How I Climb Out of a Pile of Emails

Last week I returned from six days of traveling. Before I left, I vowed to stay on top of my emails. I was way too optimistic. My cell phone and spotty laptop connection can only do so much when I’m on a busy trip. By the time I returned to work, I had a few hundred emails piled up that needed my attention. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed.


Spam and senseless subscriptions are one thing, and those aren’t the kinds of emails I had to think through. I had followup leads, requests for help, and real people I needed to deal with. These were important emails, and just knowing that I hadn’t even opened them up bothered me. People were “out there” thinking they were being ignored. And in a sense, they were. My business ethic was convicting me: There is no excuse for this.

Have you found yourself in this predicament? I bet you have. I feel like I have a good solution. I apply a 5-minute practice similar to David Allen’s 2-minute principle in Getting Things Done. I feel I need 5 minutes. I click through the emails and ask myself, “Can I respond to this email within 5 minutes?”

  • Yes: I do it. A quick response, a pat answer, a forwarding or delegation, or a quick completion of a simple task. Upon reading the email, I assess whether or not I can respond in 5 minutes, then I do it.
  • No: I mark as unread and move onto the next email. These are emails that require more thought, one that kicks off a small project, or demands a follow up phone call or visit.

The case cited above, it took me about two hours to get through the emails with this process. I answered 200 emails (bam!) and ended up with an inbox of about a dozen that required more thought. I then spent the rest of the day following up with the larger responses and greater tasks. By the end, I was all caught up and ready to get back to my daily routine.

Any other ideas? I’d love to hear how you keep up with emails.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • i experience the same issue – so i appreciate your ideas. thanks, coach!

    • You’re very welcome, Alice. Good to hear from you.

  • emails can become overwhelming. I have learned taking a section of the day to respond to emails helps keep my inbox down. Great points!