Managing the unmanageable – My e-mail inbox

I am no expert in organizational skills or efficiency. I have not taken a course or read any of the many books or articles describing how to manage the tsunami of incoming information that hits our e-mail inboxes every day. Nevertheless, I have, over the past few years, developed a system of managing e–mail overload that is functional for me. I am continually tweaking my system which is far from perfect and is tailored to my own needs. I do not see it as a model system for others to adapt. The reason I decided to share it is to help those who send me e-mails understand how you might get a more rapid and thoughtful response. In addition, it is a plea for suggestions. If you have identified other tricks to manage e-mail that might fit into this schema, please let me know!

I used the following principles, which are not unique to me, as a starting point.

  • Like it or not, e-mail is a primary means of communication for many of us, and we all need to figure out how to manage it, even if we receive huge numbers (for me – somewhere between 250 and 300) of e-mails each day.
  • E-mail is used for a broad variety of purposes. On one end of the spectrum are the e-mails that address vital person-to-person issues that, in prior eras, would have been managed with a phone call, and that require an immediate response. On the other end is spam that includes harmless (but endlessly annoying) junk e-mail and more sinister attempts to take advantage of our better natures.
  • Some e-mails contain all the information we need to know in the subject line while others are pages long, have dozens of attachments with the key information buried deep inside or within online links that are pasted into the e-mail.
  • Some e-mails require an important action while others are “FYI only.”
  • Time to do e-mail is fragmented and we access e-mail on various devices. For me, sometimes I might respond right away to a pop-up telling me a message has hit my inbox while I am in my office deeply involved in another activity. Other times I might check e-mail for a few minutes on my smart phone waiting for a meeting to start. Larger blocks of time for me to address e-mail often come during off hours or on an airplane working offline on my laptop.
  • Most of us try to keep an eye on e-mail during the day, while traveling or when at meetings, but there are times when we am off the grid, occasionally for days at a time.

To address this cacophony and variability, I needed a way to identify and respond quickly to the urgent, contemplate the profound, dispense with the annoying, and avoid the potentially damaging, all as efficiently as possible without letting the volume of incoming e-mails and my tendency towards attention deficit, keep me from getting anything else done.

Here is what I do…

I have three different e-mail accounts.

  • Work account. I do my best to keep my work account solely for work. This is the account I monitor most closely.
  • Personal account. I have a personal account for family, friends and other non-professional, non-urgent but important activities. I usually check my personal e-mail account once or twice each day.
  • Other account. I list the other account on forms when I am asked for an e-mail address by a retail establishment or other non-professional organizations. I scan this account once every 2-3 days so I can pick out the few messages of interest before selecting “delete all”

Automatic rules to sort messages. Despite having three e-mail accounts, I still receive significant amounts of junk e-mail in my work account inbox. When I receive a message from a sender that is of no interest to me, I identify that e-mail as being “junk” so future messages from that sender are sent to my junk mail folder. I treat this folder the same way I do my Other e-mail account. I scan it every couple of days for important messages before deleting all. I have set up other rules as well. All e-mails related to outlook scheduling requests get sent to their own folder. Professional social media groups like Doximity and ResearchGate have their own folder as do sites that provide medical and research news. This moves these messages out of the inbox automatically and allows me to look at them together and at my convenience without them distracting me from more important messages. Overall, this system results in about 2/3 of all incoming e-mails being automatically moved out of my inbox.

Quick triage. For a while, I found myself reading and re-reading e-mails that were sitting in my inbox, before I finally got to them. This was very inefficient. To address this, I developed a quick triage system. This allows me to look quickly at what is waiting for me, and to prioritize each message. For most e-mails, this triage can be done in just a few seconds. This triage system includes…

  • Easy answers – If I can provide an answer to an e-mail in less than 30 seconds, I try my best to do so right away. Then I am done with it and often get a “thank you for the quick response” message in return.
  • “Urgent to do” folder – E-mails related urgent issues that will take a bit more thought or effort but need to be addressed quickly such as patient referrals go into the “Urgent to do” folder. When I have slightly longer fragments of time to do e-mail, often at the end of the day, items in the “Urgent to do” box get first priority. When my “Urgent to do” folder has more than 10 messages in it, I know I am falling behind.
  • “To do” folder – Other items that are important, but are less time sensitive, go into the regular “To do” folder. This is the folder that takes the most effort to control because many of the e-mails in this folder are challenging and time consuming to address.
  • “File” folder – These are “FYI” messages that don’t require a response from me, but that I want to read, then file.
  • Trash – The final resting place for many e-mails that get through despite my sorting system.

I use various blocks of time for different tasks. During the day, I focus on Triage including immediate easy answer responses and “Urgent to do” messages. My goal is to deal with all of these messages before I go home at the end of the day. The “To do” folder and I tend to spend the most time together in the evenings and on weekends. The “File” folder and other directed folders are often my focus on weekends and when I am working off line such as on a plane.

Mud in my inbox gears. Several types of e-mail can muck up this triage system. These include…

  • Long e-mails where the request from the sender is buried in the message. This is particularly challenging if an e-mail conversation is being forwarded to me. It often takes considerable effort to sort through the long discussion to get to the core of the matter.
  • Similarly frustrating are e-mail trains where the actual title of the email has limited relationship to the actual content, but is basically an artifact of the origin of the conversation. I cringed recently when I received an e-mail with a subject line that said “Fw: Re: Re: Re: Your question”.
  • E-mails with multiple attachments without clear identification of which attachments are important. Often, the titles of the attachments are uninterpretable so they have to be opened one at a time in an attempt to understand the issue.
  • E-mails where I struggle to tell what the sender is asking. Is it simply informational or is there a request for a response from me?
  • E-mails I can’t understand or triage effectively without clicking on a link. This can create concerns in my mind about whether the message legitimate or is sinister. Also, I can’t open the link when I am off line.

Quick triage often results in all of these types of e-mails ending up in the “File” folder (or worse yet, the “trash”) when perhaps they should have been in the “Urgent do to” folder.

So, here are some simple concepts to consider when composing e-mails that would help me (and I would think others) manage incoming e-mails. I have no doubt similar concepts have been outlined elsewhere.

  • Summarize up front, ideally in the subject line but certainly in the first few lines of the e-mail, what the message is about so I can know it is legitimate and understand its urgency. This is particularly important when forwarding an e-mail conversation that is long and complex.
  • Be sure the subject line is actually the subject of the e-mail, even if that means you need to change the subject line of an e-mail train.
  • Let me know what kind of response you want early in the e-mail as well. Is it FYI only? Is there something specific you want me to do?
  • Limit attachments to the important ones. If attachments are vital to the message, make sure the title of the attachments allows me to understand the content without opening each and every one.
  • Don’t require that that I click on a link to understand the content or importance of a message. If including a link is important (and it often is), be sure to explain why in the message so I know it is not spam or phishing.

If everyone followed these simple suggestions, it would certainly make my life a bit easier!

And… if you have identified other slick ways to manage the never-ending barrage of e-mails we all receive, please share them with me. If you do so, I would suggest the subject line… “FYI only – clues to managing e-mail” or something similar. I’ll go ahead and set up a rule to forward all e-mails that include “managing e-mail” in the subject line into a separate folder. That way, I can look at them together when I have a moment to do so, which will facilitate my ability to review them thoughtfully and efficiently.