Ask the grumpies: How do you manage your email?

CG asks:

How do you manage your email? Mine is out of control.

We don’t.  :(

Ours is also out of control.

#2 once tried inbox zero and it worked for like 6 hours, maybe.

#1 has emails from 2016 still in the bottom of her inbox.  Don’t be like #1.

When times are good, #1 attends to her inbox but leaves stuff in there as sort of a to-do list.   When times are bad, everything gets converted to Last In First Out and things get buried for years.  This is no good.  Usually at some point #1 has to start scheduling an hour of going through email each day until she has scooped herself out to some reasonable point in time.  But it’s like shoveling during a snow-storm.  Ugh.

#1 has also given up on reading weekly newsletters of any sort– there’s a folder that says, “Research to read” that every week she puts all the journal and working papers emails in to read.  She used to read those every week, but now they just go in the bucket.  She feels bad about this and behind on what is going on in the field.  But… sometimes you have to triage.

Grumpy Nation:  How do you manage your email?

40 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How do you manage your email?”

  1. mnitabach Says:

    Everyone needs my AMAZING new secret toolset for TAKING BACK CONTROL of your emails designed on the basis of YEARS of detailed experimentation & consultation with organizational psychology EXPERTS!!! It’s called “INBOX IDGAF!” & can be yours for only the low price of $7.99 per month subscription fee OR a special deal for Grumpy Rumblings readers of only $99.99 per year!!! Also, as an extra special sweetener just for Grumpy Rumblings, the annual subscription comes with a COMPLETELY FREE beta version of our latest new product under development “INBOX FOAD!”, guaranteed to not get you fired!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Having to keep track of following up with people like you is part of the problem. Oh to be a white man who everyone caters to and everyone forgives when they have to send three emails and a personal text to schedule a $&@@ing meeting.

      • mnitabach Says:

        Did you sign up for the one year special deal!?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        You mean the one where the new hire fails because I was put in charge of the hiring committee and none of the white dudes on the committee answered the initial scheduling emails because they’re too important so I just let it go? (I am, of course welcome to do all the work myself, which I don’t want to do, and I can make decisions they don’t approve of but then they get angry because how dare I. I should have known they needed to be texted to get them to fill out a damn doodle poll.)

        But instead of punishing the other lazy people, me being a lazy jerk just ends up punishing junior faculty who can’t be lazy. Lazy jerks always end up punishing people lower on the totem poll and making more work for people who aren’t lazy jerks trying to protect them. I don’t want to hurt people who aren’t lazy jerks by being one myself.

        I get that you have no qualms. Which sucks for your female and junior colleagues who have to deal with your slack.

      • mnitabach Says:

        Wow you saw right thru me! Underlying my hilarious joke about INBOX IDGAF is the disturbing truth that I actually never respond to scheduling emails in a timely fashion & casually destroy other ppl’s careers due to my sociopathically lax email practices.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Sounds like what you were recommending, yeah.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    I’ve been pretty good about my personal email but the work email has been out of control for years. The sheer volume of people I talk to is just too much in a commercial role and much of it I should save. And the outlook search feature leaves much to be desired.

    Years ago I religiously used personal folders, rules and tags. I tried starting it up again but the rules weren’t activating automatically the last time I tried getting a few things automated (automatically moving inventory reports to a certain folder for example). Now I try to upload the most important thing in notes but don’t love that tool either as I have issues with how you can’t really organize things that well within folders. Some colleagues save important emails in desktop folders. I really should try to make a habit of a few of these things again but Microsoft office seems more glitchy than it has been in years past and I just don’t have the will or time to spend hours troubleshooting why something isn’t working right.

    I wonder how many of us are doing the workload of multiple people these days. I know at my company, they lose people and just don’t backfill. It’s amazing how many times I think: this is not sustainable.

  3. yetanotherpfblog Says:

    Filters to get rid of unnecessary repetitive emails, unsubscribe aggressively to sales notifications, and inbox zero daily. I feel like email is one of those things where I have to have it 99%+ handled or it can quickly spin out of control.

  4. Steph Says:

    I have three active email accounts: my personal gmail (a fandom reference), my “professional” gmail (with my real name), and my actual work gmail for my current institution. I use my real-name “professional” gmail for things like my apartment and utilities, but otherwise anything else that’s personal or promotional goes to my personal account. I manage something close to inbox zero on the two work emails, but the personal gmail is pretty much a lost cause in that regard.

