Overwhelmed by Email

“Email is both a miracle and a curse. At no other time in human history have we been able to exchange messages instantly globally; but at the same time, our ancestors didn’t spend hours each day sifting through memos, missives and newsletters we probably should just unsubscribe from.” Kadhim Shubber


In the last few weeks, I have spent time counseling colleagues who had real issues after missing one or more critical emails.   I totally understand why… the volume of emails, and particularly of spam we all get is totally out of control. But the volume doesn’t really matter when you miss a critical deadline or, in the case of some medical students this year, an offer for a residency interview.

Young man receiving tons of messages on laptop

Young man receiving tons of messages on laptop

Photo credit


The key is to have a system – and to change the way you look at email. 

When you open an email message you only have three options and one of them is not to keep it in your inbox! Don’t use your inbox as a “to do” list – the emails will stack up and it becomes unmanageable.  The simple way to avoid this is to open each email message and immediately do one of three things:

  1. Delete it
  2. Answer it
  3. Create a task

Other important things to know about deleting (or not deleting)

Microsoft has recently introduced a new function for Outlook called Clutter.  It’s a good thing – as long as you know it is there and how it works!  In a nutshell, this function uses your behavior to decide if you want to see the email or if the email should automatically be sent to the “clutter” folder.  Beware – you need to either check the folder or disable this function, particularly at first.

The two other critical tools to help “debride” your email are to unsubscribe to emails you really don’t want to see, or block the sender (for true spam).  For other great tips, check out How to control your inbox from lifehacker.com and these tips from The Observer

Create a task? I am a big fan of Remember the Milk, but there are many other “to do” programs out there that would work, too. When I get an email that I need to turn into a task I send it to the “inbox” of my Remember The Milk account. Once it’s there, you then

  • Put it in a list (the four lists in my account are “Today”, “This week”, “Projects” and “Ideas”, but you can create any lists you want)
  • Give it a priority
  • Give it a due date
  • Set a reminder (if you need to)

Check your list! However you choose to make your task list, check it every evening to organize the next day’s tasks. This is critical to making this work. Don’t list 20 things either. Be realistic and put the top 3-5 things on this list!

Check your email! Check your email at least once a day, but not all the time… and NOT at your most mentally active time! For most people that means checking email in the afternoon or evening.

Change your mindset. Email is how professionals communicate, so we all have to learn how to handle our inbox without becoming frustrated or angry.

computer hammerPhoto credit

I learned a very valuable approach from a friend one day when we were talking about email. I said there were times I just dreaded sitting down … and even got angry because of the volume of emails I have to answer. Her solution? Turn answering email into an exercise of gratitude. Be grateful that you have hands to type, eyes to see the screen, and the privilege of work..  As simple and potentially silly as this seems, it is a powerful tool to change how you look at answering emails. (p.s. it also works for the EMR!)

get toPhoto credit