An Illustrated Guide to Getting Over Email Overload

The average person checks their email 11 times per hour. Here are 5 ways to fight back.

As E.B. White said, “Creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.” And when it comes to distraction at work, email is still public enemy #1. The average person checks their email 11 times per hour, processes 122 messages a day, and spends 28 percent of their total workweek managing their inbox. Not to mention our weakness for letting our email—and other people’s demands—dictate our mood, our focus, and our to-do list.

Distressed by how much time and energy we waste on email, I decided to confront our inbox addiction head on in my new book Unsubscribe. Here are a few tips and tricks I learned along the way about how to kill email overload and spend more time on the work that matters:

All illustrations are by Tomba Lobos for the book Unsubscribe.
All illustrations are by Tomba Lobos for the book Unsubscribe.
  1. Ask yourself: Do you want random rewards or real rewards? It’s important to understand that email works like a slot machine—and is equally addictive. The act of checking email activates our brains’ natural seeking mechanisms and drives us to relentlessly pursue random rewards. Think about it this way: Most of the time when you “pull the lever” to check your email messages, you get something disappointing or bothersome—a communication from a frustrated client or a boss with an urgent request. But every once in awhile you press the lever and you get something exciting—an email from a long-lost friend or, if you’re really lucky, a video of goats jumping on things. And it’s those random rewards, mixed in with all the mind-numbing updates and irksome requests, that we find so addictive. They make us want to push the lever again and again and again, even when we have better things to do.


  1. Detox your inbox. It’s likely that a small percentage of the people who send you email messages (say 20 percent) could be accounting for a massive amount of your wasted time (say 80 percent). Think about what types of unsolicited inquiries tend to really eat up your time. Maybe it’s customers asking you the same damn questions again and again, too many eager admirers who want to pick your brain, or an endless stream of promotional mailers. Once you identify what types of emails deliver the heaviest drag on your productivity, strategize about how to deal with them before they reach your inbox—whether that’s setting up an auto-responder, using Gmail to create canned email responses, redirecting them to an FAQ on your website, or just aggressively unsubscribing from mailing lists that no longer interest you. The free app called EasilyDo Email has a killer one-touch unsubscribe feature that lets you opt out of promotional mailing lists without ever leaving your inbox.


  1. Timebox your email routine.

There are two types of emailers: reactors, who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes to nibble away at their email throughout the day, and batchers, who set aside specific chunks of time to power through their email so they can ignore it the rest of the day. Not surprisingly, batchers are significantly more effective when it comes to getting shit done, and according to recent research, they’re also less stressed. To get yourself into the groove of batching, I recommend setting aside 30–60 minutes in the late morning and a similar amount of time in the mid- to late afternoon for checking email. Depending on the volume of email you receive, you might want to add a third and final email processing window at the close of your workday to tie up loose ends and leave work with a clear conscience.


  1. Focus on YOLO not FOMO.

Of course you might be wondering: What if my boss or high-maintenance client freaks out if I’m not super-responsive on email? If you have an iPhone, you can designate certain people as VIPs, so whenever you get an email from them you get a special push notification. If you have an Android phone, you can use the Gmail app to label certain people as priority senders and be notified when you get messages from them. Additionally, if you find you tend to get sidetracked by incoming messages every time you open your email to deal with existing messages, try using Outlook’s Work Offline feature or download the Inbox Pause browser extension for Gmail.


  1. Let go of inbox zero, and change the ratio.

If you’re really deep into email overload, it’s time to let go of inbox zero. Remember that your unread message count is not an audit of your productivity. (Zero, quite literally, means nothing.) Instead, guestimate how many messages you receive per week and decide what percentage you can realistically respond to. Because your unread message count is a moving target—sometimes it’s 57, sometimes it’s 201—it’s useful to translate this percentage into a ratio that you can visualize. For example: “I can realistically respond to 1 in 3 messages.” Then you have a simple rule of thumb for parsing and prioritizing small chunks of messages as you plow through your inbox. By admitting that you can’t get to everything and clearly defining what you can get to, you set an achievable goal for handling your email efficiently. Otherwise, you’ll always be scrambling to get out from behind the eightball.

This edited excerpt is from Jocelyn’s book Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done, which is out now with Public Affairs. You can find Jocelyn on Twitter at @jkglei.



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