How I Avoid Email Overwhelm


I started this short series on how I keep sane by saying,

“Only organize and plan the most important things in your life. Let the rest organize themselves.”

One area where this philosophy works very well is with email.

I used to struggle to stay on top of email. I’d check it hoping to get something exciting only to discover that my inbox was full of more things to add to the to-do list.

Not surprisingly, I was never in the mood to do work when I checked for pleasure so the emails piled up into the hundreds and then climbed to nearly 1,000.

After years of struggle and guilt and important emails rediscovered too late, I finally took on a year-long project to reduce my inbox to 100. It was hard, hard work.

I did it and was very proud, but I realized I could not keep up the pace. It simply wasn’t worth it.

“Inbox Zero” is a bit of a holy grail in the productivity world and though I’m a fan, it comes with some important qualifications.

As I mentioned last week, what’s in our inbox is mostly what others desire from us, not what’s most important for us to do.

“We have to take the time to think about our deepest values and remind ourselves of what’s most important while at the same time keeping all the other balls more or less in the air.”

For nearly a year now I’ve kept my email “ball” up in the air with minimal stress and by investing far less time than I ever had before.

I’ll share the system now in case it inspires you, but also because it’s a good summary of the planning principles and methods I’ve discussed in this series.

I once heard it said that checking email is like playing the slot machine. Most likely you’ll lose and just get bad news or more to-dos but every once in a while you get fantastic news, like a sweet thank-you note or a notice you’ve won something or your application was accepted.

Knowing that inbox-checking is a dangerous gambling addiction helped me determine to harness the impulse for my own good.

I’m not perfect, but the system works well enough that I can get back on the horse and I generally feel a peace around email rather than constant panic and guilt.


Email Structure for Work Flow

1. Inbox – keep at zero

2. ASAP – do today or tomorrow

3. Weekly – priority tasks, projects and people (process weekly)

4. Monthly – do if there’s time (process monthly)

I don’t have a grand system for archived emails mostly because the search function works just fine for me. This system is for active emails.

Email Work Flow Summary

Each time you check email:

1. Check inbox and process to zero

2. Check ASAP and do at least one

3. If time, check Weekly and do one

Once a week:

Deal with (do, delete, file) each email older than seven days.

Once a month:

Deal with each email from the month before last.


1. Inbox Zero

Never let an email sit in your inbox. Either deal with it, delete it, or file it according to priority and “deal with” date.

It should only take two to five minutes to deal with each email or decide how important it is that you deal with it. So each email, even the hard ones, should take you no more than two minutes to file (we’ll talk about file structure later).

Most emails will take far less than two minutes to deal with, so this “first pass” is theoretically very easy to do.

In reality, deciding is often hard and it’s easy to move on to the next email, leaving the harder one to fester in your inbox and mind. Remember, you don’t have to DO anything yet, just force yourself to decide what, if anything, you need to do. In deciding the battle is half-won.

Once you’ve decided you might find that it’s not so hard after all to just deal with it and get it over with. Or you might find it’s simply not worth your time and you can delete it before it ever sits around making you feel guilty.


What projects and people are most important to you? Which incoming ideas and request would have serious consequences if you did not do them?

As I explained in the planning series, I divide everything into top, middle, and lower priority. The ASAP folder holds everything in the top-priority category and I find it stays at around 5 emails. That’s a very doable number for each day!

If you keep your inbox to zero, each time you check there will only be a few to process or maybe it will be empty! In any case, a blank inbox almost compels me to check my ASAP folder feeling on top of things. There I see only the most important emails and can usually muster up the strength to deal with at least one.

This is harnessing the power of the impulse to check for mail. You’ll be amazed the progress you will make!

3. Weekly

Harness the power of perspective. What is unclear at the moment is often easy to decide in a few days. If an email is important or comes from someone important in my life but I know it can wait a few days I file it here.

For example, I might be more interested in a blog article about mothering a friend sent, but the article from my mother is the one that lands in my weekly folder because it is she I care deeply about even if the topic is not so important to me at the moment.

