How to Conquer the Email Digging Nightmare

Do you curse the name of whoever led you to 2000 unread messages? Read below for some tips to conquer that inbox!

V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, creator of email and now faculty lecturer at MIT, told the Wall Street Journal that the first thing people say to him when they learn of his foray into invention is, "I want to kill you." Extreme? Obviously, but certainly a feeling we've all felt before. Email is a great tool, but it's one that's spun somewhat out of our control.

While there is controversy over Ayyadurai's claim to fame, the point remains: people are frustrated by their inboxes. At work, there are requests from colleagues, instructions from you boss, questions from your subordinates. Your home email is probably even worse, given how many newsletters you seem to end up on. And then there's follow-up culture -- did they see your message? Should you send another? All of this culminates in that awful moment when you know you received an email but just cannot find it for the life you, and you end up spending an hour digging through all of the messages the search function spits back at you.

There is no tool yet that could comprehensively replace email. It's the best way to get in touch with someone outside your organization, and having a written record of conversations is sometimes necessary. I think we can all agree, however, that some emails really don't need to be sent.

Here are some tips to help your team master the flow of internal emails:

  • Don't reply-all: This should be number 1 on everyone's list. Unless your message really is critical for everyone, just don't do it.

  • Create another way to keep people in the loop: Sometimes people do want to keep up with a project and are currently doing so by being cc'd on everything. Consider instead using a productivity tool like Evernote where project notes can be routinely updated in a centralized place. That way, if your manager wants to catch up, they can see everything that's happened since they last checked in. Email can then be saved for major updates.

  • "No reply necessary": If you don't need a reply, say so!

  • Determine the priority of your message: Is it something that needs to be done immediately? Call or go talk in person. If you're worried it might be a bad time, see #5.

  • Implement another communication tool: Try instant messaging if you just want to figure out someone's availability or have a quick question. While unchecked IM-ing could prove a distraction, a study showed that IM led to more, but shorter, conversations on the computer, overall saving people time and boosting productivity.

The most important thing to remember, however, is to respect your recipients' time. From "The Email Charter" (also the source of #3), come the wise words:

This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.

Other tips for conquering email? Comment here or email us at!