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Is your inbox helping or hindering? Tips on preventing information overload

Is your inbox helping or hindering? Tips on preventing information overload
Is your inbox helping or hindering? Tips on preventing information overload

Email likely plays a huge role in your daily intake of information. It's used to communicate, to inform, to learn—and yes, sometimes even to laugh. But how you manage your email will determine whether your inbox is holding you back.

Technology has come a long way in a relatively short time. Your use of this technology, however, can determine whether you've crossed that fine line separating productive and problematic.

If not careful, you can very easily become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information in your inbox. But rather than worrying about the mountain of messages that can bog down your email and disrupt your focus, let's examine the manner in which we handle it and employ simple email management tips—using both technology and human behavior.

Five technological tips for managing your email

Organize everything with folders or labels

Too many emails piling up in your inbox? Stop treating it as a final destination for your messages (or worse, a giant dumping ground). Instead, think of it as a waypoint, an intermediary (and more importantly, temporary) point on the way to action or long-term filing.

Depending on your email app or service, you can organize your messages into folders or apply labels to them. You can categorize your email by client, project, priority, or type. Whatever the case, find an organizational method that works for you to avoid the dreaded overflowing inbox.

Email filters are your friends

Technology's great at taking over mundane and repetitive tasks. And using email filters (some email apps and services use the term “rules”) to automatically file or label your messages can be an excellent way to keep your inbox clean.

For instance, if you decide to categorize your messages by client, you can create a filter to automatically file all incoming messages with a sender email address containing “@ClientCompany.com” and file it into your ClientCompany folder.

Keep unwanted messages away

Junk and unwanted messages are a fact of email life, and they're a huge contributor to email overload. It could be spam, a phishing attempt, unsolicited requests for something, or someone from your personal or professional past you simply don't want to deal with anymore.

Most email apps and services have automated ways to keep unsolicited or unwanted messages from cluttering up your inbox. Mailbird, for instance, allows you to block specific senders, mark messages as spam, and unsubscribe from newsletters and promos you're no longer interested in receiving.

Prioritize your email

Not all messages are equally important, so determine their priority and act accordingly. Most email apps and services give you the ability to “star” a message to flag it as important. Gmail goes a step further by allowing you to use color-coded stars and symbols, such as “!”, “?”, “i”, to provide additional context and levels of prioritization. You can also manually set up your own series of folders or labels to customize priority levels.

Some email apps and services even have an option to enable an algorithm to “learn” your message reading behavior and automatically apply a visual importance marker to incoming messages.

Use separate email accounts

If you're a heavy email user, think about using separate email accounts for your personal and professional email. For example, I have a burner Gmail account that I use exclusively for newsletters, promo emails, and to test free online services.

This helps you stay organized and focused, reduces the amount of email hitting your inbox, and prevents vital work messages from getting lost among invitations to weekend picnics and promos touting can't-be-missed sales.

Five behavioral tips for managing your email

Learn to triage your messages

Too many messages piling up in your inbox? Learn how to deal with information overload by quickly assessing the importance of a message and what action needs to be taken:

  • Delete if it's unnecessary
  • File or archive if it must be retained for future reference
  • Act immediately if it's urgent
  • Snooze if action is required but not urgent
  • Forward the message if someone else is more suited to take action

Assign times to address email

Unless an email is truly urgent, you don't always have to drop what you're currently doing to answer it. Act immediately only if it's urgent. For everything else, set up several blocks of time during the day to answer and address non-urgent messages. For instance, I set up three blocks: in the morning when I start my workday, right after lunch, and at the end of my workday.

Let go of FOMO

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real thing and can very easily lead to information hoarding and email fatigue. And the more email you have piled up, the less likely you'll be to address them. So get into the habit of judging the value of your email and don't be afraid of the delete key. If unsure, snooze or archive it and then reevaluate later.

Be more selective with your subscriptions

It's so easy to paste your email into a subscription box. But don't sign up for newsletters and promos just because they're there. Try to be more selective with the amount and type of content that's delivered to your inbox to avoid a flood of information. You might also want to consider subscribing to digest editions to minimize email.

It's fine to subscribe to newsletters to see if the content is worth reading, but don't lose control of these subscriptions. Take a few minutes every once in a while to assess the value of a subscription. If you find yourself deleting more often than you're reading, it's time to hit that “Unsubscribe” button.

Set a lifespan for newsletters

Let me set the scene: you receive an interesting article and convince yourself that you'll read it tomorrow. Then tomorrow becomes the next day; the next day becomes next week. One day, on a quiet morning, you discover that article sitting in your “to read” folder, saved from two years ago.

An unread stockpile of newsletters and similar informational content can sneak up on you if you're not vigilant. So set up a timeframe for newsletters to be read. If the newsletter reaches the end of this timeframe, either read it or delete it.

Closing thoughts

In the past, I've come across clients and colleagues who had over a thousand email messages in their inbox, with no discernable organizational strategy beyond knowing “it's there”. And they just keep throwing more onto the heap.

But preventing information overload in communication and workflow only takes a few steps. When we take full advantage of what our email app has to offer and turn good email management practices into habits, we can do small things every day to avoid wrestling a behemoth down the road.