

It’s not about saying no to email. It’s about figuring out how to use it more efficiently – and sticking to it.

Sarah Kathleen Peck is the founder of Landscape Urbanism (dot) com and writes a blog about design, business, psychology and strategy at www.itstartswith.com. She works as a communications specialist for an international landscape architecture firm, SWA Group, in Sausalito, Calif.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Anonymous

    I find that keeping the subject field relevant is my main weapon in keeping my inbox organised. It took me a while to realise that you can actually edit and save a modified subject field (in Outlook) for emails received.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonhparker Jason H. Parker

    Sarah, I think this is one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject, and I appreciate your main point regarding utilizing email as an efficient and effective tool. Great post!

  • http://www.playgameonline.net Nate

    In my opinion, be wary of where you submit your email address to in the first place. Selling of email addresses is a online business. Don’t be fooled.

  • http://greatemailmarketingtips.com Greatemailmarketingtips

    Separate personal email accounts rom business and professional ones. That makes it easier to manage and view messages.