Help! I’m Buried in My Inbox, and Can’t Get Out!

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This topic contains 13 replies, has 11 voices, and was last updated by  Shannon Kennedy 9 years, 3 months ago.

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  • #145372

    Allison Primack

    Over the past couple of years, Steve Ressler has posted some blogs giving tips on Dealing with Email and how to cope with an Email Overload. However, we know the times are ever-changing and new email technologies have led to new email organizational issues.

    I am currently a Gmail user, and am a huge fan of the labeling system. The only downside is that I can’t seem to keep up with my inbox, and constantly have between 400-500 unread messages sitting around. This problem has gotten even worse since I started receiving email to my smartphone.

    How do you manage your email inbox?

  • #145398

    Shannon Kennedy

    I am in love with labels in Gmail. Color coordination all the way!

  • #145396

    Ori Hoffer

    It’s more than just labels – the key is to use Filters (Mail Settings > Filters) in Gmail so that stuff that comes from various listservs/Twitter/Facebook notifications gets automatically routed to a label. Then you can do a quick scan of the whole bucket and delete en masse or reply.

    Gmail also lets you change the look of your feed so that high-priority mail shows up at the top vs. most recent.

  • #145394

    Patrick Fiorenza

    My iPhone has actually really helped me with this – I can quickly scan each mailbox I have set up on my phone and see what is important and what I can skip over. I am pretty diligent about not letting my messages build up, if I see something that is important, I immediately dump it into a folder or respond. I also make sure I unsubscribe to any type of ad that comes my way that I don’t want – just clutters up my inbox. Hope this helps! I also turned off all email notifications from social media, just have them push to my phone instead, that helped out a lot too.

  • #145392

    Allison Primack

    That is awesome, I wasn’t aware that you could do that. Thanks for the tips! Can you automatically route to a folder, or just a label?

  • #145390

    Allison Primack

    Do you guys set a time limit of how long you spend responding to emails every day?

  • #145388

    Ori Hoffer

    I don’t believe Gmail has folders, but you can nest labels within labels so you could create a “Listserv” label, and then sub labels with “GovLoop” “Newsletters” “Content Managers” etc. on them.

    Another setting I just added when creating my GovLoop filter was to automatically archive the message so that it doesn’t actually go into my inbox (but I can still read everything by clicking on the label). This helps keep the direct messages on top so you only need answer them, and then spend your 10-30 minutes going through your listserv stuff in one block.

  • #145386

    Seen a How-To on doing this, Ori? It’s an awesome tip…

  • #145384

    Sterling Whitehead

    Have 3 folders — Next, Waiting/Delegated, and Someday. Act only on those. The others don’t matter. Archive the rest. Gmail has 25 GB free; you’re set. I’m almost always at zero in my inbox since I’ve adopted this method.

  • #145382

    Todd M. Gemskie

    You should set a limit of time and also evaluate the value of generic email that’s tossed in to your account. If you have a lot of emails from stores, websites, etc, you might want to set up an additional email and use that one for generic “Kohl’s weekend special super duper clearance discount for four hours only…” emails. Then your “real email” will have less junk notices and you can better plan your time.

  • #145380


    Among other techniques; at work I practice “e-mail triage”–I decide which messages require my most immediate reading and attention based either on subject line (if possible) or a two-second glance at the body text in the “preview” function (thereby allowing the e-mail to remain marked as ‘unread’ if I decide it isn’t a priority item at the moment).

    I also utilize a variety of folders; some are timing or topic based, while others are for immediate issues (I have a folder known as “immediate crises”) and one is for those issues that never seem to die (“ongoing issues”), and things that are pressing but not absolutely critical (“clear and present bureaucracy”). 😀

    I admit that in spite of all this, I still have a fair amount of third-tier e-mail sitting around sometimes; which leads me to sometimes multitask in meetings and use the time to try and clean up my inbox!

  • #145378

    Andy Lowenthal

    Here’s a quick recap from the session I facilitated at the 2011 Next Gen of Gov’t Conference, entitled Navigating Dunder Mifflin: The Skills No One Teaches You.

    Inbox management is crucial. Try to envision your inbox as an actual wooden box on your desk. If you had 300-400 files stacked to the ceiling, you would certainly have difficulty prioritizing your actions. The same is true for your electronic inbox — aim for zero. Or at least <15 — you could likely maintain an organized paper inbox with less than 15 file folders in it.

    Okay, so let’s say you agree in principle with this idea of less is more. A near-empty inbox will keep you organized, agile, and satisfied. As your daily stream of messages starts to trickle in around 8:00 a.m., you won’t be distracted by your infinity scroll bar in Outlook. You don’t want a scroll bar. Keep it all “above the fold,” if you can.

    Here’s how: Join the FAD: File, Action, or Delete.

    File — folders, labels, filters, whatever… Just get the message out of your face. Only file those emails that YOU ARE REASONABLY SURE you’ll need for future reference. Resist the temptation to save everything for “CYA” purposes. If you work in government, you probably know what that means. If somebody wants to nail you for something, they’ll find a way regardless of what email you cough up from 2007.

    Action — do it now. Review a memo for clearance? Do it. Someone asking you for an introduction to someone at GSA? Make the connection. What are you bringing for the holiday pot-luck? You know right now whether you’re the tortilla chip kinda gal or the homemade chocolate soufflé kinda guy. So you may as well just put down “tortilla chips.” In other words, why delay? People will be impressed with “how on top of things you are,” and you’ll be one step closer toward you new goal of keeping an empty inbox.

    Delete — if the information in the email isn’t relevant to you, get rid of it. You should apply the same rules that you do to your USPS mailbox. You probably ditch the junk mail or rip it in half before you even make it past your front door. Apply the same vigor to keeping your email inbox free of garbage. That includes listservs, read receipts, event reminders, 10% off J.Crew coupons — in fact, where possible, you ought to unsubscribe from annoying lists. Don’t be afraid to reply to a legacy task force or working group to ask to be removed from their list. Blame it on your newfound obsession with inbox sanitization, and sanity.

    KEY TAKEAWAY: While the color-coding, labeling, filtering, and smartphones maybe be useful, it’s more about your willingness and confidence to make decisions on each message within 24 hours of it hitting your inbox. Like developing any good habit, developing a routine is key.

    Inspired? Get started now. If your inbox is >100, move the entire thing into a folder called “OLD INBOX – NEVER AGAIN” and chip away at it when you have 10 minutes between meetings. From this day forward, you are an inbox minimalist. For better or worse, our computers didn’t suffer from a binary meltdown on 11/11/11, but that doesn’t mean you’ve been spared. Give yourself the reboot you deserve.

    Comments? Post away!

  • #145376

    Christine Stevenson

    Hi Andy – great tips! I’ve got stuff color-coded, filed, and filtered and yet I’m looking at an Inbox of 200+ unread emails in my work email account and over 20,000 in my personal Gmail account! I think having an iPhone makes it worse because I scan the messages and then forget to do what you suggest: make a decision on each message. I’ve been trying to figure out a better system so your tips were just in time. Thanks!

  • #145374

    Raymond Clark

    Excellent review Andy. Just recently adopted a “requires action,” “awaiting others,” and “Misc” tags or categories using Outlook. Been about 2 weeks now and its definitely helped. Also got away from subject matter folders. Instead created folders by months. If I need to recall a message I search by subject or tag. Works like a charm.

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