How to declutter your inbox and avoid email overload, KonMari-style

I often see articles in my Feedly about the symptoms, causes and promising new cures for ’email overload’.

They rather puzzle me. Because I really don’t get that much email. Certainly not enough to feel overloaded by it.

Is email overload really a problem?

The internet thinks so. Forbes magazine warns that email overload is costing us billions. Computer Weekly reporting that email overload is killing the UK's economic productivity. The Times High Education supplement warned that ‘Email overload’ risks emotional exhaustion for academics.

Scary stuff.

If email overload is the problem, are productivity systems the cure?

Many writers suggest we’re doing our email all wrong. We just need a better system.

For instance, Asian Efficiency proposes the AE Email Workflow to help you get to Inbox Zero. You can download flowcharts and a video to help you get started.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, offers an even simpler option (no flowcharts here) that he calls Yesterbox. That is, only answer yesterday’s emails today. Put off any new emails till tomorrow.

In my city I can even go for a masterclass in productivity, where I could learn how to ‘kill email overload and get real work done’. Though I don't much like the implication that emails aren’t ‘real work’. If we’re talking OutNet sale updates and productivity newsletters, that’s probably fair. But at least some of everyone’s email can be classed as ‘real work’.

Which emails are ‘real work’?

This is where the software vendors step in, offering smart inboxes that sort the wheat from the chaff, the ‘real work’ from the time wasters.

The one you’re most likely to have come across is Priority Inbox by Gmail. It attempts to automatically identify your important incoming messages and separate them out from everything else.

Sanebox promises even more artificial intelligence, with algorithms to determine the importance of messages, move unimportant ones out of your inbox, and summarise them for you. It can even jog your memory about messages you need to reply to.

I’ve tried out various email management methods and smart inboxes. But I just can’t get excited about them. Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a sucker for cute productivity tools, so why am I not overcome with enthusiasm by a nifty bit of software that prioritises my emails for me?

Maybe it's like I said: I just don’t have a very busy inbox. So I don’t need much help in prioritising it.

Where did all my emails go?

Reason #1: I quit my corporate job. Large organisations spew out management-authorised junk mail by the terabyte. Freelancing = instant inbox zen.

Also, I stopped checking email so often. I check first thing in the morning, at lunch, and late afternoon. This doesn’t just reduce the amount of time I spend checking email. I think it actually reduces the amount of email I have to deal with.

Slow email = less email

You see, if I check less, I reply less. By the time I get round to replying, everyone has already given their input, and I can reply once to everyone. I’ve also found that lots of things resolve themselves with no further input from me.

Pausing before replying encourages me to try to respond in a way that solves the issue rather than generating more email. I might jump on Skype instead, or add the topic to my list of things to talk about when I next meet my client.

Get behind me, newsletters

The other significant change was when I started automatically moving all newsletters and similar emails to a separate folder the moment they arrive. I use UnrollMe for this, but email rules would work just as well.

What I get left with are the ‘real work’ emails: from clients, my accountant, partner, friends, etc. And there really are very few of those emails, so I’m able to prioritise them quite well by myself.

Marie Kondo would be proud of my inbox

I realised that what I’d done was more or less the KonMari method for email: discard first. If you eliminate all the emails you don’t need, it’s very easy to stay on top of what’s left.

I suspect Marie Kondo would see smart inboxes as the email equivalent of buying a fancy storage system for a heap of possessions that you don’t need and which certainly bring you no joy.

Decluttering your email without quitting (or losing) your job

I realise that some of my tips may be hard for you to apply.

I happened to want to quit my job. You might prefer to hang on to yours, even if the email overload is driving you nuts.

But you can ruthlessly declutter your email even within a relatively normal corporate email system. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Hide (or delete) unwanted email

You might not be able to use UnrollMe, but you can use rules. Pretty much all email programmes - Gmail, Outlook, Lotus Notes - have them. These can be set to move anything you don’t need out of your inbox and into a folder for later reading/reference (or straight to the trash, if you prefer).

As well as newsletters and marketing emails from people trying to sell you software you don’t need, you can get rid of everything with the word ‘news’ or ‘update’ in the subject line. If your company is into those impersonal 'communications' email accounts, file anything from those addresses, too.

You could even set up a rule to highlight any emails from an address not in your address book. Then you can decide if new correspondents deserve a place in your inbox, a quick push on the ‘unsubscribe’ button, or a new entry in your auto-filing mail rules.

Train your colleagues to wait

When you first start checking your email less often, you may meet some resistance.

For instance, someone emailed me one morning when I was busy doing something more useful than checking my inbox. When I didn’t reply, they messaged my to ask if I’d seen their email. When I ignored that, they rang me to ask if I’d seen the message about the email.

So I explained that I was trying a new productivity approach to help manage my overflowing inbox. They understood that because they got just as much email as I did. And then they agreed with me that their email wasn’t all that important after all and could wait until the next day, and we parted on the best of terms.

The trick here is to have a response ready to go, that will work with your corporate culture.

Where I worked, new collaboration tools and ‘the future of work’ were the latest thing, with lots of official endorsement from the higher-ups. So even if people thought that my new productivity technique was a rubbish excuse for ignoring their email, they couldn’t actually say so.

You might need a different reason: a Very Important Project that you needed to focus on, or some other new initiative you can twist into a reason for not checking your email so much.

Whatever it is, you might be able to set up a snippet in your email programme so you can add this reason with just a few keystrokes to any reply you think needs a justification for its lateness.

It’s worth explaining your new approach at every opportunity because it helps to retrain your colleagues to expect a slower answer. And maybe even figure the answer out themselves, without your input.

How are you keeping your email under control? Do share your tips in the comments.

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned.