Seven steps to deal with email overwhelm

Ever heard the saying "as busy as a bee"? We're all familiar with honey bees especially in summer when they're working hardest at making honey. They buzz around, visiting flower after flower, flying back to the hive to offload their harvest and then back out again. A honey bee lives for as little six weeks in the honey-making season. When they're foraging, they carry 20-40 milligrams of nectar back to the nest on every trip, making one pound (454 grams) of nectar equivalent to 12,000-24,000 trips to and from a nectar source.

No wonder bees are busy - there are a lot of mouths to feed and a hive to maintain.

Building and running your own business will sometimes make you feel that you're as busy as one of these bees. One of your biggest time sucks is email, but you have to stay on top of it.

The thousand-email inbox

Have you ever seen someone with a thousand emails in their inbox? Not just a thousand, but a thousand unread emails? Or if not a thousand, then hundreds of unread emails?


I have - and more often than I would have thought would be common. According to studies cited on Lifewire, the average office worker receives 121 emails per day and sends 40 business emails. In 2017 some 269 billion emails were sent every day globally (close to 50% of them spam).

That's a lot of email - so no wonder that we find it difficult to manage our emails. Even if you don't receive this much email chances are you're still receiving enough to make your inbox look like the entrance to a beehive. Every time you open your email there's a feeling of unease because of all the emails you still have to process.

We all suffer from FOMO - the Fear Of Missing Out. We're afraid that if we don't check our emails every few minutes we're going to miss something important from a client or a new prospect making an enquiry about our services.

So we're constantly checking emails and before we know it we're slaves. Because we're jumping between different tasks all the time we have less and less time to focus on one specific task, so we start skipping less important emails and voila, we have a thousand unread emails.

And yet, we have to stay on top of our email

Some 86% of professionals name email as their preferred mode of communication. Email is convenient because - in theory - we don't have to respond immediately. If we have to do work before we can respond we can do that, and we can process our emails any time of day.

Missing an important email can be bad for your business. But we sometimes forget that even less important emails also need a response, because in the long term all business is about relationships and email is one way of maintaining contact and good relationships.

So we have to stay on top of our email, but it can also be one of the biggest time sucks as we jump from one task to quickly check email, respond to something urgent from a client or click on that really interesting link that seems as if we could use that information in our business.

Then we're under pressure and we start skipping less important emails. By the end of the week we're stuck with a hundred unread, less important emails that we'll get to later. And they build up to the point where we just don't have time to process them at all, but we don't delete them either because there may be something important we may have to refer to later.

The promise of inbox zero

Inbox zero is the concept of having zero emails in your inbox. It means you have processed everything and taken appropriate action - you're up to date with your email.

What a feeling! If you've ever gotten to inbox zero you know the feeling - liberating, satisfying and rewarding. But it's not easy to get there, and it can be even more difficult to maintain.


Getting to inbox zero is easier than maintaining it every day or every week. To maintain it will require that you start thinking differently about your email, how important it is relative to your other work, and how quickly you need to respond.

There are two things you need to make part of your thinking to get on top of your email:

  • Your job is not to answer emails: Unless you are a customer service rep, your job is building and running your business, delivering your products or services. If you let email rule your world you will spend all your time there and your business will suffer. So think carefully about what your job really is, and how big a part email plays in that. Yes, email is still important, but it is not all of your job.
  • You don't need to respond immediately: We use email because it's faster and more convenient than playing phone tag and getting sidetracked in live conversations. They don't expect you to answer immediately, and you will be doing yourself and your clients a disservice if you do respond immediately all the time.

Once you have these clear in your mind, you can take the seven steps.

Seven steps to deal with email overwhelm

Here are the 7 steps you need to take to get control over your email to get to - and maintain - inbox zero.

1. Turn off all notifications

The biggest productivity damper you can have are constant notifications that you have new email, a new text message, a Twitter mention or a Facebook update. Turn them all off. Seriously. The only notifications you should be getting during the day are from your calendar.

