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Do you dread even opening your inbox? You’re not alone. Most of my clients are perpetually drowning in email.  In my training programs, I provide a 4-step strategy to overcome email overload. Here’s an overview of that process.

You Aren’t Filtering

Chances are, your inbox holds a wide assortment of email — from spam to newsletters to discount offers to important communications from your boss or colleagues. With all of these different, and varied, messages vying for your attention, it’s overwhelming to sort everything out and take action. No wonder you’re drowning in email!

The first step to solving email overload is to make smarter use of email filters. You probably already have a spam filter, but did you know you can also filter messages you still want to receive? I use a tool called Throttle to create a single daily digest of emails I want to read but that I don’t want filling my inbox throughout the day and distracting me from work. Throttle works well in tandem with another email management tool, SpamDrain.

I also use rules within my email client to corral certain kinds of messages. For example, I know that system generated and “FYI-in-the-subject-line” messages aren’t time-sensitive and don’t require a response, but they are good to keep for reference. So I’ve created a rule in my email client (Apple Mail, but this works with Outlook, too)  that any emails from one of my programs, or with “FYI” in the subject line, automatically get marked as read and sent to specific folders that I can scan at my convenience. It’s important that the messages are marked as read – the last thing you need is a folder with 1,000 unread messages weighing on you! (Another important note: you’ll have more control over your email if you use a client such as Outlook or Apple Mail instead of trying to manage your email in a  browser.)

However you decide to filter your email, the goal is have only work-related communications — actual messages from actual people — reaching you during the business day.

You Need a Shift in How You Think About Email

This is one of the biggest reasons you’re drowning in email, and it’s something that most people never really think about.

For some reason, many people seem to believe that email is something they should be able to squeeze in around their “real work.” But email is real work. It’s from your bosses, your colleagues, your customers, your vendors. It merits your focused attention when you work on it, not just a quick glance and a dashed-off reply between meetings.

A backlog of messages is just one of the consequences when you don’t treat email as real work. You also risk important messages falling through the cracks and miscommunications or damaged relationships when you miss an email or reply without fully processing it.

Your Schedule Isn’t Realistic

Since email is real work, it takes real time to address productively. On average, the professionals I work with manage about 100 emails a day, even after applying filters. If we figure that, on average, each of those emails takes about 2 minutes to process, then you’re looking at almost 3½ hours a day just to manage that work (that just happens to come to you via email).

Now consider that these same professionals probably schedule themselves for several hours of meetings each day, and you can see why there’s a problem. If this describes you, it means you aren’t just drowning in email you don’t have time to address. This email overload is also seriously hampering your ability to get anything else done! The overflow work is probably seeping into your personal life, with you checking email at the dinner table, at your child’s school functions, late into the night, and during vacations. This robs you of the time you need to rest and rejuvenate.

Let me give you a wake-up call. You’re headed for burnout. And it’s urgent that you get real about your schedule and everything that’s on your plate. Now I’m not expecting that you’ll magically find a couple of hours every day to work on email. But I do want you to recognize that real work requires real time to do it, and to get realistic about what you can accomplish.

For example, if I’m traveling to work with a client, I might not have much time to devote to email for a few days. So I just keep an eye out for urgent messages and, for the time being, don’t worry about the others. When my trip is over, however, I don’t schedule anything else for my first day back in the office. This gives me a chance to catch up on email.

Your Email Doubles as a Task List

The last reason that most people are drowning in email is that they don’t have a good system for managing their tasks. To figure out what they should be working on, they have to consult several places — the Post-its on their monitor, the legal pad they take to meetings, the notes on their phone, and their email inbox.

Because many of the work emails you get represent something you need to do, it can be tempting to work from your inbox. But working this way isn’t productive. You become tethered to your email, perpetually scanning your messages for important tasks you might have missed. That keeps you in a constantly reactive mindset. If you’re always “on alert,” you never enter the state of deep focus you need to do your best work.

The solution here is when you create time to really deal with your email, you’ll dispatch most of it. And anything you can’t take care of during your “processing” time needs to get moved out of your email — and anywhere else you are tracking tasks — and into a great to-do list tool that is part of your personal workflow management system. Such a system makes you more efficient and gives you greater peace of mind.

If you’re drowning in email, the strategies in this article can help you regain control over email overload, make better use of your time and attention, and give you greater peace of mind.

For more on managing your email and your overall productivity, check out my books, Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls. You can start reading either or both for free, here.

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