    I found that the version of inbox zero that’s popular, where the inbox is also your to-do list, is terrible for me, because I get more and more anxiety over unopened or unanswered emails as time goes on. I use the version of inbox zero from the “getting things done” framework, and that works really well for my work emails. So I go through my email fairly quickly, deleting or archiving most things, sending quick responses where needed, or adding longer tasks to my to-do list. Technically any emails that need longer responses go to my “response required” folder, but often I do leave them in my inbox if I intend to answer them that day. This has been really helpful with anxiety-inducing emails like student grade demands or thorny research emails – I force myself to read them through and see what I actually need to do, and add them to my to-do list (instead of skimming them, panicking for days, and then realizing that the issue is not as complex as I made myself think.)

    My “read and review” folder, where I put papers I want to read, is also a bit of a black hole. This semester I’m making an effort to pull one of them out every week and at least skim it, but there is quite a backlog in there.

    • Steph Says:

      Oh, and my wordpress subscriptions are through my professional gmail, which means I get post notifications for this and Captain Awkward during my morning email time. Which has a tendency to derail me sometimes, but is also a nice break :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I started a read folder about a year ago (coinciding with the pandemic) and have not read anything from it which means I’m behind on what research is being done and published in my field.

      • Steph Says:

        Yeah, that’s basically what it means for me too. In my previous position, we got lots of visiting talks and there were enough people working on related things that I would hear about developments over coffee. So forgetting to read things from that folder didn’t matter as much. But now I’m at a smaller institution with nobody else doing anything similar to me, and I am definitely falling behind on the literature. I didn’t read any papers at all last semester :(

  5. omdg Says:

    For a while I unsubscribed to stuff I didn’t want to receive. It didn’t work, and now I’m back to deleting it as it comes in over the course of the day. The worst for me is when I receive a litany of important emails when I’m in the OR, and I don’t have time to respond right away, and then I FORGET ABOUT THE EMAIL. Ugh. So lately I’ve been flagging emails, which works somewhat less badly. I try to file the really important ones in project specific folders, but I often forget to do this, and then I can’t find anything. And god forbid my fat thumb direct the email to the wrong place by accident. Then I am truly hosed.

    • omdg Says:

      Oh also, I have no idea what inbox zero even is. I do try to make sure I’ve at least looked at everything, but in no way do I file things compulsively or strive to have no messages in my inbox. It seems like a colossal time suck, and I would never be able to find anything again. My gmail probably has 100,000s of unfiled emails. Work email is almost as bad.

  6. CG Says:

    Well, if anything this is making me feel less alone…
    Like OMDG I have started to use flags. I also have the problem of glancing at email on my phone and then forgetting to respond to it later. It seems like the obvious solution there is to stop checking my email unless it’s at a place and time when I’m actually prepared to deal with it. We’ll see if I can put that into practice.

  7. Nanani Says:

    I have two flags, one for “needs action” – which could be replying when I have access to the things I need to attach or look up, or even just when I’ve had a rest, and one for “keep for reference”.

    I don’t think I understand the inbox zero thing, because my inbox has plenty of read emails in it that don’t need action or have already been acted on, but don’t need to be held onto forever. it’s effectively a “might need this soon” folder in which anything that sinks below the first page is effectively unneeded, but it hasn’t been deleted so I can search for it should the need arise.

    I am also ruthless about unsubscribing, filtering spam, and straight up blocking things that I don’t want.

  8. bogart Says:

    Yeah, include me in the “don’t” crowd. But. I have ~4 different email accounts —
    Work (real) + work (gmail). I generally forward everything from real to gmail, automatically, and replies from gmail “appear” to have come from real, and I only use the gmail account.
    Personal. A gmail.
    Dog-fostering volunteer. A gmail.
    Yahoo. Used for purchases/coupons/etc.

    Work is (unsurprisingly) the main problem account. I delete only truly pointless/unneeded emails, leave everything in my inbox, and rely heavily on search. I try to mark everything I don’t need to do anything about as read (whether I read it or not) so I can search on unread as a needs-attention tool.

    Personal, not a huge problem. I manage similarly to work.

    Dog fostering. Set up because getting the please-foster-this-dog emails during the workday (they went to personal, but I check that) was crushing my productivity and sometimes my spirit. I now open that account only intentionally, generally daily. I email prospective volunteers/fosters so need to engage, but try to keep that focused to a narrow time window.

    Yahoo. Full of spam. I occasionally try unsubscribing, but mostly just delete. Shows purchases, etc., I generally only read those when I realize something hasn’t showed up on time, or whatever.