2. Only process email twice a day

There's a process for processing your emails, and it starts with only processing it twice a day. Block out two half-hour blocks a day dedicated to processing your email. This is a tough one, because we're so used to checking email all the time we tend to suffer from withdrawal symptoms. But experience has taught me that this is one of the best ways to get on top of your email. Outside of this time your email program should not be running.

3. Triage your inbox

In those half-hour blocks you triage your inbox. Triage is the process of assigning degrees of urgency to each email. Here's the triage process I use:

  • Stuff for reading later gets moved to my Reading List folder.
  • If there's nothing to do but I do want to keep the email for later reference, I archive it.
  • If I can respond within 2 to 3 minutes, I do it and archive the email.
  • If I need more time to respond, I block out time in my calendar to do it (with a link to the email) and archive the email.
  • Trash everything else.

4. Stop organising your emails

You don't need a 9-level deep filing system to keep your emails sorted and organised. Search capabilities even in email systems will quickly find every email on a topic or containing a keyword across your archive, sent items and different email accounts. I've moved from being a master filer to just archiving emails - if I need something I can find it faster using a search than wondering where I filed it.

5. Delete anything older than 10 days

If you have hundreds of emails in your inbox, take everything older than 10 days and delete it. It's no longer relevant. And if you're really paranoid you can archive them instead of deleting them. If something was important you will get reminded of it somehow.

6. Unsubscribe

We tend to accumulate subscriptions to email lists like bees accumulate pollen as they go from one flower to the next. Unless you actually read something, unsubscribe from the mailing list. You can always subscribe again later if you really miss it.

7. Rules rule

If your email system supports rules, create rules to automatically move emails to specific folders where you can look at them later. I have a number of rules that will move stuff to my Reading List folder where I look at it once or twice a week.

But my clients need an immediate response!

This is one of the most common objections I hear - and it is also one of the most flawed beliefs we can entertain.

If you process your emails twice a day there should never be more than 4 hours between someone sending you an email and getting a response - and if you want to apply statistics they will get a response an average of 2 hours later.

It is more important to respond consistently than it is to respond immediately.

Unless you're working as a customer service rep, a 2- to 4-hour response time to emails is usually more than enough for anyone. What's more important than response time is response consistency - if you establish a standard for always answering emails the same business day your clients will get used to it and get better service than 90% of the industry anyway.

One of my clients is an interior designer, and when a project gets to the construction phase a slow response time can slow down the project. You can work around situations like this by asking your clients to call you if anything urgent needs your immediate attention - phone calls are immediate and you can often resolve an issue on the same call.


The promise of inbox zero is that you're always caught up on your emails, you respond to all your emails the same business day and you get more work done than ever before.

The biggest challenge you will face in getting there is your mindset - you have to move away from FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out) and regarding email as an urgent communications medium. Phone calls (or even text messages) are for urgent communications.

The best way to process your emails is to block out two half-hour slots a day and use a triage process during that block to clean out your inbox. That way you should be at inbox zero twice a day.

Getting there is not easy though - you will face situations where you're even too busy to process emails, or you're too tired and leave it until the next day. But like all good habits dealing with email is something you will get better with over time. Keep practising!

Busy like a bee?

A honeybee visits between 50 and 100 flowers during one collection flight from the hive. That's a lot of start-and-stop working - each flower they visit only gets a few seconds of their attention before they move on to the next one.

You may be as busy as a bee building and running your business, but you won't get a lot done if you spend only a few seconds on each task.

Make more time to spend on important things by managing your email more efficiently - it's a good habit that will take some time to build but it will pay off handsomely for a very long time.

What you can do now

You have 7 steps you can follow to get started with your journey to inbox zero. If you can only do one thing, start with the triage process (step 3) - it will give you an immediate boost in your productivity.

And if you haven't downloaded the Beginner's Guide to the Tornado Method, it is a great place to start to learn how to deal with overwhelm in your business.

Here's to you and your inbox zero.

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