Facing a flood of emails and an overflowing inbox? Here's how to catch up.

Getting too many emails? Be strategic—treating the symptoms won’t fix the underlying problem.

How many emails do you get each day? 100? 200? 500? I bet it’s a lot—and you often feel like you’ll never catch up.

I did a screen-sharing Calendar Review last week with a client, the agency’s head of operations. In 15 minutes, she got a dozen new emails, more than half of which required reading, and a third of which required a response from her.

Over the course of a workday, that’s 400+ emails—including 100+ that needed a response from her. And that doesn’t count going on vacation or being out sick—you need a vacation from vacation just to catch up!

Email is tough—especially internally—because your responses unlock progress for others. There is a multiplier effect in that (good), but it also creates a heavy burden on you to avoid becoming a bottleneck (bad). Systems like Slack can eliminate email—but they also create a new system to monitor.

Inbox Zero might feel good, but it misses the point—as an agency owner, y0ur job is to make better decisions, not have an empty inbox.

When it comes to solving the “email flood” problem for you, there are two approaches—one tactical, one strategic. Most people struggle because they focus on the tactical approach alone, without fixing the underlying problem.

Option 1 (Tactical): Optimize Your Email

One approach is to focus on optimizing email itself. That is, how can you get through your email faster? Where can you block-in time throughout the day to respond to email rather than after hours?

This is a short-term, tactical approach—”find ways to process emails faster.” This can help on a day-to-day basis. But that approach runs on the assumption that email is necessary.

You can respond in batches (those “I respond at 11am and 3pm”email footers”), prioritize which you handle first, and chase an elusive “Inbox Zero.” But there are limits—the emails will keep coming, because you’re focusing on the symptom instead of the problem.

Henry Ford spoke about the danger of finding good solutions to the wrong problem: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

We can’t fully eliminate email, but we can eliminate it when email is the wrong channel—especially in your role as the agency leader. That brings us to Option 2, the strategic approach.

Option 2 (Strategic): Fix the Process Itself

The second approach focuses on fixing the process itself rather than email specifically. It requires stepping back to think about why you use email.

This is about re-engineering your processes. This is a bigger solution, because you’re solving the underlying issues instead of treating the symptoms.

What are the questions and updates you are receiving? What kinds of responses are you sending? You’ll find that email may not be the best solution.

As you look at your emails, they likely split into three buckets:

  1. Ignore: Can ignore it.
  2. Aware: Should review but don’t need to respond unless there’s a problem.
  3. Respond: Must respond.

Roughly, what percentage are each of those three now?

  • For the “Ignore” emails, unsubscribe. Or if you may need them in the future, set a filter to move them to a folder so you can find them via search.
  • For the “Aware” emails, let your team know you batch those—that you read them X times a day (or X times a week). That way, they won’t expect faster response. And they’ll know to ping you directly when they need an urgent answer. For clients, you may need to retrain them to use your PM software instead of email.
  • For the “Respond” emails, you can work through how to optimize those—so you’re finding a way to optimize 20-35% of your emails, not all of them. Likely, it’ll be a mix of batching time to handle them—and resetting expectations so that people can answer more of these themselves (by knowing the appropriate Values, Goals, and Resources to consider).

Longer-term solutions take longer now, but they have a bigger payoff in the future!

Fixing the Email Flood at Your Agency

Ready to fix this? Start by tracking how your email splits out. That is, what are the rough percentages for ignore, aware, and respond?

Once you know what’s important, you can reset expectations (for your team and clients) on the “Aware” emails. For the “Respond” emails, you can redirect them to a better method—and optimize the rest.

Question: How many emails do you get each day?

Image credit: Water overflow photo by Jack Flanagan, via Creative Commons