How to manage email overload at work



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8 mins


With the average worker spending 13 hours a week on emails, here are four ways to regain control of your inbox

More than 269 billion emails are sent every day (that’s 149,513 every minute), and sometimes it feels as though they are all ending up in our own, individual inbox. Volumes are only set to increase, given that more employees are working remotely, resulting in a greater reliance on electronic messages.

It’s easy to spend a large portion of your working day just trying to make a dent in your email backlog, to the detriment of other, often more pressing, priorities. The average worker spent 13 hours a week dealing with emails in 2012, according to a study by McKinsey – a figure that’s likely to have risen in the past seven years.

Here are four strategies that might help you to reduce this burden, improve productivity and streamline communication.

 1. Use ‘a system’

Filtering your inbox allows you to prioritise which messages need a response straight away, which ones can wait until you’ve completed more important tasks, and those that require no action.

Creating rules within your email program to create automated filters is an effective way to reduce admin time and take control of your inbox.

You may want to separate emails sent by customers from those received from colleagues, or automatically mark messages containing certain words as ‘high priority’.

Whether you use Outlook, Gmail, Apple Mail or another email client, most have rule and filtering functions.

One strategy you can use to get your inbox under control is the ‘five folder’ method. Fast Company outlines these folders as:

  1. Inbox: treat this as a holding pen. Emails shouldn’t stay here any longer than it takes for you to file them into another folder. The exception is when you respond immediately and are waiting for an immediate response
  2. Today: items that need a response today
  3. This week: messages that require a response before the end of the week
  4. This month/quarter: – everything that needs a longer-term response. Depending on your role, you may need a monthly or quarterly folder
  5. FYI: any items that are for information only and you may want to refer back to in the future

This system prioritises emails based on timescales rather than the emails’ senders, enabling you to better schedule work and set deadlines.

40% of UK workers receive between 26 and 75 emails per day

 2. Set email ‘windows’

Attention researcher Gloria Mark discovered that the more time we spend dealing with email on any given day, the lower we perceive our productivity to be, and the more stressed we feel. Although the same study also found that batching your email frequently throughout the day doesn’t reduce stress levels, using less frequent windows is still an effective strategy to control your time and inbox.

Constantly and immediately checking emails when they arrive prevents us from focusing on the work we should be doing.

In a study from the University of California Irvine, researchers shadowed workers on the job, studying their productivity. They found that after a worker completely changes their focus to another task – such as checking email – it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus on your original task.

If you are checking email ad hoc throughout the day, this time will quickly add up and could seriously impact your productivity and wellbeing.

 3. Change your own email habits

Do you need to send so many emails? Could you get the answer you need from a quick discussion? Your inbox will be full of emails sent by people responding to you, but these emails may not be necessary or easily avoided.

To reduce those emails that are in response to your own, you need to change your email habits. One study suggests it can take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new habit.

With this in mind, there’s a bit of dedication required to reach a point at which you’re sending only those messages that need to be sent, but the reward is a reduction in the number of emails you’re receiving, lowered stress levels and increased productivity.

 4. Set expectations

Do you receive work emails out of hours or even when you’re on annual leave? Do your colleagues assume that, regardless of the time or your location, you’ll reply? To reduce the volume of out-of-hours work emails you receive, you’ll need to set new, clear boundaries and expectations.

At the start of 2017, a new law forcing French companies to give their workers the right to ignore their emails and smartphone outside of work hours took effect. Overuse of smartphones has been blamed by many for the rising prevalence of burn out and fatigue among employees.

More recently, car manufacturer Porsche have stated that they could soon follow in the footsteps of Daimler and Volkswagen and ban out-of-hours emails for its employees. The Daily Telegraph reported: “Uwe Hück, head of Porsche’s works council and deputy chairman of Porsche’s supervisory board, said the firm’s employees should be protected from work-related emails in their free time, and any correspondence between 7pm and 6am should be ‘returned to sender’.”

If out-of-hours emails are banned by law in France and by world-renowned companies, then it’s not unreasonable to request the same from your colleagues. You could use out of office messages to signal that you are not replying to messages outside of regular office hours; to inform the sender who to contact if they have an urgent query; and to tell the sender that you will reply to non-urgent queries on your return.

If you’re taking a period of leave, it’s a good idea to inform those that may usually email you that you will be unavailable. If there are questions that need answering, they can be dealt with in advance of your absence, while lower-priority tasks can be assigned to a colleague.

There’s no need to lay down the law – simply explain, in a friendly and logical way, why you won’t be responding to emails out of hours.

You need to stick to the rules that you set. If you make exceptions, then the out of hours emails will start to creep back.

 5. Stop using email altogether

The prospect of not using email might make you break out into a cold sweat, but with so many other forms of electronic communication available to us these days (not forgetting face-to-face conversations and phone calls), you probably don’t need to resort to email as much as you do.

For quick, informal messages that you need a quick response to, try using an app such as Slack, Google Hangouts, or Skype. For more formal collaboration, try productivity tools such as Trello, Microsoft Teams or Monday. Trying to reach a new connection? Send a public or private message through Twitter, or LinkedIn or, for someone within your organisation, Yammer.  And if you’re trying to manage HR requests and procedures such as booking holiday, logging absence, or filling in performance reviews, be sure to use a specialist HR system that alerts you to new activities each time you sign in.

 Is the writing on the wall for email overload?

Although unnecessary emails still cause more stress and wasted time than we would like, it appears that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The 2017 Annual Consumer Email Report‘ suggested email users were becoming smarter in their email habits:

  • Users check emails 27% less than they did in 2016, with the biggest change in the habit of checking email less outside of work
  • Four-fifths (82%) of work-related emails, and two-thirds (60%) of personal emails are opened. Of these opened messages, work-related emails are significantly more likely to be read than personal emails (83% compared to 64%, respectively)
  • The survey found a 28% decrease in checking emails in bed after waking up. More than a quarter of respondents said they waited until getting to work to look at their inbox
  • Nearly a third (26%) of respondents said they don’t check email after work (up 46% on 2016)

This article was first published in January 2018. It was updated in January 2019 and in August 2019 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.