Sorry for the delayed response, but I’m trying to deal with a thousand other emails in my inbox.

Pile of envelopes to be posted

Sorry for the delayed response, but I’m trying to deal with a thousand other emails in my inbox.

How many times have you responded to someone’s email saying ‘sorry for the delayed response’ because you saw their email when it came in and then forgot about it, or how many times have you had to email someone else a second time saying ‘wondering if you got my email’? Most people have probably done at least one of these, at least once.

We are all getting a lot of email. Seriously, a lot of email – according to Internet Live Stats, there are 2,584,004 emails sent every second. On average each day, people deal with 122 emails, and we don’t even really want to receive all of them – in the UK more than half of adults who go online said that in the last 12 months they’d received spam or unwanted email from companies trying to sell something.

Sometimes the sheer volume of email means people consistently have full inboxes and take longer to get back to people because there are so many other messages to wade through as well, or they never get around to replying at all because they’re completely missing some emails.

I’ve been on both sides of this – many times I’ve come back from leave and had hundreds of emails in my inbox to sort through, and I’ve received the ‘sorry for the delayed response, I didn’t see your email’ reply. But, more and more I have little sympathy for people with inboxes bursting at the seams. I know that might be a controversial thing to say, I’m sure some readers will think I’m being unfair and just don’t understand that some jobs come with a lot of email. And that is true – as I said earlier, we do all get a lot of email – but, not seeing or reply to emails isn’t about the amount coming in, it’s poor inbox management.

So, I thought I would share some top tips for great inbox management. Some are from me, some are from others (all referenced at the end of the blog, of course), either way the important thing is that they work!


Stop email interrupting you by checking it in batches.

One of the ways that email makes us less productive is by constantly distracting and interrupting our work. Some studies have suggested that if you’re distracted from a task – for example, by an email notification popping up telling you something has just come in to your inbox – it can take as long as 25 minutes to refocus. And, on average, people spend nearly a third of their total working week just on email – that’s a lot of time that might be better spent getting through your to-do list.

Rather than having your email open all day and getting distracted each time you get something new, set aside certain times when you will look at and deal with emails. For example, you could look twice a day – open up your email in the morning, set aside a certain amount of time (say, half an hour) to respond to things coming in over the evening/night before, close your email (this bit’s important!), open it up again towards the end of the day and deal with things coming in over the course of the day. Of course, depending how email heavy your job is you could vary how often you do this or for how long.

The important thing is to not look at your email when you’re working on something else. I know this can feel stressful (‘what if something important comes up and I miss it?’), but don’t forget, you will be checking your email, just not all the time. I would wager there are very few emails which need to be responded to the second they come in. Plus, phones still exist, if it’s really urgent you are still reachable.

And you don’t have to just take it from me that this works, there are studies that have shown that checking email less frequently in this way (in time slots, rather than dealing with them as they come in) increases productivity and may help reduce stress.


Make more use of folders to group related emails.

Often when you’re waiting for a reply from someone they will say that they didn’t see your email because they have a lot of other things in their inbox. Although it’s not necessarily a good thing to focus too much on getting your inbox completely empty (you don’t want to save time on email management just to waste it worrying about getting completely clear), it does make sense to have as few emails as possible in your inbox, so that when new messages come in you know you’ll see them.

A great way to do this is use folders, in fact I’m often surprised how little people make use of folders. There are a lot of emails that you don’t want to delete, but you don’t need to actually do anything about, for example emails confirming your place at an event. All of those kinds of emails could be in a folder – you know they’re safe from accidentally being deleted, they’re easier to find when you need them, and they’re not crowding your inbox with things you don’t actually need to be looking at.

The way I see it is, your inbox is not a destination, it’s a stop off, like a waiting room – emails in your inbox are waiting to have some sort of action taken (deleted, forwarded to someone else, saved somewhere, etc.). Don’t keep your emails waiting longer than they need to be! Everything in your inbox should be something you need to do something about, if it’s not then move it somewhere else where you can find it if you need it, but it’s not distracting you.

And you don’t even have to manually move emails into folders, you can set up rules so they go there themselves. This can work especially well for things like email newsletters (although there is more on this later too), which you want to receive but often end up sitting in your inbox for ages while you try and find time to read them. Why not have them go into a folder, out of the way but still accessible, so you can read them at your leisure.

In summary, folders are great, use them to group your emails and get them out of your inbox.


If you can deal with it quickly, do it now.

I’ve written before about my love of lists, and the satisfaction of ticking something off your list (it makes you feel so productive!). So, it’s possibly not surprising that I am a big believer in David Allen’s ‘Two Minute Rule’, which says that if a task will take two minutes, you should do it straight away, because it will be quicker than arranging to do it at some point in the future. Allen talks about the rule in his book ‘Getting Things Done’, and how it can help you to make the most effective use of the ‘small windows of time’ between tasks and, well, get things done. I use this rule across all my work, but it is especially useful when it comes to email. We can spend a lot of time reading emails and thinking ‘I’ll reply to that later’, and then at that later time having to re-read the email before replying. It’s a duplication and waste of time, if you can easily and quickly reply to it straight away, then do.


