23,768 emails to zero. Here's how

By Brigid Schulte

To be free from an out-of-control inbox, slow down and take the time to set up a good foundation. Photo / Thinkstock
To be free from an out-of-control inbox, slow down and take the time to set up a good foundation. Photo / Thinkstock

I was drowning in email. Overwhelmed. Overloaded. Spending hours a day, it seemed, roiling in an unending onslaught of info turds and falling further and further behind. The day I returned from a two-week break, I had 23,768 messages in my inbox. And 14,460 of them were unread.

I had to do something. I kept missing stuff. Forgetting stuff. Apologising. And getting miffed and increasingly angry emails from friends and others who wondered why I was ignoring them. It wasn't just vacation that put me so far behind. I'd been behind for more than a year. Vacation only made it worse. Every time I thought of my inbox, I'd start to hyperventilate.

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I'd tried tackling it before: One night a few months ago, I was determined to stay at my desk until I'd powered through all the unread emails.

At dawn, I was still powering through and nowhere near the end. And before long, the inbox was just as crammed as it had been before I lost that entire night's sleep.

On the advice of a friend, I'd even hired a Virtual Assistant to help me with the backlog. But I had no idea how to use one.

Email bankruptcy

And though I'd read about people declaring email bankruptcy when their inbox was overflowing - deleting everything and starting over from scratch - I was positive there were gems somewhere in that junk, and I couldn't bear to lose them.

I knew I wasn't alone. I'd get automatic response messages saying someone was on vacation and the only way they could relax was by telling me they'd never, ever look at my email, so please send it again when they returned.

My friend, Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks, often sends out this auto response: "My inbox looks like Pompeii, post-volcano. Will respond as soon as I have time to excavate." And another friend, whenever an email is longer than one or two lines, sends a short note, "This sounds like a conversation," and she won't respond unless you call her.

Email made the late writer Nora Ephron's list of the 22 things she won't miss in life. Twice. In 2013, more than 182 billion emails were sent every day, no doubt clogging up millions of inboxes around the globe.

Watch: Escaping Email: Inspired Vision or Pipe Dream?

Bordering on despair, I sought help from four productivity gurus. And, following their advice, in two weeks of obsession-bordering-on-compulsion, my inbox was down to zero.

Here's how.

Create a system

Julie Gray, a time coach who helps people dig out of email overload all the time, said the first thing I had to change was my mind.

"This is such a pervasive problem. People think, 'What am I doing wrong? They think they don't have discipline or focus or that there's some huge character flaw and they're beating themselves up all the time. Which only makes it worse," she said.

"So I first start changing their email mindset from 'This is an example of my failure,' to 'This just means I haven't found the right system for me yet.' It's really all about finding your own path through the craziness."

Do not spend another minute on email, she admonished me, until you've begun to figure out a system. Otherwise, she said, I'd never dig out.

So we talked systems. It soon became clear that I'd created a really great email system for when I was writing my book - ironically enough, on being overwhelmed - spending most of my time not at all overwhelmed in yoga pants in my home office working on my iMac.

I was a follower of Randy Pausch who wrote, in The Last Lecture, to keep your email inbox down to one page and religiously file everything once you've handled it. And I had for a couple years.

But now that I was traveling around the country to talk about the book, and back at work at The Washington Post, using my laptop, iPhone and iPad, that system was completely broken. I had six different email accounts. And my main Verizon email that I'd used for years and the Mac Mail inbox with meticulous file folders that I loved on my iMac didn't sync across any of them.


Sync your inbox across devices to save you time. Photo / Thinkstock

Gray asked: "If everything just blew up today, and you had to start over, how would you set up your system?"

I wanted one inbox. One email account. And I wanted the same inbox on all my devices. If I deleted an email on my laptop, I wanted it deleted on my iMac. If I put an email into a folder on my iMac, I wanted that same folder on my laptop.

So I decided to use Gmail, which does sync, as my main account. I set up an auto responder on my Verizon email saying I was no longer using it and directing people to my Gmail account. I updated all my accounts to send to Gmail. And I spent hours on the phone with Apple one Sunday (thank you, Chazz,) to get my Gmail account set up in my beloved Mac mail inbox that would sync. Then I transferred old files and created new ones on Gmail. I had to keep my Washington Post account separate, but that wasn't the real problem.

All systems go.

Set up rules: The six D's

When it comes to email, Laura Stack, the "Productivity Pro," lives by what she calls the Six Ds:

1. Discard. Just delete stuff.

2. Delegate. Decide if this is really something you need to do.

3. Do.

Do it quickly - answer e-mails that will take two minutes or less right away.

