Email overload: simple strategies for taming your bulging inbox

Too much email means we’re working more and getting less done and the pandemic has made it worse

How many emails are in your inbox? And how many of those are unread?

If you are the type that gets anxious when presented with a screen full of red notification badges, congratulations for keeping on top of things. For the rest of us, the increasingly large number in the corner of the screen is a reminder that there is a growing list of things that need our attention.

Not all of those emails are going to be important, or even mildly interesting. There is a good chance that of the 19,489 unread emails in my work inbox, only a fraction of them actually need to be looked at. Certainly the 15,994 in my personal inbox are likely to be messages that I need never look at.

They are mostly alerts, marketing emails, newsletters and lists I have either signed up to or been signed up for over the years; all remain unread, pushing that red notification even higher.


It’s a consequence of the modern workplace, but the pandemic has undoubtedly made things worse.

In the past year, many of us have changed how and where we work. Tucked away in home offices, spare rooms, at kitchen tables or crammed into a corner of our bedroom, we communicate through digital channels, whether that is instant messenger apps such as WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram, collaboration tools like Slack and Teams, or regular old email.

Communications that pre-pandemic would have been a short conversation at someone’s desk have now become lengthy email chains, or a constant hum of conversation in the background, distracting us from the work we actually should be doing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of new emails hitting my inbox has increased noticeably, and it is approaching crisis levels.

Just imagine, for a moment, living in a world without email. Or at the very least, one in which email doesn’t dominate our entire working day – and beyond, in many cases.

That was the premise of Cal Newport’s A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in the Age of Overload. Email, and similar tools such as Slack, have become work in itself, instead of tools to facilitate our work. Pre-pandemic, the average worker dealt with 126 emails a day – imagine how much worse that has become in the current situation.

That leads to a phenomenon he refers to as “hyperactive hive mind”; in other words, we are caught in a workflow that is “centred around ongoing conversation fuelled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools”.

That hive mind is the reason we feel like we are working more than ever before, and yet not getting enough done. Stay too long away from your email or messaging inbox, and you end up slowing down the whole operation.

But as Newport argues, the constant interaction with the hive mind can actually be making you less efficient, requiring you to switch your attention from work to communicating with co-workers, and the mental energy it takes can lead to exhaustion and reduced productivity.

‘Not crucial’

“Rationally, you know that the 600 unread messages in your inbox are not crucial, and you remind yourself that the senders of these messages have better things to do than wait expectantly, staring at their screens and cursing the latency of your response,” Newport writes.

“But a deeper part of your brain, evolved to tend the careful dance of social dynamics that has allowed our species to thrive so spectacularly since the Paleolithic, remains concerned by what it perceives to be neglected social obligations. As far as these social circuits are concerned, members of your tribe are trying to get your attention and you’re ignoring them: an event that registers as an emergency.

“The result of this constant state of unease is a low-grade background hum of anxiety that many inbox-bound knowledge workers have come to assume is unavoidable, but is actually an artefact of this unfortunate mismatch between our modern tools and ancient brains.”

Newport makes a good point: the constant tyranny of email makes it impossible to concentrate on other tasks. The feeling that we must drop everything to answer a message as soon as it comes in can be overwhelming.

But until we get to the utopia of using email only when strictly necessary, we still need to get a handle on our inboxes.

So what’s the best strategy for keeping a handle on your inbox? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this, but some simple strategies could help you spend less time on your inbox and free up a chunk of your day.

Clear it out

If you are drowning under the weight of your unread emails and messages, you can do yourself a favour and clear out some of the clutter immediately.

All those unread emails from two months or more ago? Delete or archive them if necessary. For most cases, if it’s urgent, someone would have either rung or been in touch again. If you haven’t read them by now, how important can they be?

Schedule it

Set aside time to check your email – say once an hour or two, for example – and try to stick to that. Stop automatically refreshing your inbox for new messages, and on your phone, set your email to “fetch” rather than “push”. That way you aren’t interrupted by notifications each time a new email hits your inbox.

Then when it’s time to check your email, you can deal with all the new emails and clear them out, leaving you free of that need to check every new message as they land.

