11 Tips for Lessening the Burden of Email

by Dr. Luanne Fose - The Tweed Geek on October 14, 2015

Emails flying out of a computer as mail in the airAfter a summer of being away from your office and no longer having to be a slave to your email inbox, it can be quite a shock to return to work and find that you are once again overburdened by too many emails. How are you to deal with this at any semblance of sanity? Do you remember a time when we actually thought email was cool and we waited anxiously for the next “You’ve Got Mail” audio trigger? (I’m showing my age now, aren’t I?)

Well, those days are over. We’re all overwhelmed with the amount of email we receive and how much of it we feel we need to respond to and the amount of time it takes out of our day to do so. Here are a few tips of handling your email from sanebox with my twist upon them. I’m hoping that these suggestions just might ease your pain a bit:

1) First Thing in the Morning:  Scan for Emails from the Important People in Your Life

That’s right. Set up email “rules” (often referred to as “filters”) to automatically move email of important people (not necessarily in this order e.g., your spouse, the university president, the provost, your department chair, colleagues in your department, graduate TA’s, students you’re advising) to their own special mailbox. In apps such as Mac Mail you can designate certain people as having VIP status and their emails will automatically be moved to the VIP box so you only have one place to look. However, for organizational purposes of locating important email later, I find that it’s best to have folders designated per important person. Scan these important people’s individual folders at the beginning of your day for urgent items or  important to-do’s, and then respond immediately. Rule of thumb: If a response to an urgent email will take under three minutes to reply to, just get it done by replying immediately; otherwise, you will just waste your time thinking about what you should do about it later. No need for extra “brain churn.”

2) Create Folders & Filters to Organize Email from Students

As an instructor, you have to deal with even more emails than most people do! Catherine Hillman from the CTLT suggests that you create a folder for each one of your classes and ask your students to put the course number in the subject line, then create filters for those course numbers in order to re-route the emails from your inbox to their respective folders.

3) Turn Off Email Notifications to Maintain Your Focus 

“What?” you say. “Are you crazy?” Nope! When you leave notifications on, you allow every email that arrives in your box to interrupt you, destroying your productivity. Every time you are interrupted by an email notification, it takes 30-60 seconds to re-focus on the task at hand. That’s valuable time wasted! Turn off your email notifications while you’re working – that is, the banners, the badges, the pop-up alerts, Facebook, Twitter, etc. You’ll get a lot more done! On iOS devices you can turn them off manually or you can even turn them off for a scheduled period of time that you specify (for example: 10-11 am) and have them automatically turn back on later. If you wish to turn off notifications on your iPhone, you have the option to specify whether you wish to be notified after the second attempt of a phone call – the rationale being that if the caller tried twice, the call might be urgent.

4) Block 60 Minutes Later in the Day to Deal with Non-Urgent Emails

Do not leave that email application open like a nagging mother telling you to get your chores done. This is just a distraction and keeps you from focusing on tasks you need to accomplish. By opening your email at only specified times of day, you can avoid this constant time-waster of always checking your email. Don’t let your inbox dictate your priorities! Be strong and control them yourself.

5) Delegate to Someone Else

I love this tip, but unfortunately, I don’t get to use delegation very often in my job – Darn! If someone on your team can better deal with an email, by all means forward it to him or her. This is the easiest rule to follow unless you’re a control freak.

6) Defer to Later

If an email is not urgent, DO NOT leave it in your inbox. This is the worst thing you can do! This causes you to look at the same email over and over and it just wastes your time as you remember, “Oh, yeah, I’m not going to deal with that one right now.” Either immediately respond or move it out of your inbox and file it once you have read it!

Consider creating custom folders designated by days of the week to help you stay better organized and remind you to deal with it later (Note: Microsoft Office 365, Gmail and Mac Mail provide the option of “starring” or “flagging” emails that need more time and energy to follow-up on. Consider making use of the color-coding flag options as well. For example, I flag emails from important Cal Poly people as green, urgent as red, personal email as purple, etc. A quick scan of your flagged emails can be more easily managed with a color-coded system.

7)  Use a Tool to Remind You to Followup on a Particular Date and Time

The Boomerang Extension for Gmail


If you use Gmail, this is the tool for you! When you install the Boomerang Gmail extension, it will remove messages from your inbox until you need to follow-up on them. You simply tell the extension when you want to see the message again and it will archive it until that date. Upon its return, it can be marked as unread, starred or placed at the top of the list. Another perk of this extension is that it allows you to compose email messages ahead of time and schedule them to be sent out at a later time. This extension is especially awesome for sending out emails to your students that you wish to show up in their inboxes on particular days!

8) Create Filters Directing Email into Folders for Things You Want to See at Your Leisure

At Cal Poly, spam has largely been taken care of by established email server gateways that place email from vendors in your junk mailbox so that you can review it later. Another way to handle this is to setup your email so that addresses that aren’t in your contacts are sent automatically to your junk mailbox. (BTW: I learned that it’s important to review your junk emails at least once a week in order to make sure that an old friend, who isn’t currently in your address book, didn’t get placed in a junk folder – Note: This has happened to me several times).

