Email overload - how to avoid it

Email overload is such a funny term. It depends on a person and what is still acceptable before letting things of the leash and leave incoming messages bury the inbox. I changed my filing practices drastically in the last few years. I went from >30 folders to 3 of which one is simply named "Done". But I still keep my inbox to hold things as reminders for what I still have to do. To tell the, truth I still have some emails from 2006 that need to be answered (or to remind me of people I met back then).

Jones (Keeping find things found, p. 199) suggests three general rules to deal with information overflow:

  • Satisfice rather than optimize
  • Triage into "no", "yes" and "maybe" categories
  • Sample and optimize within this sample
Some of them can be applied to email as well.

Lifehacker suggested a more radical approach:

Step 1: Create a filter that auto-responds to all unopened emails > 14 days old w/the following message:

Your email (below) is now 14 days old and has not been opened. To minimize email buildup your email has now been placed in the archive. Should you still require a response simply respond back and you'll automatically be added to the priority queue. Thank you.

Step 2: Setup another filter that looks for the text "Your email (below)", this will catch the email responses back to you from those still requiring your response. Filter these into a special folder you check and respond to daily.

This should NOT be of course applied to people like coworkers, family, etc.

Several ideas to reduce the amount of emails in one's inbox can be found in Inbox Zero articles on 43folders (from its creator). They are fun to read and have some very good ideas as well. Some ideas:

  • Shut off auto-check
  • Pick off easy ones - If you can retire an email with a 1-2 line response (< 2 minutes; pref. 30 seconds), do it now.
  • Write less
  • Cheat - Use something like MailTemplate to help manage answers to frequent email subjects.
  • Be honest - If you know in your heart that you’re never going to respond to an email, get it out of sight, archive it, or just delete it.

Is it even possible to empty the inbox as a game with 0Boxer.

But beware! Expect similar behavior from others as well!

PS: I don't think that "best before" field in email would work :)


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Guy Wyers on :

A drastic approach indeed.
To improve your filing efficiency and keep more than three folders, you could also consider Tagwolf (
It’s an email filing assistant that intelligently suggests the best folder for each email. A single click is all it takes to file a message. Works as an add-in for Microsoft Outlook.

Matjaž Kljun on :

I knew it was just a matter of time to bring this to the market. This idea of suggesting the appropriate folder is old and it was prototyped in academic spheres more than a decade ago:

- Segan and Kephart. MailCat: an intelligent assistant for organizing e-mail (

It basically offloads the cognitive effort of deciding which folder is the most appropriate to file the email in with suggestions. There is a catch:
- more folders suggested, more cognitive effort for the user
- less folder suggested, a risk of not suggesting the right one

The art is to find this "just enough" number.

Unfortunately I'm a Thunderbird.

lp mk

Guy Wyers on :

Indeed I knew about the academic results as well, but I got impatient waiting, so I decided to do it myself.
We have solved the issue you mention (about the number of folders) by putting the results in a tag cloud and the user can choose how many he wants to see.

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