How I Fought Back Against Email Overload

I love email. It’s efficient, trackable and easy. And I have a pretty good system for managing it. It’s far from perfect, but I’m usually able to make quick decisions about each message I receive — file it away, transfer it to my project management software, tag it for follow up, or just delete it.  I aim to have just a handful of messages (less than 20) in my inbox as my working action items at any given time.

This works for me. The general management of email is an area where I consider myself successful.

The interruptions that come with email, however, are another story.

The Problem

Like most people, I keep my email client open all day. While I don’t use a visual notification to alert me when there’s a new message, I do have an audio alert. By design, I chose the quietest, shortest and least obtrusive alert. It’s a nice, gentle ping.

But on some days, I can go from 20 to 120 messages waiting for my attention in a very short period of time. Combine that with the fact that I also have my BlackBerry jumping around on my desk at the same time my email is pinging away. How do you just say no?

I typically don’t let myself get completely pulled off task, but I am guilty of pausing and peeking when a new message comes in. This pause stinks. If I’m writing, for example, the pause causes me to rewind a paragraph or two so I can figure out where I was and what I was thinking at the time. It’s a minor, yet annoying, distraction that I continue to allow happen.

This week, I decided to fix the problem.

The Solution

For me, the solution couldn’t be as drastic as getting rid of email entirely or limiting it to only once per day. For someone like me who basically runs her entire life though the give and take of email, this just doesn’t work. I get important information via email, so I still want to pause and peek. I just want to do it on my terms, and not because I hear the ping and vibrate notification of a new message.

This is how I solved this problem.

I shut down my email client.

This might seem drastic when I just said I wasn’t going to do drastic, but hear me out. I have more than 12 email accounts coming into my email client. Most of these are not accounts I need to check multiple times a day or even every day.

And remember how I have those 20 or so messages sitting in my inbox that I need to act on? Well, having my email client open with those messages staring me in the face, even when I know I’m not ready/able to act on them yet, is distracting.

As part of my solution, I open my email client just a few times a day to let messages download and to make sure I’m not missing anything important.

I changed my BlackBerry notification settings.

No more vibrating with incoming messages. My BlackBerry has gone completely silent.

I started using webmail.

My primary webmail account only contains my top-priority email, the messages I need to see quickly. And none of the messages are tagged, flagged, colored or otherwise attention-grabbing. There are no filtering rules, and I don’t have any of my folders with their own distraction issues. The streamlined, vanilla format of webmail is perfect for a quick pause and peek.

Plus, I can delete the junk before it downloads into my email client, making it more manageable later on.

I (am trying to) reset my brain.

This has been the hardest, but probably the only necessary part of my solution. I am working not to let myself get distracted. Email is important, but it will be there when I’m finished with what I’m doing right now. If it’s that important that I need to see it NOW, my phone will ring.

And that’s my solution. It’s only been a few days, but I can tell you this: I feel much more in control of the email interruptions, and I finally feel like email is working at my command and not the other way around. It may seem simple, but I think I’m winning this battle.

What’s Your Problem?

What do you find the most challenging part of email, and what do you do to put it in its place?

Image credit: thesaint

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  • http://www.bpsdesigns.co.uk ben_uk

    That’s exactly how I feel. Ever since I got my iPhone and now HTC Desire, I can’t resist grabbing my phone as soon as an email comes in!

  • Brett

    Lately I have been feeling exactly the same way about all the interruptions e-mail brings, and blackberry buzzing. I have just started using the “Send Recieve” button with my e-mail client, so I get mail on my terms. Staying focussed has to be #1 priority in my opinion. Thanks for this great article, I’m sure more people deal with this than will admit to it.

    • http://www.avertua.com Alyssa Gregory

      Focus is definitely important — and hard to do. I think I’m going to try manual send/receive when I do have a email client open. Great suggestion!

  • http://www.clete2.com/ Clete2

    I am absolutely awful at checking my email only once or twice a day. When I’m at work, I use dual monitors, and other than Office Messenger and the occassional presentation, I use my primary screen for nothing other than Outlook.
    When I’m at home, I have push e-mail to my iPhone and I have my email client open at startup. It never closes.
    It is certainly a distraction. If I simply turn off notifications on my phone, I find that I check my phone even more often to see if I have missed any emails.
    I need to retrain my brain!

    • http://www.avertua.com Alyssa Gregory

      I’ve been guilty of using a second computer just for email, too! Borderline addiction, I think. :-)

  • Stan

    Well I did something a bit similar… I do not shut down my email client because I often need to find some project related information in there. But I made it check email only manually, so I don’t get disturbed by it.

    I still need to get important messages right away though, so instead of using webmail I have a little app (Notify for mac) that checks emails and show little popups when an email arrives. I can see in a glance if it’s important or not, and choose to ignore it or deal with it.