    I use my personal gmail more for some purchases these days, though, because with travel (including camping, which we are doing during the pandemic, it is nice to have access to provider emails while traveling), and with to-go restaurant orders, ditto.

    Oh — of these I only access work (through gmail) and personal on my phone, though I’ll add the dog fostering one when we’re traveling if I’m not bringing my laptop or don’t have good wifi/hotspot access.

    Gmail is — OK. I like its functionality way better than Outlook (work) or Yahoo. I miss old text email systems.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We use DH’s old hotmail account as the family spam account. That seems to work for us. That one sometimes does reach inbox zero! But I also have two work accounts– the one through my university where I get so much university spam and student and service stuff and one through gmail where all my research (and personal) stuff goes. I did have the payroll office sent to my gmail account, but lately they have been letting other parts of the university use their payroll list-serv including a really obnoxious weekly work-life balance newsletter that we’re not allowed to unsubscribe from (I have it filtered to go direct to junk), so I’m debating having the payroll stuff sent to my uni email instead. And of course, is a separate email (though I have it set to forward).

      Modern life is so complicated.

  9. xykademiqz Says:

    The best thing I did was remove email alerts from my phone. I get way too much spam (not spam, but irrelevant garbage) and it’s definitely not worth getting interrupted over. I look at my inbox several times a day and generally have it open when at desktop. I’ve become merciless about deleting without reading, which helps. Other than that, I do my best. I try to get to things as soon as I receive them, or to otherwise delete them. It works, except when it doesn’t. I wish there were more of a barrier to people emailing, because the act of being asked is often intrusive as all hell, but I’ve gotten better at just deleting. Maybe I hurt someone’s feelings. C’est la vie. I do what I can to keep on top of things and not be a douche, but periodically fair at both, and I am OK with that. It’s a fundamentally uncontrollable system, email. No point in trying to rein it in, IMHO.

    • Steph Says:

      Yes, turning alerts off is such a huge thing! I do get alerts from my personal email, but all work email alerts are definitely off. And I don’t automatically sync them to my phone, so if I choose not to refresh the account in the moment, nothing will even appear

    • bogart Says:

      Oh, right! I have no alerts for email on either my computer or my phone. Texts, either (well, those do pop up visually but not via sound). If you want to reach me urgently, you should call me, and if you’re not my parent/spouse/kid you almost certainly shouldn’t perceive your need as urgent enough to warrant that (also, only a few of my colleagues have my cell #).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I hate it when outlook for windows decides that it’s time to make noises with new messages again.

      • xykademiqz Says:

        Not many people have my cell, maybe half a dozen. Yet, one of them always calls my cell whenever he needs something, no matter how trivial. I ignore him, at which point he leaves a message saying, “Please call me.” I email or call eventually, and it’s always something that could’ve been a three-line email. He’s old school, so I don’t have the heart to tell him that he shouldn’t call me unless someone is on fire (it can be metaphorical fire, but still better be super urgent).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I am so cautious about giving my cell out, but sometimes people do get it. My chair calls me now whenever zie wants to ask me to do something which I hate. Just email!

      • xykademiqz Says:

        I hate people who ambush me like that, either in person or over the phone. It’s always a power-grab move, to put you in an uncomfortable situation in which it is hard to say no, and they know you’d say no if given the time and space. I’ve had several admins do (or try to do) that. I hate it with a fiery passion.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I should probably add to my contacts so I know to let it go to voicemail. The problem is it’s a local area code and all the rest of the time that means a childcare emergency or the doctors office, so I pick it up. Of course then I would end up getting an email directing me to call with no other information. Sigh.

  10. bogart Says:

    Oh — and one last thing: snooze in gmail is a blessing — if I get something I need to respond to but not urgently (or need to address by date X, like midterm grades for first-years are due by date X), well, snooze.

  11. Debbie M Says:

    I have another “what not to do” idea–do not make an email address out of a common name OMG. I have never liked other Debbies (except maybe Debbie Reynolds and the guitar playing of another Debbie who is a terrible employee), and that has not changed. And people aren’t naming their kids Debbie anymore, so it’s just old people, many of whom are surely going senile by now.

    I spend a fair amount of time writing “Dear stranger, I’m afraid you’ve used the wrong email address for your friend/client… and she did not get this. Please check for typos or contact her another way if possible and remove my email address from your files. Sincerely, The Wrong Debbie” I do not write things like, “Trust me, you do not want a godless heathen like me leading any of your Sunday school classes” even though I really want to. I’m pretty sure a lot of these other Debbies around the world have just forgotten that they couldn’t get the address they wanted. Anyway, if you’re wondering why a bunch of companies make you click on an e-mail link to prove you gave them the right email address, it’s because of people like those other Debbies.

