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Avoiding Inbox Overload: Advice on Better Managing E-mail

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 25, 2009 07:00 AM

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Today's Globe column sprang from a self-help urge: I wanted to get advice on improving the way I handle e-mail. So I asked the people who are generally pretty prompt about bouncing back e-mail responses when I get in touch.

One of them was Gail Goodman, CEO of the publicly-traded e-mail marketing company Constant Contact. Like many of the people with whom I spoke, she said she doesn't think she has yet achieved nirvana: "I don't feel like I do a spectacular job, and I have a constant low-grade worry that something got left in the inbox that was important for me to respond to."

And Rich Miner, the Google exec I mention in the opening of the column, admitted that while he ordinarily tries to empty out his inbox every day, he was dealing with a backlog of 2500 e-mails after he'd fallen off the wagon.

Miner recommended this video to me, featuring productivity expert Merlin Mann, and said he re-watches it every couple months to glean some new tips.

Below it are some examples of how busy people answered my e-mailed requests for an interview this week, and some advice on handling e-mail offered up by the Twitterati.

Here's some evidence of MIT professor (and serial company founder) Bob Langer's incredible speed with his BlackBerry:

    From: Scott Kirsner
    To: Robert Langer
    Sent: Oct 20, 2009 8:24 AM
    Subject: Can we talk e-mail advice, sometime this week?

    Hi Bob -

    I'm talking with busy people this week for a column about how they manage their e-mail without getting overloaded. Do you have five mins to chat today, Wednesday, or Thursday AM?



    From: Bob Langer
    Subject: Re: Can we talk e-mail advice, sometime this week?
    Date: October 20, 2009 8:28:49 AM EDT
    To: Scott Kirsner

    I can give you a call now. Let me know.

Less than 10 minutes later, we were on the phone.

And with Paul Levy, CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess, we just corresponded by e-mails, and didn't talk on the phone (though I'd explained in my original message that I was working on a piece about how busy people manage their inbox):

    From: Paul Levy
    Subject: RE: Can we talk e-mail tactics this week?
    Date: October 20, 2009 11:54:34 AM EDT
    To: Scott Kirsner

    Two part answer:

    I reserve 5-10 minutes each hour to check email, so that I don't become the bottleneck for people waiting for a reply.

    I read each item once and only once and immediately deal with it. Reply, forward, or delete.


    Paul F. Levy
    President and CEO
    Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

    From: Scott Kirsner
    Sent: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 2:46 PM
    To: Levy,Paul (CEO,Beth Israel Deaconess)
    Subject: Re: Can we talk e-mail tactics this week?

    Thanks for the reply. Do you mostly deal with it on your Blackberry, or laptop/desktop?

    And is that 24 hours a day, or just during working hours? What about e-mails that require a lengthy/thoughtful reply, or some kind of follow-up action?



    From: Paul Levy
    Subject: RE: Can we talk e-mail tactics this week?
    Date: October 20, 2009 2:57:50 PM EDT
    To: Scott Kirsner

    No Blackberry! See here:

    Only at my desk, at work and at home. So, roughly from 4:30 am to 10pm.

    If I am travelling on a plane or train for business for a day or more, I take a laptop and check it from time to time, or use a computer at the location.

    I do not check emails when on vacation, ever.

    I don't use emails for thoughtful and lengthy replies. It is a poor medium for that, in that subtleties are lost. If a long reply is warranted, I do it in person or by phone.

    If I am required to do follow-up action, I send a person a note when I've done that. Ditto in reverse when I hope for a follow-up action by the other person.

    Paul F. Levy
    President and CEO
    Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Finally, here's some advice I got from my followers on Twitter, when I asked what people to do avoid inbox overload. Add your suggestions in the comments below, if you would.

    - @joevc: Always use a secondary e-mail account when purchasing online, registering for events, signing up for betas, etc.

    - @bmarketingplus: Avoid email overload w/ filters . I filter so everything that is addressed 2 me (vs. cc'ed or sent 2 a list) is in color.

    - @wapl: Limit how much you get. Get off mailing lists. Let others make decisions without you. If you open it, deal with it.

    - @rosspruden: I use email aliases & filter email not sent directly to me into a ONCE/DAY folder which I check... wait for it... once a day.

    - @stephensaber: Filter quickly, task yourself for following up or reminders, and file immediately in a searchable fashion

    - @TommyW: Ruthless use of the delete key. And don't let processing hang about, clear things quickly.

    - @stephaniekays: 1. gmail labels 2. reply asap 3. keep it short 4. once it disappears off the preview pane, it's a lost cause

    - @DJ_JD: I go through my inbox every Friday and get it back down to 25 messages max. Also create folders to keep things organized.

    - @gweber: my trick is to not have it open all day. I only hit email 3 or 4 times during the day, if not it's overwhelming.

    - @pegnato73: It's all about folders and always seeing the bottom of your email. The inbox should be your to do list.

    - @billclerico: Learn keyboard shortcuts - makes you 2-3x more efficient when churning through your inbox

    - @bznotes: Instead of trying to clean out my Inbox, I have created a folder for "must reply". I get to the inbox when bored.

    - @jpamental: Any message that can be dealt with in 15 seconds or less, deal with. Otherwise make a task & file/delete it. inbox zero often.

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5 comments so far...
  1. Great article, here's another suggestion...

    Disable automatic send/receive. This gives you greater control because you can consciously decide when to receive/manage messages rather than being intermittently bombarded throughout the day as they come in.

    Posted by Jason S. October 25, 09 10:23 AM
  1. I disagree with the zero inbox policy. It results in your inbound requests controlling your time and setting your priorities. I prefer having ~ 100 emails at any time in my inbox. That way, I'm more likely to spend my screen time on my outbound priorities and not be controlled by what comes in over the transom.

    Posted by Jeff Bussgang October 25, 09 10:28 AM
  1. Great post and thanks to Paul sharing his insights.

    GoogleMail is a good choice, because:

    1. it keeps mails
    2. quick search
    3. connected mails (conversation)
    4. tagging possible

    Best regards from Dresden, where I also think about how to handle my main account which is putting the stuff on my computer.


    Posted by Ralf Lippold October 25, 09 05:50 PM
  1. Good article. People should do their part also on the amount of "useless email" out there and disable auto replies, delivery receipts notifications etc. I agree there are times when to use them, but for personal messages do you really need this stuff?

    Posted by It's not just spam October 26, 09 09:11 AM
  1. Nubli from is the best solution out there for Business emails. Nubli which is available as an Outlook plugin automatically prioritizes your inbox into high medium and low helping you focus on important emails and taking quick actions on lower priority emails. It also has an automated tagging feature that keeps your inbox organized and makes your emails easily search-able. Their dashboard is simply awesome, it summarizes your email To Dos along with action items assigned to emails.

    Posted by Neha Mohan October 29, 09 05:07 PM


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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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