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Exploding Inboxes, Deathly Distraction and Rabbit Holes, Oh My!

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

The One where I Annihilated My Overstuffed Inbox

I earned myself a small victory the other day. Actually, to me it felt more than small. About a year ago, I bought a new laptop and since then, my email inbox has been growing exponentially. On this day, I finally got down to whittling away at my exploding inbox. I managed to reduce it from over 1000 unread messages, to 8 (the ones I needed to act on). When I bragged about what I thought was a big achievement, I got back a ton of comments from people with 4000+ unread messages in their email inboxes. The universe being aligned and all, email overwhelm seems to be an issue a lot of my current clients are suffering from.

The ADHD Brain and Email Overwhelm

Distraction, rabbit holes, frighteningly overflowing inboxes. These are some of the recurring terms I hear from my clients when it comes to email. For ADHDers, sorting, organizing and managing your digital information can be as difficult as decluttering and maintaining a paperwork system or an orderly system for physical possessions.

Firstly, the ADHD brain thrives on stimulation. When you’re working on something not inherently enthralling, every ping of an email notification, every little red dot is a dopamine hit – and dopamine is what’s low in the ADHD brain. I recently came across the term “brain candy” for things that give us instant gratification. Our evolutionary brains are wired to keep looking out for these unexpected rewards, a harking back to the times when food came unexpectedly. However, there are rabbit holes galore waiting in your emails.

In addition, multitasking is a myth. Neuroscience shows that our brains can't do two things simultaneously. It’s more of a stop start process, which actually drains our energy. Every time we switch a task, it’s like shutting down our computer without saving. When we go back to the original one, we need rebooting time. So, “let me just check who’s emailing me, even if I’m not going to respond now” will require you to switch attention and then switch back again to reengage in your original task. That sounds tiring just typing it out!

On the other hand, while email can be enticing, the organizing and processing required in managing your inbox demands a lot of decision-making, which is another weakness in the ADHD brain. While this kind of brain can be great at making split-second decisions under pressure; weighing complex information to make an informed choice can be challenging. Then a vicious cycle can develop, where one feels overwhelmed by the bulging inbox, which leads to avoiding dealing with it, which in turn leads to growing inboxes and growing overwhelm.

Schedule Time for Inbox Health

Let’s start with now - how you process your emails as of today. Later we can deal with your backlog. Firstly, set aside 1-3 time blocks every day to deal with emails (midday, after lunch, before you leave work…). Ideally not the beginning of your day because you want to start your day with something YOU intended to do, rather than responding to the demands of others. Dedicating set times to deal with emails stops you from checking your email on the run; when you don’t necessarily have the time or feel the urgency to answer, or when you don’t have the time to craft carefully-considered responses. It prevents you leaving things in your inbox as a reminder to deal with them later. If you start to dread these time blocks, or you can’t seem to get started with them (remember – overwhelm can trigger avoidance) remind yourself of the benefits of dealing effectively with email – what will you get from that? A clear head? What will it allow for you? Peace of mind? To be present with your family? You could also try working with The Pomodoro Technique to help you focus during these email processing times.

The 10 Commandments of a Healthy Inbox

Ok, so you’ve just sat down to one of your email processing slots. Here’s what to do with each email:

1. Have a 2 minute rule – during this time, only answer mails that will take 2 minutes or less. This is email processing time, not necessarily email responding time. Set a timer for 2 minutes if necessary.

2. Mark junk mail as spam (right click to mark as spam) before deleting. That way, other emails from this sender will go directly to your junk mail. THEN HIT DELETE! (If this is too stressful, try archiving the email).

3. Unsubscribe from newsletters you just don’t get to read. FOMO is an ADHD thing, but in this era of endless information in the face of limited hours in a day, there is just way too much information out there for us to consume.

4. Avoid reading newsletters you do read while processing your email. Instead, set up an email filter to send these automatically to a folder and you can schedule time to read things in that folder. In Outlook click on Rules/Alerts in tools menu. In Gmail hit settings > filters. If this sounds too technical for you, use a separate email address to subscribe to newsletters or get online info or to order online.

5. Emails with links to investigate – copy just the link into a read-later service such as Instapaper or Pocket. Bookmark Ninja lets you organize and access your browser bookmarks on multiple devices. If the email is related to something on your to-do list, and you have a digital to-do list, save the link in that item on your list. Outlook lets you right click to forward the email to OneNote. Remember, it’s important to have one system. And give it around 3 weeks before you discard in search of something better. THEN HIT DELETE!

6. Emails with information you need – Sometimes, you won’t need to respond or take any action right now, but you may want to refer to the email later when relevant. Don’t leave these in your inbox. Forward it to your project management app / electronic to-do list. Or send it to an email folder for a specific project.

7. Emails with information on events/appointments – Put events in your calendar. Add relevant information from the email like location in location field and additional info in the notes section. This could be things you need to bring with you or contact info of others at the meeting. THEN HIT DELETE!

8. When you are not sure how to respond to an email, you may want to avoid it and leave it in your inbox. When you feel the urge to procrastinate, take a minute to answer these questions:

  1. What is it about this email that is making me feel stuck?

  2. If I have enough time, can I answer this on my own? If yes, put it on your to-do list and schedule time to do it.

  3. If you can’t answer this on your own, ask yourself: Who or what can help me to respond? Then schedule getting the support you need.

Mark this email with flag or send to an “Action Required” folder.

9. When your response requires more than 2 minutes, add it to your task list and block off some time in your calendar to deal with it. Mark email with flag or send to an “Action Required” folder.

10. If you’re tech-savvy enough, try installing an email filtering program – Some versions of Outlook sift your mail into “focused” or “other”inboxes. Check out the top 5 best free spam filters for Windows.

The Dreaded Email Decluttering Project

As promised, let’s take a minute to address your existing inbox backlog. You need to treat this as a separate decluttering project, like I did a few weeks ago. It took me about 2 hours to annihilate 1000 messages. So schedule a separate time to declutter your inbox. You’ll probably need to employ some brain hacks to keep you motivated:

  • Sweeten the deal by working in a coffee shop, your car or somewhere else pleasant.

  • Try using a “body double”- invite someone over to just be there with you while you work on decluttering your inbox. They can be doing something else. But they act like an anchor for you and you are accountable to them to stay on task.

  • Challenge yourself to get rid of a certain amount of emails per minute/5 minutes/30 minutes.

And on that note, I’m ending off with a summer challenge for you. Clear your inbox backlog by September 1st to be entered into a draw for a free coaching session with me! PM me when it’s done. May the organizing force be with us!

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