How to Manage Email Overload
Suggestions on how to manage email work for stress-free and productive working.
Substantially revised on 2021-04-02 by David Wallis.
Email is identified as a potential cause of stress in working life. In this article are suggestions on how to manage email to your advantage, hopefully to remove some, if not all, of that stress.
How email stresses you is personal. So before adopting any of them, consider these suggestions critically. They suit my character and my years working as a freelance in ITC, some of them may not suit you.
Scheduling Email Activity
Do allocate specific times to managing incoming mail.
Do allocate a specific slot for responding to emails.
One of the keys to preventing email from overwhelming you is to stop it commanding your attention all the time.
If I’m in the office, I manage emails a couple of times a day: in the morning and again no later than 4:00 PM unless I’ve planned to work late.
Why 4:00 PM? Well, after 4:00 PM there won’t be enough time for me to respond thoughtfully before I head for home or the gym. So why on earth would I rush off responses and risk waking at 12:17 AM with an email-anxiety attack that prevents me getting back to sleep?
Don’t make yourself available to email all day long. When you’ve completed a management session, exit out of your email software. Free yourself from pings and reminders interrupting your concentration.
Don’t do email on Fridays. Reasons? See Email Free Fridays.
Managing Incoming Mail
Do attend to email according to your scheduling of your day’s work.
Do delete any emails that certainly are spam and have not been caught by your spam filters.
Emails that need a response I leave in Inbox until today’s scheduled slot for responding to them.
Other messages to be answered as and when, I move to folders set up to reflect my overall work schedule.
For example, emails from suppliers with invoices attached I move to an Accounts folder..
When it’s time to do the accounts, everything is in one place. I pay the suppliers and move their emails from the Accounts folder to the Suppliers folder.
Don’t be distressed that you cannot completely empty your Inbox.
The objective of an Inbox management session is to minimise its content, leaving only those messages to which you’ll reply later, per schedule. (This works for me because a glance at Inbox’s content gives me a sense of how much time I should schedule for completing responses.)
Managing Sent Emails
Do save sent emails to appropriate folders on completing your response sessions.
For example, if you’ve responded to an email from a client and put that response and the client’s email to you into your client folder, then all communications with that client are easy to locate.
It’s important to keep your Sent folder clutter free if you’re to avoid losing track of to-and fro communications.
Do accord equal priority to all emails that require a response.
It used to be that some people sent emails on the assumption that, if they used this form of communication, then the recipient would assume an urgent response was expected. I believe that few people still hold this view.
By managing your Inbox methodically, you'll respond to all your emails in perfectly good time.
Don’t feel hassled into dropping everything to attend to messages demanding an immediate response.
To Delete or Not To Delete
Do keep all emails received from, and sent to, clients, suppliers, insurers, and so on — all those parties contributing directly to the functioning of your business.
Do UNSCUBSCRIBE, as appropriate — see GDPR.
Do delete spam as the first activity when you open your Inbox.
Do if you spot a spammer emailing you repeatedly, set up a rule to block them. When you get practiced in setting rules, setting a new one will take seconds only.
Don’t delete emails that were important at the time. Instead, file them.
Here’s an example of me being thankful that I keep everything other than rubbish.
What’s remaining in Inbox after your deletioin of the rubbish are those emails for attention at your next scheduled session for responding.
Responding to Emails
Do respond to emails at the slot you’ve allocated for this in your work day diary.
By adopting this approach you won’t be distracted into composing replies each time you review the contents of Inbox. You’ll be avoiding disrupting your work schedule and composing rushed and possibly ill-considered replies.
Also, leaving replying until later lets your subconscious mull over what you might write.
Don’t be rushed into responding.
Starting with the Subject
Do make your Subject act effectively as a main heading for the message you’re sending.
Don’t throw in any old Subject because you can’t be bothered to think of a concise one.
“It’s never too early!” — the subject of an email to me from an outfit I do want taking up my time. Now my spam filter flushes any email with such a subject line.
Put yourself in your recipient’s position. Would you be drawn by to the Subject matter? Consider the email important enough to read? Or would you bin it without a second thought?