Speaking of dealing with it, make a vow to only keep the necessary emails in your inbox.

If you don’t need to keep it for future reference, delete it as soon as you have read it or answered the email.

Marketing messages, newsletters, emails that have already been dealt with can usually be deleted immediately, keeping your inbox clutter-free.

Archive it

Keeping only the essential emails in your inbox doesn’t mean that you have to delete everything. Archiving is a good way to clear out your inbox without having to permanently delete email.

Pick a timescale that suits you – say a month or two – and then archive anything older than that. That way the emails aren’t cluttering up your inbox, but they can be accessed at a later date if needed.

Some email programmes, such as Microsoft Outlook, allow you to schedule that archiving process, so once you've set it up once, it should be fairly hands-off.

Set up rules

Yes, it takes a while to get set up, but you can make sure some of those less important emails never hit your inbox with a few rules and judicious use of folders. Important emails can be highlighted.

Daily newsletters can be automatically shoved into a specific folder, allowing you to not only find them easily, but also bulk delete them. In reality, I’ve found it is a good way of distinguishing what you need to keep from what you need to ditch permanently. If they stay unread, you know what to do.

Embrace task lists

I have a tendency to leave emails sitting in my inbox, marked as unread to remind me to do things. But there are better ways that won’t clog up your inbox. In Outlook, you can create task lists from emails that copy the text of the message, and allow you to set a date for the task. That way you can delete the message and work off a handy task list.

Be careful who you give it to

Set up a separate email address for logging in to services. The last thing you want is your inbox to be deluged with notifications, security alerts and password reminders. Keep all that to a separate email address, one that you can discard if it all gets too much.

If your email service allows you to set up aliases, you can set aside one for online shopping, logging into social media accounts or signing up for newsletters.


There are some tools that can help you keep a handle on your inbox, saving you time and effort, and generally making your life easier. does a quick scan of your inbox and finds all the subscriptions and marketing emails you have signed up for, allowing you to unsubscribe from them quickly and easily. The ones you want to keep can be combined into a single email.

Sounds simple? It’s free, but there are some catches. You have to grant the tool access to your Gmail account, which gives it the permission to read, compose and permanently delete emails from your account. On a practical level, that makes sense: Unroll has to be able to scan the emails to identify subscriptions, then send emails on your behalf to unsubscribe you from the marketing mail.

But it's worth thinking twice about the access you are granting. The service is free for a reason; its owner Rakuten Intelligence uses data from commercial emails, stripped of its personal information, to help it measure market trends. It says it ignores personal email, but you are placing a lot of trust in a private company.

Which brings us to point number two: the company does not operate in the EU and the European Economic Area. It did, up until the introduction of GDPR, but has since stopped supporting EU users.

However, the only way they gatekeep this is by asking if you are in the EU. If you answer “no” there isn’t much else to stop you. Obviously, there are implications for how your data is processed and who has access to it, but if you are really determined to use the tool, there aren’t many barriers.


Available for Gmail and Outlook, Boomerang helps you keep track of messages that may fall through the cracks. For example, if you send an email to someone, you can ask Boomerang to remind you about it if you haven’t received a reply within a set time, the email will bounce back into your inbox so you know to follow up on it.

There are a few other helpful features Boomerang has. There is a pause inbox button that stops new emails from hitting your inbox for a set period of time, with the option to have an auto-response sent to people who may be trying to get hold of you, and a white list of sorts that will allow emails from certain people to break through the pause. You can also schedule the inbox pause to turn on and off at certain times or on certain days.

It even rates your email in terms of how likely it is to get a response, using artificial intelligence to rate it according to word count, number of questions and the complexity of language used in the email, which all affect how likely you are to get a response. Basically: keep it short, keep it simple, and don’t overload your recipient with questions.


SaneBox uses artificial intelligence to make sure only important email makes it into your inbox – similar to how Gmail splits your email into a primary inbox, promotions etc – and splits off what it classes as distractions. Your email stays clutter-free, and you can see all your important messages.

The good news? It can be used on any inbox, including Exchange email. The bad? It’s not free, although there is a 14-day trial to see if it suits your work style.