Handling Email Overwhelm – Three Techniques for Dealing with Your Inbox


This is a guest post by Ethan Waldman, founder of Cloud Coach.

Apparently everybody is trying to get a piece of the ‘email overwhelm’ business these days.

Dropbox bought Mailbox for a sizable pile of money, Gmail re-designs their interface on what seems like a weekly basis, and Microsoft is still hell-bent on having the entire world using Outlook.

All this renewed focus on email isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The companies that make email software are finally getting around to realizing that unless their users are total email ninjas, the email software they’ve written is just plain useless up against today’s typical volume of email.

This increased awareness leads to more competition between email providers, more third party services at better prices, and more awesome ideas floating around the internet on how to deal with email overwhelm.

Handling a large volume of email is no longer a problem that just mid-level corporate managers have to deal with. It’s a problem for everyone, and there are two ways you can deal with it:

The first is to actively try to get less email. There are some fairly obvious ways (unsubscribe from newsletters, stop giving out your email address, etc.) to deal with this and other less obvious ones. I’ll share a resource that I created that addresses this strategy later in this post. Today I’m going to focus on a different strategy:

Use new tactics and/or software to cope with the volume you already have.

Archive Everything

The basics: In this technique your goal is to keep your inbox empty at all times. The idea is that your inbox should be what its name says: the place where new email comes and is processed from. If you receive an email that you aren’t going to respond to right away, you still remove it from your inbox into a folder or folders that that you’ll return to later. If you use Gmail, the star is perfect for this function.

I’ve seen many variations of this technique over the last few years, and always find myself drawn to the simplicity.

Here’s where it breaks down: It’s easy to get drawn back into using your inbox as a to-do list. Even more frightening, I found that when I had a lot in my inbox, I forgot about the stuff that I archived to my “todo” folder and just focused on the newest email, even when there was more pressing (or more overdue) stuff in my archive folder.
[note: not sure what the archive is? see this]

Mailbox Revolution

As I mentioned in the intro, Dropbox recently bought the Mailbox startup for a lot of money. Why? Because they had a beta version of an amazing App that already had a giant waiting list and rave reviews. And was the hype worth it?

I think so. I’m still using Mailbox on my iPhone alongside the native email client, and I find myself wishing that it was available for my Mac and Windows machines as well.

Mailbox is great because it takes the power of the Archive Everything technique and adds some intelligence. If the Archive everything technique is a meat cleaver, then Mailbox is a scalpel.

Again, the idea is to get to inbox zero by either dealing with messages right away or saving them for later, but Mailbox adds a few nuances. You really have 4 choices with every message in mailbox: You can archive it, delete it, have it come back to your inbox at a later date, or be moved to a list.

This is all accomplished with swipes of the finger.

A quick swipe to the right allows you to defer the message for This evening, Tomorrow, Next Week, etc. A long swipe allows you to file the email into some other action-oriented folders: To Read, To Print, etc.

Where does it break down? Well, it hasn’t yet for me. I do find myself wishing it could also talk to my non-gmail accounts so I could get everything in one place. I’m still using Apple’s Mail app for other email.

Automated Inbox Bliss

At my blog Cloud Coach, I’ve done a bit of writing about inbox automation. Specifically, this is using the filters feature built into Google’s Gmail to create customized rules that help you organize your email before you even read it.

The beauty of this technique is that it works with whatever other programs or methods you happen to be using at the time. Automating your inbox means you don’t have to take time to file message from your mom in the “Mom” folder. Gmail automatically takes care of this based on a rule you set up once and you never have to revisit again.

Another nice thing about automating your inbox, is that you can build a system that works exactly as you want it- you have as much control as you want to make certain messages go to certain places. All it takes is setting up another filter in Gmail. This technique even works outside of gmail because most desktop email software has some kind of Rules feature.

The downside? Well, it takes time to build up a system that accounts for everything. And every time you introduce a new element into your system (like a new newsletter subscription, a new frequently emailed contact, etc.), you’ll need to keep up with it all by creating a new filter.

Which to choose?

Regardless of what system you choose, the most important thing is to be consistent. Starting the Archive Everything technique and then switching to Mailbox will be an awkward transition.

In the comments: What are some questions you have about managing email overwhelm? What are some ways you’ve been able to cope?

About the Author: Ethan Waldman helps people live and work in harmony with technology at the Cloud Coach blog. Right now, many people are using his free Email Ninja Kit to liberate themselves from email hell.