Do compose your message thoughtfully. Doing so can spare you time later: your recipient doesn’t need to come back asking for clarification.
Do limit your message to addressing one specific topic. This way you’ll be able to follow a particular thread easily.
Do apply punctuation fully and correctly.
Do exercise caution over use of acronyms and abbreviations
In extreme cases, unintended misunderstandings conveyed though poor composition and punctation can sour carefully-built relationships with your clients.
Don’t use slang.
Don’t use jargon unless you are certain your recipient knows exactly what it means.
You’ve seen on this website that a lot of my work is to do with databases. Understand how reticent I have become about writing “DB” until everyone has firmly in mind that it’s not to their pet’s anatomy that I refer.
Don’t write in capitals, as this can be interpreted as you shouting or being angry.
“Hi David, HOWS IT GOING? AJM”
My chimp’s right on that one with a suggested reply:“AJM, IT’S REALLY GOING F****** GREAT, IF YOU HADN’T NOTICED!”
Don’t write in red.
“Hi David, Hows it going? AJM”
Don’t make your message open ended.
“Hi david, how goes it? ajm”
I know AJM is talking about our project. It’s a big one. There are a number of issues on-going. But the red sets my chimp off again:
“AJM, WHAT EFFING ‘IT’ ARE YOU REFERRING TO PRECISELY!??”
Do always start your message with a salutation.
I get a lot of “Hi”s and “Hello”s.
Whichever. But is a more thoughtful and considerate opener the one in which you acknowledge by name the person you are emailing?
If James Watts has not already greeted me with a “Hi David” in previous exchanges, then I prefer “Hello Mr Watts”.
Don’t dismiss formality out of hand. Maintaining it might help secure the sense of respect that you seek from a client or someone enquiring about your services for the first time.
Acronyms and Abbreviations
Do explain these if in any doubt that the recipient will not know what they mean, or will read an unintended meaning.
“Hi David, I did not understand your message. SMH, Allen”
“David, Glad the presentation went well for you! GFY, Marjorie”
There are acronyms that don’t need spelling out — RAF and BBC, for example.
If you are uncertain of usage, refer to a guide. This is an example of a recently published one:
The Times Style Guide: a guide to English usage (2017)
This is what The Times Style Guide has to say about abbreviations:
“abbreviated negatives (can’t, don’t, shan’t etc, and similar abbreviations/contractions such as I’ll, you’re) should be discouraged except in direct quotes, although in more informal pieces such as diaries, sketches and some features they are fine when the full form would sound pedantic.”
Don’t be overwhelmed by an impulse to use an abbreviation: better to make your default mode not to.
Because Roger’s impression of Jon was that he’s a bit of a potato, Roger wasn’t surprised to receive Jon’s message minuting their meeting:
“hi rog hr is saying what im asking for 2k is ott, lol j”
Do always punctuate and take care to get it right. Always.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation Lynne Truss (Profile Books, 2003).
Don’t fail to proof read for punctation mistakes. What will your recipient make of any sloppiness on your part?
“Hi David, Hows it going!”
Don’t use exclamation marks any old how.
“exclamation marks nearly always unnecessary!!!!!”
The Times Style Guide, A guide to English usage (2017)
Do you agree that inclusion of a :-) is likely to cause your message to be taken less seriously than you intended?;
Do at least check your emoticon’s current meaning. As with synonyms and slang, meaning can change at the whim of social media. LOL, anyone?
Also, their use can sow the seeds of doubt for the reader as to what is actually in the sender’s mind.
“David, How’s the project progressing? ☹, Allen”
If you don’t subscribe to my view that there is no place for emoticons in business emails, find encouragement in these two pieces:
To Smile or Not to Smile : Defining the Effects of Emoticons on Relational Outcomes Jina Yoo (2012)
How Emoticons Can Make You Happy And Win You Friends Bianca Bosker, The Huffington Post (2014)
Don’t risk your credibility by using these potential pineapples.
Before You Send
Do review all aspects of your email. Before you press Send, imagine yourself as the recipient. What would be your immediate reaction to that email dropping into your Inbox?
Do, for an email about a tricky to deal with issue, set it aside as a draft for further consideration, at least until after a coffee break.
