How to Overcome Inbox Overload


“Ding,” goes my computer.
“Whirrr,” goes my vibrating smartphone.

Without even thinking about it, like one of Pavlov’s dogs with a bell, I instantly check my email. It might be 9am and I just got to work, or it might be 9pm and I’m watching television with my partner. I just can’t help myself.

When I went to the beach for vacation this summer, I tried something I had never done before. I turned my work email account off on my phone. To some of you this may seem like no big deal, but I’m willing to bet there are others of you out there that understand the terrifying moment when you choose to disconnect from this mega form of communication.

Photo "Dangerous Inbox"  by  Recrea HQ, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo “Dangerous Inbox” by Recrea HQ, Flickr Creative Commons

For the first 12 hours I found myself checking that little notification bubble, and, I will admit, was actually let down when it remained fairly low. I felt tempted to turn on that Outlook® account again, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important. It was so hard to let go of the satisfaction of being connected and the anxiety of a cluttered inbox. Never mind that this time was supposed to be about relaxing, spending time with family, and disconnecting from the work world- I felt like I still needed to know what was going on.

And why shouldn’t it? The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, found that the average person who uses email for work (and I would count being in college as “work”) sends and receives about 110 emails per day. That study was conducted in 2012, so I would not be surprised if the number is even higher today. Email is a form of communication we have grown to rely on; it’s a fast and easy way to get answers and pass along information without having to speak face-to-face or over the phone. But the flip side of this convenience is that people are able to reach us at any time, and the lines between school/work life and personal life grow more and more tenuous.

In a global media study conducted by faculty at The University of Maryland, they found that college students all over the world actually exhibited physical and emotional signs of withdrawal when asked to go 24 hours “unplugged” from technology. Other studies have shown that “email overload” can contribute to stress, decreased productivity & concentration, and is connected to feelings of burn out.

So, what can we do about this? Even as I write this blog, that little red notification bubble has continued to increase. Here are a few tips for managing inbox overload–or the “email beast”–that I’ve found useful:

    1. Empty your inbox. As emails come in, filter them into organized folders. This can help prevent the “inbox buildup.”
    2. Be the boss of your email. Set boundaries that work for you. This can be as simple as “I don’t check my email during class,” or not checking email after a certain time of day. Hold yourself accountable with some reinforcement, such as rewards for sticking to your goal for a set amount of time.
    3. Control the flow. Similar to emptying the inbox, control the flow of emails by setting a window of time each day that you concentrate solely on responding and sorting emails. Don’t let yourself get caught in the frantic email answering between classes—rather, sit down and focus only on the task at hand.

      Photo Ready to Start This Friday  by  Jabiz Raisdana, Flickr Creative Commons.
      Photo Ready to Start This Friday by Jabiz Raisdana, Flickr Creative Commons.
    4. Unsubscribe like your life depends on it. Remember at Fallfest when you signed up for every listserv for every organization you might ever want to join? I’m willing to bet your inbox has doubled with emails since that wonderful night a few weeks ago. Now that you have had time to settle in to the semester, go back and unsubscribe to the listservs that you haven’t read at all. You can also set up filters so that these emails automatically go into folders you can read later if you aren’t ready to un-commit yet.
    5. Take time to disconnect. While it might not be realistic or even desirable to go a day without email, set aside time to disconnect. Put up an away message, or simply turn off your email notifications until you are ready to focus on giving those messages the responses they deserve. Instead, use that “ding” or “buzz” free time to have coffee with a friend, take a walk around campus, or go to a performance you’ve been dying to see.

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