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13 Responses to “Handling Email Overwhelm – Three Techniques for Dealing with Your Inbox”

  1. Erin June 27, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    Setting up filters was probably the best thing I ever did for my inbox. That, and archiving what wasn’t “active.” I still use my inbox too much like a to-do list, though. Anything I have to reply to or act on stays. That’s never more than 15 messages or so — more than that and it starts to bug me. I think I’m afraid if I move things out of my inbox, I’ll forget about them. I’ve started various “to do” or “watch/read/look at later” type folders (or labels, I guess) and always end up ignoring them. Maybe I need a better system!

    • Ethan June 27, 2013 at 4:20 pm #



      • Erin June 27, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

        Touche! My kanban use totally died while I was traveling. I’ve hardly touched it since then, largely because the thought of updating it so it’s complete and trust-able again seems daunting. Guess I should just bite the bullet and DO IT.

  2. David Delp June 27, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    It still think one of the best rules is to turn off any new email alerts and only check email manually. That has been my best remover of stress. But getting to inbox(0) everyday is a serious discipline. Like Erin (above) I’m tend to keep mine at <20. Weird. There's no real reason for this other than convenience. I guess it's a level I can tolerate and doesn't feel overwhelming.

    • Shanna Mann June 27, 2013 at 11:20 am #

      I turned off the email alerts too! I have NO idea why anyone would want them on. Are you TRYING to imitate a squirrel with ADD?

      I have about twelve unanswered emails in my inbox right not, and they’re giving me a nervous breakdown. ;)

      • Ethan June 27, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

        I have been doing that too! In fact, I also turned off the “badge icon” on my phone that shows me how many unread messages are there. Frankly, I don’t care.

        I still do like to get stuff down to 0. It just feels great closing my email and knowing there are no todo’s left in there.

  3. Joel Zaslofsky June 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    I’m glad you presented shades of grey on email and how much it can overwhelm us.

    I’ve recently come to believe that it’s not the volume of email that causes us to break down. It’s the pressure we feel to “do” something with it or check it every waking moment (or waking up in the middle of the night to see if something important is waiting for you).

    Personally, I still use my inbox as a to-do list. It works for me… but probably only because I feel like I don’t get a lot of emails. The main issue for me isn’t processing all the back-and-forth. Rather, it’s the mindset that comes along with prioritizing the email box lower than the things it should sit below. You know, like having family dinners, being in nature without a smartphone, and not interrupting workouts to see what’s new in the ol’ inbox.

    But sometimes the techniques go hand-in-hand with the mindset, and the ones you present here sound groovy. I’m intrigued by Mailbox and might give it a try.

    • Ethan June 27, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

      Joel, you are SO spot on on this. The problem I find with “inbox as a to do list” is that processing the email is BOTH an item on the to do list AND your to do list. So what you have to get done gets muddied with stuff that should take its turn at the back of the line. The urgency of new mail supplants things that are actually more important.

  4. Michael June 27, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

    My biggest victory was to unsubscribe from everything I could. If I really want a newsletter, I send it to Evernote instead. I try to archive the rest of my email as quickly as possible.

    I find that I ignore email that gets filtered. The practice makes sense, but I just seem to have a mental block to anything that is not the inbox.

  5. Sarah June 28, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Yeah, my life has improved significantly since I started heavily using filters to get most of everything out of my inbox immediately. At least now when I have inbox ADD and can’t seem to shut myself out of gmail completely, the only things I get the little notification for are the really important ones that actually still go to my inbox. Makes life much simpler. You are the email master, Ethan.

  6. Denise June 28, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    I still haven’t used ‘archive everything’. Lately, I’ve been filtering mail with folders and unsubscribing from anything I’m not checking. Mailbox is new to me though. First time hearing about it now. I’ll have to check that out.

  7. Darin January 30, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    Have any of you tried Sanebox? I just read about it recently, haven’t tried it myself but it looked like it could be useful/easier than manual filters. Its not free, but I’m sick of free (ads/spying/bankrupt) and its only $6/month or my preference $49/2years (I hate recurring bills each month but really like Saas services). I get nothing for this, just appreciated the techhusband.com blog posts and wanted to kick in something.

    • Forest Linden January 31, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      Hey Darin,

      yeah, I’ve heard of Sanebox but haven’t tried it yet myself. I’ve also got MailPilot on deck to try, which is similar to Sanebox. There’s some nice tools coming out to help keep our inboxes under control. Let me know if you try out Sanebox and what you think of it.


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