I don’t drop everything to read the article now, but I know I will get to it in about a week. One side benefit of this is that often others will respond before I even read it, so I can put in my two cents quickly and still affirm those people in my life who matter most.

I try to deal with emails from here throughout the week, but at least on Friday I commit to dealing with each email that’s dated older than seven days ago. Thus I know that if I put an email in my “Weekly” folder I will answer it between 7-14 days. Even important things for next week can safely sit in this folder so I can focus on my ASAP tasks.

4. Monthly

Everything else gets dumped in my monthly “Active Bucket.” Well, not everything else. I try to use the trash can liberally and set up filters so promotional emails and newsletters skip my inbox altogether.

Somehow it’s hard to unsubscribe from these but when they are out of sight they are out of mind and it doesn’t matter because they aren’t really what matters in life.

The monthly folder holds anything else that I’d like to get to but that don’t have any serious consequences if they are neglected for a month or two. Things like blog articles or catch-up email from casual friends or ideas about homeschooling from others that aren’t necessarily my own priorities about homeschooling at the moment.

A week’s perspective is great, but a month’s perspective is priceless. Here is where the idea of letting the unimportant things organize themselves really shines.

I check this folder once a month and make it a priority to deal with everything that came in from two months ago. So if it is October then I’ll look at everything that is dated from August and power through it.

The stuff in this folder isn’t the most important, but once a month it is. However, I only have a day or two to get through it and those are days full of normal life so I am keenly aware of just how little time I have.

I’m much more selective about which articles I read or how much detail I read them in. I’m much more likely to realize that I simply don’t have enough time for all the activities I’m interested in.

A conversation with a casual friend that moves at the pace of every two months is actually much better than the pace of years that would come of me forgetting about it as it scrolled off the main page.

Batch-processing the less-important emails is a time and sanity saver, and though it takes some discipline to make it happen each month, the rest of the month all those emails sit out of sight and mind with no guilt whatsoever.


That’s it! As always, it looks more complicated written out than it feels. It’s also an ideal that I don’t stick to perfectly. I wasn’t good about filing emails over the weekend so I now have 22 in my inbox. It’s not good, but I’ll process that to zero over the course of the day and be on track for the rest of the week.

I wish you the best in finding email peace! Share your email tips in the comments below!

See the other posts in this series: how I keep sane, daily planning, and weekly planning.

5 thoughts on “How I Avoid Email Overwhelm”

  1. I’m curious as to how this would work into your system: I have an e-mail folder called Projects, with many subfolders. In it I have e-mails related to blog ideas, genealogy, educational material creation, and other projects that I get to at irregular intervals — sometimes very long intervals. Do I create a Yearly category? Do I put them in Monthly just to force myself to confront them on a regular basis, or will that just overwhelm the Monthly category? Most of these things are not in the least urgent, but I don’t want to lose track of them for when I do decide to work on that project.

    1. My next post is for you! What’s important to understand is that the system I shared is my system for things without a system. Financial receipts, for example, don’t go into this system at all because I have a seprate way of dealing with them that works (more or less) for me. I tend to think the more things have their own system that is semi-automatic the better, but there will always be new stuff thrown our way and when I don’t have a good handle on it that is when I fell the most stress. Hence, the system I shared is mostly for this kind of work. If you have something that works – stick with it!

  2. I am LOVING this! I’m not done compacting yet, but I’ve reduced/reorganized my folders, and my Inbox, ASAP, and Weekly are under control! Monthly still needs a lot of work. Forget two months ago — there are items from early 2014 in there. 🙁 But Weekly was almost as bad a week ago….

  3. Congrats! Maybe you can get to those old items, and maybe you’ll find that you just won’t get time, but at least you know there’s nothing really important there. I hope you can find a balance that makes you feel comfortable and confident with how you use your email time! Thanks for sharing your update. (And by the way, I’m not done tweaking the email either, but at least I feel this works and I can clean up more when I’m inspired to.)

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