Advice | How to cope with the stress of email overload

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A mounting email inbox can be stressful. Here's how to avoid email overload. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)
A mounting email inbox can be stressful. Here's how to avoid email overload. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Ding! Beep! Ding! Beep! All day and all night it keeps coming, an endless tsunami of digital flotsam clogging up your inbox until you get that dreaded “your mailbox is almost full” notification.

Email is a necessary evil and a constant headache if not properly managed.

The number of worldwide email users is at 4.1 billion this year and expected to grow to over 4.5 billion by the end of 2025, while the number of worldwide emails sent per day is estimated to be at over 319 billion by the end of 2021, according to market research firm The Radicati Group.

With these numbers on the rise, how can we possibly get a grip on our inboxes? Or should we sigh and accept it will always be bursting at its electronic seams?


In tech circles there are two schools of thought on coping with email: inbox infinity and inbox zero. As the names suggest, each is something of an all-or-nothing approach. 

Inbox infinity, a term coined by writer Taylor Lorenz, is about accepting that you’ll never conquer your inbox and making peace with that idea.

“Adopting inbox infinity means accepting the fact there’ll be an endless, growing amount of emails in your inbox every day, most of which you’ll never address or even see,” she writes. 

“It’s about letting email messages wash over you, responding to the ones you can but ignoring most.” 

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Lorenz suggests setting a permanent out-of-office reply and inviting people to contact you in other ways – with a phone call, for example. 

Of course this is unlikely to go down well with your boss if you work in an office environment that relies on email, but it can help you manage your personal email.

Inbox zero was coined by productivity expert Merlin Mann in 2007.

It doesn’t actually mean reducing the content of your inbox to zero – it’s about spending as little time as possible on email. Mann suggests one of these actions for each message in your inbox:

  • To-do– respond to it immediately.
  • Awaiting – these can wait.
  • Delegated – let others in your team deal with these.
  • Read later – articles, newsletters, etc to read when you have time.
  • Archive – do this once you’re done with it.
  • Delete – delete immediately, don’t save to a “delete” folder.


Does inbox zero offer a realistic approach to our email problems? Celeste Stewart, director of learning and development consultancy Bold Curiosity, doesn’t think so.

“Inbox zero creates a false expectation that we can get to a point where every email is read daily,” she says.

“We live incredibly hectic lives. This system was introduced by Mann in 2007 when life was so different in terms of our smartphones and accessibility.

“These days our emails aren’t the only thing requiring our attention. We also have social media and many other alerts on our phones.”

Instead Stewart, who receives up to 70 emails daily, has adapted aspects of the inbox-zero approach to manage her inbox.

“I have young kids, I run a business, I’m a master’s student and I often travel for work so it’s impossible for me to read each and every email. I’ll simply burn out – and I’ve been close to this point on many occasions.

“It’s important for me to know what’s happening in my inbox, but I need to learn to discern which are the key emails I must respond to immediately.”

Her approach is to quickly decide how much time a response to each email will need and if it’s something that can be done quickly. 

“For example, if I have a request for a proposal I’ll acknowledge receipt of it and let the person know when they can expect the proposal from me. I mark the email with the appropriate category and add it to my bullet journal. It’s something I’ll work on only later but the awareness of the task is there.” 

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Over 319 billion emails are estimated to be sent worldwide by the end of this year. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Nuraan Davids-Latief, a lecturer at the department of information systems at the University of the Western Cape, finds Mann’s concept useful.

“I like to think of inbox zero as the choice to maintain a clutter-free mindset, as Merlin Mann initially intended it to be when he stated that it referred to ‘the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox’, and not how many emails are sitting in the inbox,” she says.

“I prefer to see inbox zero as a strategy to hold myself accountable to my work and to get things sorted out as soon as possible so I can free myself and my mind up to manage other important matters that require my attention.”

Davids-Latief admits boundaries still have to be put in place regarding time allocated to emails.

“I’m okay with allowing an unread message to wait in my mailbox for a response because face-to-face communication and relationship building within communities and in work environments are more important than responding to an email,” she adds.


Work worries can easily become a fact of life because attention is a scarce resource and we have only a limited amount of it to give, Stewart says. Advertisers and our email fight for our attention.

“And if we’re not careful, we’ll always be in a reactive mode, always feeling like we aren’t in control of our lives.” 

We’re unable to change how much information is coming at us, she says, but we can improve the way we manage it.

“As a facilitator I often see learners in my workshops unable to concentrate because they’re checking their emails during a break and getting distracted. People aren’t fully present when they’re engaging with you.

“So many of us have our work emails coming to our mobile phones and we respond to emails late at night or in our personal time. 

“Not only does it stress us, it also puts strain on our relationships. It’s so important to remember to ring-fence our time outside of work. Responding to emails late at night can lead to insomnia or bad sleeping habits, which only aggravate stress.”

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There’s no one-size-fits-all method of managing your inbox, but discipline is essential, Stewart says.

“Take it from me – a super-busy-want- to-do-it-all kind of person – you’ll burn out but life will carry on. Decide where and when you want to work through your emails and stick to it.”

Davids-Latief suggests:

  • Using filters to sort your mail into folders.
  • Using the automated built-in features of your email service provider.
  • Using templates wherever possible, for example for compiling regular newsletters.
  • Replying to emails in batches – copy and paste similar responses.
  • Making a phone call if it will take you more than two minutes to write an email.
  • Setting a time to attend to your email and letting colleagues know you’ll respond only during that time – if they need you urgently, they should call you.
  • Not replying to emails when you’re angry or emotional as these mails tend to go on too long.
  • Immediately unsubscribing from marketing emails or marking them as spam.
  • Remembering there are other tools that might be more effective – for example, virtual chat.
  • And finally, Stewart suggests you turn off your Wi-Fi when you get home. Take time to recharge – it’s good for you! 


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