Do it later - create a system for turning e-mails that require action into To Do tasks. "This is a foundation piece. You don't want to file it, it's like putting it in a drawer. You'll forget about it," she said. "So what do people do? They leave it in their inbox. This is the number one problem. People are using their inboxes like To Do lists. And once you get past one screen, you just can't process it anymore."

4. Date. Give yourself a deadline for taking action.

5. Drawer. File away stuff you've taken action on but may want to refer to.

6. Deter. "Unsubscribe from things," she said. "I am a freak about unsubscribing right away. You want to cut back on the things that come into the inbox in the first place. There's so much volume. Prevention is key."

So now that I had my system in place, Stack suggested setting up rules and doing a quick pass to get the junk out of the inbox, to make it easier to find those gems.

Over the course of two days, I searched for junk and deleted entire batches of email. I turned off notifications from Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter. (I didn't even realise I had them on.)

I unsubscribed from junk mail and newsletters I didn't read or could easily find online. I created rules for the newsletters and alerts I did want to keep to send them automatically to reading files, and then gave myself permission to go in occasionally and hit "read" whether I really had read them or not. Email is a tool to help me and enrich my life, the gurus kept telling me, not a tyrant whose every whim requires a response.

By the end of the second manic day, I was down to 1,280 unread emails.

Make it easy. Slow down to keep up. Adapt

Laura Palmer, an executive coach, helps people see and overcome how their own limiting beliefs add to their overload, email or otherwise.

To keep the inbox tame, she said, whatever system you devise has to be easy. You have to be willing to slow down and take the time to set up a good foundation, dig out and keep it up, or you'll just be right back where you started. And you have to be willing to adapt your system as your life circumstances change.


Slow down to keep up. Photo / Thinkstock

"People tend to think, 'If I slow down to set up a good foundation, I'm going to get further behind on the things that I value,'" she said. "But the truth is, you may be further behind on the things you value because you haven't taken the time to set up a good foundation."

And, she said, we have to take the time to see how our often unconscious beliefs are making our email overload or addiction worse. "People fear being seen as a slacker if they don't answer their emails right away. They fear letting people down. They're worried they're going to miss something or be left out. Or they keep checking email because they're looking for validation, or getting attention feels good," she said.

"But really, all those fears can distract you from what really needs to be done and what's really important," she said.

All the more reason, she said, to create a system that makes it easy for you to do what's most important to you. And that means setting boundaries and being comfortable with them. Because sometimes answering every email seems to take up every minute of your time. "You want to be responsive in a way that honors your values," she said.

(Some inbox zero gurus suggest axing the habit of cc'ing people, and not getting into email ping pong exchanges - that if you wouldn't respond with a written letter, you shouldn't respond with an email. James Hamblin, of the Atlantic, in a hilarious video, suggests a "cool" button, like a Facebook "like," for a quick email response.)

Over the next week, giving myself 30-minute chunks between work to whittle away at the inbox, I started uncovering the emails that were causing me that gnawing anxiety that I really did need to respond to - because I'd been so overloaded, I failed to realise that I was scheduled to be in Utah and Princeton and Potomac, all on October 7.

And I began finding the gems I knew were in there: the man who wrote to say he'd quit a job with crazy hours that he hated after he read my book, was happy and found meaning working for a nonprofit, making the same amount of money, leaving every night at 5:30, spending more time with his wife and even fishing on Lake Michigan every now and then without feeling too guilty. Those are the kind of emails you live for.

Inbox down to 238 unread emails.

Set up protocols

How you handle email everyday is as important as creating a good system, said Terry Monaghan, who runs Time Triage workshops and helps clients unbury from email.


Establish protocols for how often to check your emails. Photo / Thinkstock

"The most effective thing I ever did, and now teach my clients, is how to establish protocols for how often I check and how quickly I respond to email," she said. She lets people know that she will respond within 24 hours on a business day, and if they need to reach her sooner, they know to call or text.

She checks her email at regular intervals. How regular depends on you, your job and your demands. "It's what works for you," she said. "As long as it's something other than every six minutes."

To do good work, to focus on what's most important, she said, you need to be free of distractions and interruptions. A crammed email inbox can be distracting. And constantly checking email is a surefire way to short-circuit both productivity and creativity. It takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after an interruption, like responding to the ding of an incoming email.

A few days ago, I made it to zero. Everything is filed. I've created ACTION and FOLLOW UP folders that, if my new system really works and I really do check them regularly, will keep me on top of things. I turned off the automatic delivery, so I go to the server and get emails at regular intervals.

It's not perfect. But at least I can breathe.

- Washington Post

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