Thinking Through Email: Limit Your Intake

We’ve been taking an in-depth look at email over the last couple of weeks. We took a look at what it really is[1] and thought through how to mitigate it’s more distracting qualities[2].

Turning off your notifications will help you focus on your other work instead of being pulled away every few minutes to deal with an email. But what about when it’s time to actually process your email? What if working on our inbox is a 3 or 4 hour task?

I have two main suggestions in that case: reduce your intake and take advantage of automation. We’ll deal with intake in this post, but before we do, let me suggest that you find an email application that will do some of the heavy lifting for you.

Apps like Mailbox, Inbox from Gmail, and even Apple Mail and the Gmail web app have features that will automate a lot of the details of processing email. Take a few minutes to explore some of the features of third party email applications and find something that will work for you rather than limit you.

Cut it Out

I find it easier to put off checking my email when I know there’s a lot in there. When I get back from vacation my inbox often sits untended for days before I can talk myself into working on it.
I can justify not dealing with my inbox if it’s going to take me an hour or two to process.

We get a lot of email. We get a lot of email we don’t need. We get a lot of email we don’t need that we don’t have to get. The best solution is limit what comes in on a daily basis. Do you need constant updates on birthdays and anniversaries? Are you still getting social media notifications in your email?

Turn off as much of the automated garbage as you can. It just sits there and it makes your inbox seem more daunting than it really is.

How I handle it

I get a lot of email because I do a lot of things online. Email quantities build up quickly when you sign up for new services or join new communities online. If you signed up for email updates from that cool new blog you found, you’re probably getting three or four new updates a week.

Every few months I take a hard look at the emails I’m getting. Am I reading them all? Is this important to me? Do I care about baking the best pies or was I just buying my mom a cookbook?

As I check my emails across a span of several days [3] I think “Will I read this or am I archiving or deleting without reading?” If I read the email I’ll keep it this time around. Otherwise it gets moved to the Spam folder and I click the “unsubscribe” button.

What Can You Do?

Think about what kind of emails you really want to receive. Which are the ones that make you want to check your inbox and which help you talk yourself out of it?


  1. Emails are really memos, and as such they excel at some tasks and fail at others  ↩

  2. But for real, if you haven’t turned off notifications on your phone and desktop, you need to do that right now. Well, finish reading this, then go do it.  ↩

  3. It takes several days because most email updates don’t come daily.  ↩