Do you ever feel like your inbox resembles your junk drawer?
In today’s world of constant communication, our email inboxes can become a digital hoarding space that can quickly spiral from slightly overwhelming to completely unmanageable. This is true for everyone, but especially true for people with ADHD. Whether it’s due to the frequency of emails that come in or the sheer volume of notices you receive in a day, your inbox probably needs some attention. On the surface, it might seem harmless to keep your inbox overloaded. In reality, however, a crowded inbox is likely costing you important things like time, mental capacity, and peace of mind, and feeding things like anxiety, stress, and a general sense of overwhelm. For people with ADHD, it’s common to be flooded with feelings of shame and being stuck when you think about the high number of emails in your inbox, which can lead you to avoid your emails altogether.
There are popular systems out there trying to convince you that your inbox should be immaculate. I'm not necessarily advocating for that (though it does feel nice to have an empty inbox from time to time). I am advocating that you find helpful ways to keep your inbox in a manageable state that doesn’t make you shudder every time you open it. So that’s why I wanted to ask my network of people with ADHD this question:
What is your favorite strategy to manage your inbox or stay up to date on all the emails you receive?
And they came back with some great tips and tools that they use to keep up to date on their emails.
SCHEDULE & PLAN
One of the most popular pieces of advice was to schedule and plan your email checking. Rather than keeping your email program up and running all the time, which can lead to a distraction every single time a new email pops up, people said they like to plan when they check their emails.
One person said they check their emails three times a day once in the morning, once midday, and once at night. Another person said they check their emails once a day, and use a flagging system to mark which emails they need to take action on. They then make it a point later in the day to schedule time to do the follow-up action, and delete any emails they no longer need. Of course, the pace of your work might require you to check your email more frequently. But, you can still follow a schedule or plan. What about saving the last 10 minutes of each hour to check your inbox? Or, carve out 30 minutes of time every 3 hours to respond to emails. Regardless of how many emails you receive in a day, scheduling and planning when you check and respond can be a helpful way to manage your inbox.
One thing I’ve noticed with my coaching clients is that people often check email before the even get out of bed in the morning. It might feel like you’re getting a head start on your tasks by doing this, but you’re actually letting your email dictate your day. Rather than making choices about what you’re going to do with your time, your email is planning your day for you. Instead, try carving out a specific time in your morning to check your email perhaps it’s while you have your coffee and resist the urge to grab your phone first thing in the morning.
“I check new emails once a day. I immediately delete those I know have info I already have or don't need. I quickly check short messages and answer or mark for later. I mark those that need time to read or watch if videos.”
A lot of people who responded to the quiz said that they use a variety of tools to help them manage their inboxes. Some people like to use the filter function in their email programs: rather than worrying about cleaning out their inboxes entirely, they keep most of their emails and train themselves to use the search function to find certain messages.
People also recommended flagging important emails to mark ones that need attention later. By flagging emails, you’re giving yourself a visual reminder of something you need to take notice of later. Of course, it’s always easiest when you can respond to an email right away. But when you can’t, flagging can be a great option.
Another tool that people recommended was using the folder option to organize emails. Instead of keeping their read emails in their inboxes, some people like to set up folders, which act as digital filing folders to store old emails. This can be helpful because it allows you to save old emails to reference later, while keeping your inbox in a cleaner and more manageable state. One person recommended using Gmail specifically because of the automatic folders the program uses for emails. Gmail categorizes emails into a few different inboxes, including promotion, updates, and primary, which this person said can be very helpful.
Someone also said that they mark important email addresses as “VIP” so they receive notifications for those emails first, while turning off notifications for general emails so as not to get distracted by them throughout the day.
“Filters. And I don't have any aspirations to Inbox 0. Space is cheap. Search is powerful. Create a "backlog" file every year or so and move the current inbox in there.”
UNSUBSCRIBE & DELETE
Another popular recommendation was to just get rid of emails you don’t need. This takes a bit of self-discipline to train yourself to take that extra step of hitting Delete or Unsubscribe once you’ve reviewed an email. Some people said they take these steps right when they’ve read the email. Just click the Unsubscribe button at the bottom and boom, you’re done! Other people said they plan time in their schedule once a week or once a month to go through their inboxes and delete or unsubscribe from emails they don’t need to keep.
People also shared helpful tips to train yourself to delete emails regularly. One person likes to go for a walk and delete as many emails as possible while taking a break at work. Another person shared this helpful tip to use a keyboard shortcut to delete in Gmail.
“I spend 20 minutes a week doing a massive delete of super old emails. Really helps with this keyboard shortcut.”
It can be intimidating to try implementing some of these strategies with an already-full inbox. One strategy that I use frequently with my coaching clients is to just start over. To start with a fresh, clean inbox, I recommend taking all of the old emails up to last month and put them in a “hold for later” folder. That way, you don’t have to delete them but you can start with clean slate. Mark all of the emails as read and just stick them aside so you have them for later if you ever need them. And the good thing about our culture is people love to send emails - if there's an important email that gets put in your “hold for later” folder, you’ll most likely get a reminder email from somebody.
Aim for Practice, Not Perfection
One thing about people with ADHD is that they often like novelty and new things. This might lead you to want to try all of the tips in this article at once! I would caution against that though, because while all of these tips can be helpful, they will require you to train yourself to build new habits to manage your inbox. It can be tempting to try to do all of them, however that’s usually how we set ourselves up for failure. Remember that we’re aiming for practice, not perfection, with any habit building or behavior change (check out my article on perfection paralysis to learn more about tackling perfectionism).
When thinking about implementation, I recommend that you start small... pick one or two that you think will be easiest for you to do and start there. Once you’ve practiced those actions enough, they will become habits and you can incorporate new actions into your daily email practice. This is how you build the foundation for yourself and create new behaviors to help keep yourself on top of an often-unmanageable process!