    And here comes the most important part : prioritization.
    “Do I really need to deal with it right now” is the question I ask myself everytime. Getting rid of a spam, for instance, is not an important task. I just ignore it and will delete them all at once later. It’s an important information but not an urgent one. Deal with it later. And if it’s urgent, well, do I need to stop what I’m doing right now or can it wait 5 or 10 minutes so I can finish what I’m doing or at least reach a point when I can take a break? Usually the answer is yes, so I just mark it somewhere and go back to it ASAP.

    So now email is not much trouble for me anymore. The phone is, however.

    • http://www.avertua.com Alyssa Gregory

      I’m on a Mac and have used Growl with the same type of notifications. I still found that distracting, though. I think the part when you’re questioning yourself about the priority is the most important…and probably where I failed before.

  • andymoles

    I used to have similar problems with managing my emails from multiple accounts. But now I’m using a web based email solution Taroby http://www.taroby.com which helped me bring down the email volume significantly. I check my emails 2-3 times a day, so that I’m able to work according to my To-Do List, without missing out any high priority emails.

  • Steve H

    I read an article a few weeks ago addressing this. The brain tells us what is important, what to focus on. The brain rewires itself when we change the way we deal with information. In this age, we are rewiring our brains to give priority to the New Thing, and that includes new emails, Tweets, etc.

    The researchers followed a wired family around for a couple of weeks. The wife loves Twitter. She was baking cookies, and went to Twitter. She forgot the cookies and burned them. She baked again, forgot again, and burned them again! She ran out of ingredients and had to buy cookies from the store.

    If we have the problem as described in this SP article, we have our brains wired to place priority on the New rather than the project at hand. Self-discipline will be important if we want to rewire our brains to focus on the project at hand as more important than the new. We have this impulse to reach for the new because the brain flashes “IMPORTANT!” at us.

  • http://codefisher.org/ codefisher

    Been working on the same issues recently.

    The first thing I have been doing is aggressively unsubscribing from anything I have subscribed to, mostly because I missed the don’t send me email option when registering for their site. I simply don’t ever read them, and they are annoying.

    All my email accounts are now behind a good spam filter. Honestly if you getting lots of spam either get a new hosting/email provider or redirect it though a gmail account or similar that does filter things well.

    Then I have been closing my email client down when ever I am working on anything where I don’t need distractions. Then I try and process things in batches. Things manage to survive when I go to bed at night, they can also last a few hours during the day.

  • Jay

    This article has no point, SitePoint. “I shut down my email client”? Wow, that must’ve taken a year to come up with. How did you ever think of it? I would never think to close my email if I didn’t want to be interrupted by it.

  • effwun

    I have gmail quietly harvesting all my mails with the [silent] notifier running in the system tray. A mail comes in – a quick glance down to the pop up and I know whether to read now/later/ignore.
    Simple!
    Now, If I could only get MSN and Skype to do the same :)

  • Niubi

    I just check my email every couple of hours. But then again, that’s for business purposes (I work with DubLi and get lots of emails). For my personal mails, I read and answer them at the end of the day, depending on urgency and other mitigating factors. I don’t think it’s too hard to get some self-control here!

  • mathieuf

    I used to work with someone who used email like a chat tool. That is obviously not the role email should take. Change your thinking to treat email like mail: read it at your convenience. I have all email alerts turned off, and read email when I take a break from another task. This works out to every hour or two, which is good for most issues. If someone needs a quicker response, get up and talk to the person, or use the phone, or a chat tool.

    I cannot close down my email client because it also monitors my calendar and meeting events. (At work my client is Outlook.) My calendar alerts are turned on, and this works well for me. I approach email and calendar events as separate tasks, and outside of work use separate clients. (Thunderbird and Sunbird; too bad these are in the process of merging.)

    I try to keep the inbox empty, and moving messages to other folders helps with organization. Good practice is to read and then respond, move, and/or delete before moving to the next message. Hard to do, but sure helps keep on top of things. A few messages always hang around in the inbox as reminders for me.

  • http://www.pageaffairs.com/ ralph.m

    Totally agree about webmail, Alyssa. I didn’t expect you to mention it, as it’s not “cool”, but I’ve been checking emails via webmail for several years now—every couple of hours or so when taking a break. Most emails never reach the email client, as I can quickly delete any spam without opening it, enjoy a few funny emails and deal with many messages without downloading them.

  • Jeff

    I am currently a student of the “four hour workweek” book by Tim Ferriss, and he spends a lot of time on how to unplug from our artificial reality without compromising productivity. He views email as “somebody else’s agenda for our time” which in my case is very, very true. I am trying to disconnect by unsubscribing aggressively and cutting down notification emails that I am getting from various services. I also took my iphone off of “push” in the exchange server settings menu. Still having mild attacks of terror over missing something but summer vacations have given me excuses to not check email as frequently. Hopefully I can keep the ball rolling…great post!

  • Jake

    Ever try to lean on technology a little more to solve the problem? I work with a company called Unblab that uses artificial intelligence to help you prioritize the emails that need your immediate attention. Pretty cool stuff. You can check it out (if you’re interested) at http://www.gtriage.com.