Updated: Jun 29
Few people feel on top of their emails, but for professionals with ADHD, this can be a particular problem. We receive a large number of emails and possess fewer innate organisational skills with which to manage them. The huge backlog in your inbox can be intimidating and overwhelming, but don’t despair yet! This article contains some simple ways to improve your email management while reducing the overall amount of time and effort you spend on email-related tasks.
Creating a basic system
De-cluttering your inbox and improving efficiency is all about filtering mail out. I was recently surprised to learn that the ideal inbox is almost empty. According to virtually every source on email management , the best way to achieve a clean inbox is to separate your mail by designated place for each type of email you deal with. However, this does not mean creating several folders and manually dropping your emails into them each time you receive one. Managing an overcomplicated system of email categorization creates more work and can become just as overwhelming as a completely disorganized inbox. Here is a simpler, ADHD-friendly system:
1) Separate emails by sending them to different email addresses. Consider having a work email, a personal email, and a ‘junk’ email that you use to sign up for anything which you think will send excessive marketing or spam. Then schedule times to check them. For example, maybe you only check your personal email in the evening and your spam email once a week.
2) Separate emails with labels based on the type of 'hats' you have to wear when responding Often one of the reasons we struggle with email is that we constantly have to switch our tone and how we respond. As we know, with ADHD, transitions such as this can be particularly difficult . For example, if you are a teacher, the emails you send to students are very different from those you send to colleagues or your head of department. Once you have these labels, you can start to assign certain sets of emails to certain times. Maybe you respond to student emails in the afternoon but respond to your head of department in the morning.
3) Use filters to avoid manual filing Like I said, you don't want to have to move everything manually. So setting up filters to automatically label using words, phrases, or email addresses. When something comes into your inbox, consider which 'hat' you will use to answer it and label accordingly. This should hopefully remove some of the sorting work.
Time blocking for email
You’re sitting at your computer, and an email notification pops up. You feel a vague sense of dread and click the email to see what it’s about. You've been cc'd on something. You decide to deal with it later.
Checking emails based on the notification is definitely tempting but often also stressful and time-consuming. Instead, it can be much more efficient to set a time once or twice a day to go through your emails rather than checking each time a new one comes through. By choosing a time to check your emails, you can be ready to answer them rather than putting them off to a later date. Here’s what a basic email routine might look like:
7-7.30 am: After breakfast at the kitchen table, check though through my work emails and move them into their respective 'hat' folders (see above) 10-11 am: Open and complete the emails labelled for your supervisor/boss 12-1 pm: Open and complete the emails labelled for colleagues 3-4 pm: Open and complete the emails labelled for your mentee's/students 5-5.30 pm: Check emails and once again add filters or move to respective folders as needed.
Quick and easy email tips
Don't be afraid to archive: Something that is archived is not lost; it can easily be found by clicking All Mail. So don't be afraid to archive or set up filters to have certain emails miss the inbox entirely. Also, if you have a lot of old emails in your inbox that are older than six months, why not archive them? You will still be able to find them using the search function.
Fight the perfectionist urge: Keep your emails concise. Not only will this save you time and stress, but it sets a precedent for short-but-valuable emails to those you carry on conversations with.
Stop mentally replying: ‘Mental replying’, where you think you have responded to something because you thought about responding. If possible, let your curiosity about reading an email be a reminder to read it when you have the time to answer.
Disconnect from email during certain hours of the day: Designating times where you do not respond to emails is important for your mental recovery between work periods as well as concentration during work. If you find yourself checking your email too often, move the app somewhere less easy to click (e.g. Off the taskbar, into a folder). This will disrupt habitual auto-clicking.
Create templates: Templates are a must with online communication! If you send the same type of email often, create a template to save manually retyping. Various software is available to do this, such as Mail Template. Examples of template users are professors that must frequently respond to student requests for extensions or managers who must frequently redirect inquiries to the correct department.
In researching for this article, I learned an enormous amount about email management. But, as those of us with ADHD know, it's one thing to know what you're supposed to do something, and it's quite another to actually do it. Together, let's try to implement at least a few of the strategies above and keep moving towards getting on top of our emails.
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Take care, I'll write again soon.
Meriel Burnett is the Director of Research at Unconventional Organisation. She has a background in psychology and is currently also working at Queens University Belfast. For more research-based ADHD help, you can read more of Meriel’s articles, join our online courses, or connect with our coaches.
 Canu, W. H., & Eddy, L. D. (2015). Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment(4th ed.). Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 44(6), 526–526. https://doi.org/10.1080/16506073.2015.1073786
 Nast, C. (2012, December 10). Zero Dark Inbox. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/zero-dark-inbox