    I should switch to a new address, but I’d have to move all my google docs to the new place and I can’t figure out how yet.


    I have a gmail address for friends and a hotmail address for businesses. The hotmail lets me have a focused list and an “other” list. And I can say that everything from certain senders (all those billions of petition and money requests, plus everything from politicians) always goes in the “other” folder. (I do have to do this for each sender individually.) That works quite well.

    When I worked, I was generally able to keep up. Most of my emails were irrelevant, so I deleted them immediately. Most of the rest I could answer immediately or with a little research (or just add an event to my calendar or something). And I was in an administrative position, so I got fewer than 100 emails a day. And plus answering emails was one of my more fun job duties (solving puzzles versus data entry or whatever).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ooh, I remember when gmail was new and the person with the simplest email version of my name would sometimes forward things on to me. They have since given up!

      One of my co-PI put me on a list-serve which I have going direct to Trash.

      We have the family hotmail account set to direct everyone that isn’t on our approved senders list directly to junk. That helps a lot! I go through but I can get everything that isn’t urgent all at once.

    • Lisa Says:

      My name is not very common, and my email address is My mom sent emails to for quite a while until that person kindly wrote back and informed my mom that she was not her daughter.

      As for email management, I’ve tried inbox zero and the angels sing for the 5 seconds I can keep it up. A more practical solution for me is closer to inbox 100. Although I’m closer to 200 right now. I use Apple mail and the 1-200 includes all of my accounts (mostly just two – work and personal). If it gets above 300 I get twitchy, it’s just too much old crap to keep. Search works on the trash as well, and I rarely empty my trash because I worry that I might need to find something in there at some point.

  12. accm Says:

    I don’t, either. I do, every early January, move all the previous year’s work email (typically ~25k emails/year) to a folder named “inbox-2020” or similar, and start anew. Similarly for sent-mail (more like 4.5k/year). I rely heavily on the search feature. And I do miss emails, but I am pretty sure that flagging things that need to be addressed would just make me more anxious about seeing them pile up, so I just do the best I can. But eg prospective-student emails, especially the ones that are clearly not really aimed at me in particular (usually easily identifiable because they’ll address me as “Sir”), tend not to get answered. I’m not allowed to use gmail for work but do have an account for shopping, etc.

  13. gwinne Says:

    Oh, I haven’t thought about pine in years. Liked it so much. We have outlook at work and I hate it. but did recently find the snooze function and like that so…

  14. teresa Says:

    My work email is pretty much what Nanani said above- I delete things I don’t care about, unsubscribe to spam if I’m feeling motivated and delete if not, reply to things needing reply and then pretty much leave everything pertinent to me read but in my inbox in case I need it someday. I’m sure there are some emails from 2016 in there.

    I have a personal gmail for professional things I don’t want tied to a work account and other higher priority things (bank, mortgage, etc). I’m good at responding to things that need responses but bad at deleting things. It’s especially full of listserv emails about clinical questions that make me think I need to read an article or something, but I never do. Then I have an old email for spam type stuff, online purchases and apparently commenting on blogs. I leave order/ticket confirmation emails until whatever it is arrives and works and then delete them. That’s the closest I’ll ever get to inbox zero.

    My husband does truly almost no management of his personal email and his gmail app has >10000 unread messages in the notification bubble. It gives me palpitations to look at.

  15. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I have several emails and keep them reasonably caught up. Never inbox 0 but a friend once mentioned the one-touch method which I try for work stuff. The idea is you don’t touch an email more than once ideally so you don’t keep going back to a thing and waste multitudes of time. So you don’t open an email unless you’re prepared to work it or respond to it or whatever you need to do. It doesn’t work for all my emails but there are subject lines that I know I can do that with so I never open those unless I’m going to work (60-80% of my work emails depending on the day). Others require ruminating on and those I try not to open more than three times without resolving or at least telling people I’m ruminating (complex emails are about 20% of my work emails prob).

    Personal emails are either household/money related or friends emailing. I file or action the household stuff in a day or two to clear them off my desk. I don’t get much in the way of fun emails so I reply to friends within a week.Other stuff, I unsubscribe / mark as spam as applicable.

    There’s still a lot of old email detritus but mostly I feel like it’s good enough.

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