However, you also don’t need to be distracted by newsletters, journal articles, or social media alerts that you have subscribed to but clutter up your inbox. Make sure you set up filters to place them in their own special folders (e.g., how about a folder for the CTLT Weekly Newsletter?).

Did you notice that our new Microsoft 365 email system at Cal Poly has a “Clutter” folder? The Clutter folder is similar to a spam filter and it moves less important email there based upon your reading habits. The idea is that most of the mail in Clutter should be advertisements and listserv mailings; however, I have not liked its algorithm for my reading habits and so I have disabled my Clutter folder. If you desire, you can choose to disable Clutter yourself as well by logging into your Cal Poly email in the portal, clicking on the Gear icon and then choose Options > Automatic Processing > Clutter and select Don’t separate items identified as Clutter and then click the Save button.

9) Help Your Colleagues by Providing a Descriptive Subject Line to Ensure that the Receiver Understands the Level of Urgency

Descriptive subject lines can assist people in knowing how to respond to your email and whether or not it is urgent. Consider placing a call to action right in the subject line, if needed. At the CTLT office we use [EOM] in the Subject line to denote “End of Message” meaning that the entire short message we wished to convey was in the subject line and thus the receiver doesn’t have to bother to open the email.

Other excellent subject descriptors are:

[Action Needed]
[Urgent] or [Time Sensitive]
[Not Urgent]
[Please reply by – date]
[FYI] – meaning “For Your Information.” This can be used for content you wish to share with the receiver for their own knowledge (such as an excellent article you think they might be interested in); however, this descriptor let’s the receiver know that they can put off reading email until a later time at their leisure.

10) Consider Alternate Means of Communication

Ever get stuck in one of those email or text threads addressed to several other people that never seems to end and fills up your email inbox with the responses of all the recipients? Irritating isn’t it? Sometimes it is best to remove some people from the thread who don’t need to be involved or maybe even start a new thread altogether with only the necessary participants. Consider if a quick phone conference would be a better use of your time. When you send an email, ask yourself if a phone call, text message, or instant message might be more efficient. If so, don’t email. Stop stuffing email boxes and end the insanity!

11) Use a Tool to Safely Unsubscribe to Email Subscriptions

Have you ever unsubscribed from the junk email of a vendor only to receive even more spam? One of the problems of unsubscribing is that you are actually notifying unscrupulous companies that your email is actually an existing, working email, which results in even more spam. Ugh! SaneBox – a company you pay to organize your emails for you, recently suggested a tool called Unroll.me (a free service) in one of their newsletters (that I actually read in my junk box, LOL). This week I’ve been trying out Unroll.me  on one of my home email accounts, which has become my catchall email account for spam. Unfortunately, when trying to deal with spam early on in the email game, it was too late before I realized that I needed a non-used email address for subscriptions or coupons. Now that I’ve grown wiser, I use a specific email address when signing up for things such as Bass Outlet or Sports Authority coupons so that all the spam from these accounts goes directly to that one email account. I rarely look at that email account unless I’m trying to score a shopping deal.

Due to my prior ignorance, I get a lot of unwanted email in my home account and I was looking for some way to handle it. With Unroll.me, you can create an account (they require that you supply them with your email address and password). I was a little hesitant about providing the password to my home email account (and we’ll see if that gets me in trouble later).  Disclaimer:  I do NOT suggest that you do this for your Cal Poly email account — that password should NEVER be shared

Unroll.me scans your email account and asks you what spam email you wish to unsubscribe from and then “presto,” you never hear from them again. Unroll.me also asks you which spam-type emails (such as subscribed journal articles) are important to you and then it creates one extended email everyday with just those more important spam emails to review within it. So far, I sort of like this tool, but the jury is still out on it since I have only used it for a few days.

I hope some of these tips prove helpful to assisting you in making your email more manageable and freeing up time for other priorities in your life!

~ Luanne Fose – The Tweed Geek


Managing Email Effectively: Strategies for Taming Your Inbox (no date) Available at: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/managing-email.htm (Accessed: 9 October 2015).

Unroll – Unsubscribe from Emails, Instantly. (no date) Available at: https://unroll.me/features (Accessed: 9 October 2015).

100 Email Hacks (no date) Available at: http://www.sanebox.com/l/100-email-hacks (Accessed: 9 October 2015).

Ho, L. (no date) 7 Tips of Handling Your Emails Without Feeling Overwhelmed. Available at: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/7-tips-of-handling-your-emails-without-feeling-overwhelmed.html (Accessed: 9 October 2015).

Fields, B. (2011) 21 Tips for Handling Email (So That It Doesn’t Handle You!). Available at: http://www.beafields.com/2011/03/21-tips-for-handling-email-so-that-it-doesnt-handle-you/ (Accessed: 9 October 2015).


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