Is your message lean and to the point? Limited to matters relating to a single issue?
If your message requires a response from the recipient, have you given her all the information you think she needs so that she doesn’t have to chase you for more? Does she receive a clear idea of what it is you want from her reply?
Does it have an appropriate Subject line?
Don’t rush to send, risking creating confusion and misunderstanding, and thus extra work for all parties.
It’s Not Just the Inbox
Those folders of mine also contain the emails I have sent. I move there messages from Sent Items. Thus I have the complete story all in one place.
Do make those scheduled visits to your email include Sent Items.
Do tidy Sent items
Don’t let your out box scroll more than a couple of screens.
Do consider the use of folders for filing Inbox and Sent messages.
Do keep your number of top-level folders to a minimum. You certainly do not want to be scrolling a long list of folders to locate the one to use. Scrolling can be counter-productive.
Folders are not just about shifting stuff away from Inbox. They allow you to group messages in the way you would store paperwork in cabinets, drawers, shelves, folders and binders.
Her’s a suggestion for top-level folders (they reflect the client/project nature of my work as a freelance):
You could create sub-folders to reflect the way in which you organise your filing:
📁 Bauch-Fritsch LLP
📁 Kirlin Group
📁 McDermott Inc
📁 Volkman PLC
Don’t be in a rush to set up your folders. Better to sketch out a plan for them and reflect it on before putting it into operation. You don’t want to be moving hundreds of messages if you discover your folder structure is not totally fit for purpose.
Don’t ever name folders “Miscellaneous” or “Other”.
Archive Old Emails
Do consider archiving instead of deleting messages.
On display in Outlook’s Folder Pane I have folders for old emails:
I can call into Outlook archives for each year prior to when I need them. It’ll take me a minute or so to set up Archive when that is needed.
Each archive folder has sub-folders the same as those in my current Inbox. The simply rules for archiving I have set Outlook take care of that: no need for me to create them.
An example of how this archiving worked for me was when the graphics card on one of my PCs acted up. I knew I had paid for extended warranty when I bought the PC. Locating Chillbast’s email (in my Archive 2015/Chillblast folder) confirming the details of my order took me no more than a minute. Yep: five-year return-to-base warranty.
There’s another example in To Delete or Not To Delete.
Alternatives to Folders
There are those who do not share my view on the use of folders.
Please don’t assume that the approach I describe in this article would put you in the group of users who “expend considerable preparatory effort creating complex folder structures”. Reading my piece must be distracting you from the work you really ought to be doing; but the practice I suggest is an efficient one.
Do Spend some time unsubscribing. This will reduce the amount of crud before this starts filling up your Inbox.
Since I put this article up the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) kicked in. For some weeks after it came into effect I spent an extra minutes or two each day unsubscribing from those senders with who I had never signed up.
This time spent has been worthwhile: the number of unwanted emails has fallen significantly. Now I unsubscribe as I go along, it taking a few seconds only each visit to Inbox.
Caution For those weeks I spent unsubscribing, unsolicited emails reduced to a few a day. It appears that the spirit of GDPR was being respected. However, now I’m not so sure that an Unsubscribe link is in all instances a reliable one to follow. I’ve found some that were not what they perported to be, so now I hover over the link to check it out before following it.
When You’re Away
Do leave an out-of-office reply whenever you are away from the office for more than a couple of days.
Something like: “Thank you for your email. I’m out of the office until and aim to reply by the Wednesday.”
Someone on the web suggests you say to the sender that they should not expect any reply at all to emails sent during your out-of-office spell. I haven’t plucked up the courage to try this. If you have, please let me know and I shall open up a comment.
Don’t omit to turn off the out-of-office reply as soon as you are back in after your hols.
Email Free Fridays
Do treat email as a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, activity, at the very most.
Working from home during the pandemic, it’s reported, has lead to many workers caught up in 24/7 emailing, such devotion becoming a potential threat to productivity and sense of wellbeing.
As a result, experimenting with email free Fridays is again in the news. Claims are made for improvements in productivity, and in the relief from stress afforded by communication in person or by phone.
Don't even think of emailing at the weekend.
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