Control Email (Before it Controls You)

Tips from Duke experts on how to efficiently tackle your inbox 

Richard Riddell, Duke’s vice president and university secretary, receives hundreds of emails in a day. Photo by Duke Photography

After Richard Riddell wakes up at 5 a.m. and reads The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, he checks email before his morning workout.

As Duke’s vice president and university secretary, Riddell receives hundreds of emails in a day, spanning Board of Trustees meeting requests to commencement details.

“I suppose there are certain days when it’s just not possible to clear out the inbox,” Riddell said. “It’s like leaving the dishes out at the end of the evening and waiting until the morning.”

Managing email overload is a hot topic among workers nationwide. Last year, the average number of business emails sent and received per user per day totaled 122, according to The Radicati Group Inc., a global technology market research firm. Also, according to a 2015 survey by software company Adobe Systems Inc., the American worker spends an average of six hours daily using work and personal email.

Part of Riddell’s email-tackling strategy is to set boundaries. He checks his email only at established times during a workday to make room for other projects and problem-solving. He doesn’t respond to email after 6 p.m. unless there’s a pressing matter.

Another method to combat email overload is to organize email into folders. Isabel Taylor, senior project manager for Duke’s Office of Information Technology, creates multiple folders and subfolders in Microsoft Outlook to organize email.

For example, Taylor is working on a multi-year, multi-phase project to upgrade Duke’s parking facilities with a new access and revenue control system that incorporates radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. To keep organized, she uses folders to easily file and search for emails from vendors, about system hardware and software, and for each project phase and facility. 

“Different approaches work for different people. This works for me,” Taylor said. “I have three top-level folders: messages I’m waiting to hear back about from someone, items to take action on, and messages I need for my project archive or record-keeping.”

Dorie Clark, branding expert and adjunct professor in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, suggests that employees planning a vacation block about two to three hours during the first day back at work to handle email, including finding important messages to respond to first.

To answer dozens or hundreds of emails, Clark uses The Pomodoro Technique, which means working in short spurts and taking breaks. She learned to tackle her email by cranking out as many responses as she can for 25 minutes and then taking a five-minute break.

“I consider it a timed sprint for email,” Clark said. “It can feel incredibly overwhelming to look at an inbox of 500 emails you need to respond to. If you create manageable increments for yourself, that might feel more approachable.”