Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

3 Signs You’ve Completely Lost Control of Your Inbox (Plus, How to Take it Back)

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Here’s a not-entirely-unrealistic situation: Imagine that managing your inbox lately has been taking up so much time and energy that you’re starting to feel like it’s just supposed to be that way. Those email tricks you see online never really apply to your situation since the writers can’t possibly understand the intricate details of your specific job or the responsibilities that come with it.

If this sounds familiar, there’s a chance you might be underplaying how out-of-control your email has gotten. In fact, it’s possible that your inbox is in full-on tantrum mode, and you’re blaming yourself for its unruliness when you could be avoiding the problem altogether. Read on for some signs that you aren’t alone in your struggles, plus ways to fix them!

Remember: You can take back control.

1. You Get More Emails Than You Can Respond to

Why is it that every time you respond to one message, 10 more pop up? In the past, you’ve spent hours at a time going through and answering, only to fall behind on actual action items on your to-do list waiting for your attention. There’s no healthy balance between staying up-to-date and, well, tending to everything else in your life. Maybe your relationship with your inbox just isn’t what it used to be.

Why This Is Happening

You’re treating your emails as though they all hold equal weight. Maybe you have a first-in, first-out policy, where you respond to whatever has been waiting longest for your response, and work your way up to today. Or maybe you have a last-in, first-out policy, where you start from the top and work your way down.

How to Fix It

It’s time for you to start prioritizing messages by urgency. Ask yourself these questions every time you you receive a new one:

  • Is this urgent?
  • Are there other people included who are better equipped to handle it?
  • Does it require a response?
  • Is it a response you give often?

If it’s not urgent, save it for later. Not a TBD later, but an actual time you set each day to go through your inbox. If it’s urgent, but there are a lot of people included who are better equipped to answer—give it a few minutes and see if one of them does. If there’s no response required: Don’t respond. And, finally, if it’s a response you give often, think about using a feature like Canned Responses on Gmail, or creating a doc that has all your templates in one place.

2. You’re Getting Way Too Many Newsletters

You wake up every morning with tons of unread messages, including no less than 30 different newsletters (breaking headlines! Sales! Best restaurants in the area! Industry news!). You lie in bed, eyes barely open, and swipe every single one directly into the trash can. This is a necessary part of the experience, you tell yourself. I signed up for these and now this is the price I have to pay.

Why This Is Happening

I get it: Newsletters are appealing. With so many great ones out there, you struggle to pick what’s actually valuable from what’s simply interesting. Every time you find a new daily digest or weekly letter that seems truly useful, you ask yourself if you’re really sure before handing over the golden keys to your inbox—and you are. So you subscribe. But before you know it, and even without you meaning for it to, that subscription quickly becomes yet another in a long line of early morning deletions.

How to Fix It

Prevent this from happening by unsubscribing more intentionally. Each time you subscribe to a new newsletter, give yourself a trial week. If at the end of one week you’re not excited to open it (or haven’t even done that yet), then unsubscribe. No questions asked. I know what you’re thinking: Who has the time to do all that? You do, with apps like Unroll.Me (for newsletters) and BoxBe (for people).

3. You Often Lose Email Threads or Forget Them Entirely

You’re working with five other co-workers on an upcoming project, and someone started a thread to figure out meeting times for next week. Considering all the other tasks you have on your plate, you figure it’s fine to push this small scheduling detail until later—better yet, when the conversation is more developed and you have more to work with. A couple hours later, you go to look for the messages, and they’re gone. No matter what search terms you try.

Why This Is Happening

Two possibilities: Your inbox is way too cluttered, or way too organized. I’m talking about the people who either get rid of everything under the sun right away or hoard thousands upon thousands of unread messages. Every email you get—from your boss, your neighbor, your partner, and your grandmother—are all banished to the archives or sit in your inbox forever.

How to Fix It

It’s time to clean your inbox. Set aside an hour one day and devote it to doing nothing but sorting messages. You can: move threads into folders, utilize tags, star anything you need to get back to later, check out Boomerang, or try any of these awesome tools. Don’t pick a method just for the sake of picking one, instead choose one that you know makes sense to you. You might have to test out a few systems before finding the perfect option, but trust me, a few hours spent doing this will save you a ton in the long run.

If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, that’s OK. It’s normal to feel like your inbox rules your life. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up. Instead, start tackling the problem, email by email, until you’re back in control.

Do you have any email management tricks I should try that weren’t included? Tweet me @caroqliu and let me know!