Unsubscribe from things you don’t want.

Unsubscribing from all the emails you don’t want or need could hugely decrease the amount of emails you get each day. This is kind of an obvious point, but still we don’t always do it. I have received so many emails and thought ‘why did I get this, I don’t want it’ and just deleted it as an almost reflex reaction, rather than actually unsubscribing so I don’t get them again.

Emails sent to mailing lists are required to have an ‘unsubscribe’ option in them somewhere (usually at the bottom). If you have an iPhone you may have noticed that Apple have made it even easier for you to do this by recognising emails from a mailing list and presenting you with an option to unsubscribe right at the top of the email. Even if not, that unsubscribe option is there on all these emails, and it’s worth seeking out. And don’t forget things like notifications from social networks, they’re slightly more of a faff to unsubscribe from because you have to go to the site and change your account settings, but it is worth doing, your inbox will thank you for it.


Tidy up the things you do want.

But, not all mailing list emails are annoying, I subscribe to a lot that I like and want to keep. But with them all coming directly into my inbox every day I feel like I’m drowning, even with all my other inbox management stuff in place. Which is why I highly recommend using an email subscription management tool like SaneBox, Alto, Unsubscriber, Unlistr, and many others.

My personal favourite is (although given recent news about the company I might change my mind about that). I just started using it recently, and I can’t express how much I love it! It has cleared up my inbox so much, everything that comes into my inbox now are things I actually need to see, but I’m still getting all the newsletter subscriptions I want.

If you’re not familiar with how it works, first you sign up with your email address and checks your account to find all the mailing lists you’re signed up to – when I did I found I had *drumroll* 181 subscriptions (that was a few months ago now, and I’ve only subscribed to more things since then)! After you’ve found what’s coming in, the app presents you with each subscription and gives you the choice of keeping it in your inbox, unsubscribing, or putting it in to your ‘rollup’.

Before I explain about the rollup, a quick word on unsubscribing, although it’s handy that this is an option within the app, I recommend actually doing this manually. A lot of the time apps like that help you manage your subscriptions don’t necessarily actually unsubscribe you from the lists when click that option. They attempt to but as a backup (in case it can’t do it) they block any future messages from coming into your inbox, meaning that if you ever stop using the app all those emails could start reappearing. So, for peace of mind that you are definitely off the list, you might want to just do it yourself.

So, back to the rollup. What is it? It takes all the emails you designate and rather than having them come into your inbox individually, it collects them together into one daily email (you can also get the app and read them in there). You can see the sender, subject line, and a preview of each email, then you can choose to click and read the whole email or keep scrolling to see the others (see the images on the right for these two views).

All your subscriptions are unchanged, you still get the emails you want, in the same format, the only difference is now you can enjoy them without them clogging up your inbox. To use my own subscriptions as an example again, my daily rollup is usually made up of 25-30 emails.

Two screenshots of the display of's email rollup - on the left if a screenshot of how the full rollup list looks, on the right is how an individual email looks when you click to expand it.

That’s 25-30 emails that would otherwise be in my inbox every day, now reduced to just one email. It has made a huge difference!

Obviously, the above is about how works, but the basic premise is the same for a lot of other email management tools, it’s just about finding one that you like – you can find some suggestions of alternatives to here.


Any more suggestions?

So, those are my best tips for better inbox management, what do you think? Let me know in the comments below, and if you’ve got your own tips feel free to share those below too.

Internet Live Stats (26th April 2017) Emails sent in 1 second

Amber Leigh Turner, The Next Web (10th April 2017) Unsubscribe author Jocelyn K. Glei’s three tips to make email less of a time-suck

Ofcom (April 2016) Adult’s media use and attitudes [pdf]

Kristin Wong, Lifehacker (29th July 2015) How Long It Takes to Get Back on Track After a Distraction

Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth W. Dunn, Computers in Human Behavior (February 2015) Checking email less frequently reduces stress

Gloria Mark, Shamsi T. Iqbal, Mary Czerwinski, Paul Johns, Akane Sano (May 2016) Email Duration, Batching and Self-interruption: Patterns of Email Use on Productivity and Stress [pdf]

Michaela Hodges, Fancy Guppy (10th August 2016) Don’t panic, I’ve got a list

David Allen, Success (18th January 2010) 1-on-1: David Allen’s Two Minute Rule

Rick Broida, CNET (20th September 2016) Use iOS Mail to quickly unsubscribe from mailing lists

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