In pursuit of inbox zero
In pursuit of inbox zero

Tips for Managing Information Overload and Owning Your Email Inbox 

By CJ McClanahan 

What sets productive people apart from everyone else includes deploying some simple strategies to overcome information overload. Email is so overused that every single day, nearly 770 million emails are sent and received by users around the globe.

In a typical workweek, managers and professionals spend more than 1/4 of their time spent reading and answering email. Email often comes with what I call productivity monsters – things that take up our valuable time and keep us from the real priorities in our lives.

Information overload ruins productivity.


The research is pretty clear – you can’t multitask. If you are engaged in a complex task it will require your undivided attention to complete it effectively. Even the smallest interruption, like quickly glancing at your inbox, will slow your productivity down since your focus was broken. Following a distraction like this, it can take up to 25 minutes to get completely refocused.

Stress and anxiety

An inbox with 765 emails, 159 of which are unread, causes stress, which reduces your productivity. When you begin to feel anxious your brain wants the stress to go away. The best way to do this is to get control of something that delivers immediate gratification. This activity (ironically, often email) is almost never the best use of your time. Speaking of bad uses of your time…


Probably the most important activity we do all day is communicate with others. At times this communication is provocative in its nature. Because no one likes confrontation, most tend to handle this disagreement via email. This leads to many hours spent crafting the perfect email instead of having a quick conversation that would take minutes.

Reactive planning

You may be one of those people that uses their email as a “to-do” list. The problem with this approach is that you are allowing other people to set your priorities. The next thing you know, you’ve worked a 10 hour day, but still need to bring your laptop home to complete the urgent items you neglected responding to other’s requests. Below I provide my favorite methods for managing all incoming email in an effective manner and clearing your inbox.

Cc/Bcc loop

How many times have you said, “Please keep me in the loop?” I say the exact opposite, clarifying to anyone that will listen that I don’t want to be anywhere near the loop unless you absolutely, positively need my input.

Unfortunately, my approach is rare and most people feel better when they include half the company on every email. This clogs your inbox with messages that you feel obligated to read and only realize their irrelevance to your job once you’ve reached the final word of the last sentence. One solution to that is to train people to send better emails.

Email overload costs you time.

Despite all this evidence about the overwhelm of email, I love using it. It’s an important part of how I run my personal and professional life. Below are what I’ve found to be the most effective ways to manage email.

Turn email off

Neither you nor I have the self-discipline to ignore the little envelope that appears at the bottom right of your screen when a new email has arrived. That’s why you can’t just minimize your email program when you’re in the middle of a project requiring your concentration. You need to close the program completely for at least 30 minutes. Try it out for just one day, and if the world comes to a screeching halt you can go back to your normal way.

Manage email batches

Remember last time you were traveling for work and you only had 45 minutes in between flights to respond to email messages? Did anything critical fall through the cracks? The amount of time you spend in your inbox is directly related to the amount unscheduled hours in your day – not the amount of email.

Limit the amount of time you spend reading and responding to the bare minimum. I’d recommend allowing yourself to check it at 9am and then again at 3pm. If you limit this to 45 minutes each session, that’s still almost 20% of a typical work week sending, receiving, or managing your messages.

Even if your job involves receiving new information frequently, you can still keep everything in check without wasting the whole day on email if you schedule 5 minutes every 2 hours.

The reason most people have an email overload problem is because they follow a “read and get back to it later” system.

Share this!

Take back your time.

The reason most people have an email overload problem is because they follow a “read and get back to it later” system.

You end up drowning in messages and just getting back to them costs you extra minutes each day. The next time you’re checking email, follow these simple rules:


Get off any unnecessary email list. With Gmail's filtering options, you can see what emails are important and the majority that are sent en masse. Use to clean up your email subscriptions as batch the ones that aren't important but still wanted. 


If this message doesn’t apply to you in any way, just delete it immediately.


If you aren’t the best person to address the message, delegate it to another person and request that they now own the response.


If an email you received can be addressed in less than 5 minutes, respond right away. If it requires more than 75 words or involves an uncomfortable message, you should probably pick up the phone. Don’t postpone your answer: if you have everything you need for a reply but would prefer to delay sending it, schedule the message using Outlook’s options, Thunderbird’s Send Later add-on, or extensions for Gmail such as Boomerang and Right Inbox. Get it done right away and save yourself the time it would take to get back to it later.


Put the email in a file folder so you can refer to it later. You can also do this with items that will require action at some point – set an email reminder with a service like

After applying these simple tactics, you should end your day with no more than (drumroll please)… 10 emails in your inbox.

I know this sounds impossible for those with 1300+ emails staring you in the face every morning. So for you email hoarders, here’s a quick process to get to under 10 in less than a few hours.

Reach (near) inbox zero in six steps.

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Set aside a block of time to work on this project – preferably not during business hours so you can avoid distractions.
  3. Write this phrase on a piece of paper and set it in front of you – “If the email is more than 2 weeks old the sender is no longer expecting to hear from me.”
  4. Delete the emails that don’t pertain to you. If you’re not sure – delete anyway.
  5. Put those you’d like to keep into file folders.
  6. Celebrate with a glass of expensive wine.

Dealing with all the overload will not be easy. But I promise the long term benefits of properly managing email are significant.

Now, go out defeat those productivity monsters.