How I Overcome Inbox Anxiety

Even with 78 unread emails

Two moments in any given day give me agita. The first is the once-in-a-while phone call from a judge’s chambers. As I see the caller ID, my heart rate goes up. A judge’s chambers is rarely calling for a good reason. It’s usually a court hearing that did not make my calendar. Hence the agita.

The second most anxiety-inducing part of my day is that moment in the morning before Outlook refreshes.

When I open Outlook for the first time each day (more later on what time that may be), it takes about two seconds for it to connect to our Exchange server and refresh my inbox. And those are my least two favorite seconds of every day. What ‘emergencies’ have popped up in the 16 hours I have been living my life since I last checked? And, of course, it’s double stakes on a Monday morning after a weekend of who-knows-what.

I know it should not be this way. Some lawyers only check their email once or twice a day. Others delegate most of their email inbox to staff or virtual assistants.

Well, I’m not one of those internet gurus who has allegedly fully tamed their email inbox.

But I’ve gotten better. As I laid out below, with a few small changes to how I view and process email, my inbox anxiety has decreased significantly. I can go into each Outlook session knowing I have a game plan.

This Ain’t Your Bubbie’s Inbox Zero

As I write this, there are 78 unread emails in my inbox. That number almost never falls below 40. And I’m OK with that. I know they are not truly all unread in the literal sense of the word. They are just unprocessed. The emails are the equivalent of the exterior sections of the grocery store where I need to spend my time to get the most bang for the buck (health-wise, not dollar-wise).

To me, the bold text of the subject line no longer denotes any urgency. Instead it is an opportunity to review and assess. And I’m about to share that system of reviewing and evaluating with you.

A Caveat

This system is my system. It’s what works for me. You may not like the folder structure I use or the names of my folders. You may want to use categories instead of folders, and that’s OK too! But the idea is to reduce your inbox anxiety by going into your day with a plan—a way to tame the unending flow of emails.

An Overview of the System

This is my current favorites section of my Outlook:

You can see I have a regular inbox then several numbered folders, which are numbered in order of priority. Then I have a folder for phone calls and another for Clio notices. The folders without numbers are folders that certain emails are filtered into by a rule.

The numbered folders are where my triaged email goes. I then use the folders to determine what I will handle next based on my mood, energy level, where I am, etc.

Step 1 – Setting Up Your Folders

Before we get into step one, I have to give a huge thank you to Jeff Su. His video on inbox zero for Outlook formed the basis for this system.

How to Create Folders

In Outlook, click on the mail account you want to use and create a new folder. Some people want the folders to be nested inside their inbox. I found this to be annoying and made the folders their own root folders outside of the inbox.

What Folders to Create

I recommend, at a minimum, some kind of ‘next action’ folder, which I called “Respond-Action Needed.” Next, you will want a “Waiting on” folder, and from there, it is up to you. I use a “Read Through” folder per Jeff’s recommendation. I have an “Old to Review” folder and a “File in Clio” folder.

Step 2 – The Role of Each Folder

When doing your triage, it’s critical to put each email in the proper folder. Here is how I use each of the folders pictured above.

01 – Respond – Action Needed

This is the “next action” list that I review most frequently. Emails in here require a direct response from me. I try to clear this folder out every day.

02 – Waiting On

If there is an email thread where I am waiting on a response or I have tasked someone else with getting me information in order to respond to an email, it goes here. An example could be an email from the court on scheduling. I will move the email here while I await a response from my client on their schedule1. Or if someone requests information that I do not have and I have to get from one of my teammates, the email will go here as well.

03 – Read Through

These are the best kind of emails. I need to read the information and maybe file or review it, but that’s it. No response is necessary. These are usually emails with attachments that I need to review and file, scheduling emails that I just need to calendar, or emails with discovery that needs to be downloaded from a link. I enjoy these because I can go into a focus mode and clean this folder out every other day and end up getting a lot done.

04 – Old to Review

In the Jeff Su video I referenced earlier, he recommends declaring inbox bankruptcy. A bit more on that later. I did not do a full Chapter 11, but when I started this system in late February 2023, I took all emails from 2022 and moved them to this folder. Almost all of these emails are things that were sitting in my inbox with no real response needed, and either need to be filed in my case management software or simply archived altogether. After the initial move of emails to this folder, I filtered to make sure there were no emails with attachments, and took those into the Read Through folder. Over the subsequent few weeks, I was able to get through all of those emails and now do not really need the folder, but I have it here to show the system.

05 – File in Clio

This is very specific. Clio is our practice management software, where we file all of our emails that are case-related. If I am in triage mode in my inbox and an email thread is pretty much done, but I don’t feel like filing it that moment, I will toss the thread in this folder.

Phone Calls

We have a convoluted phone situation in my office. I receive messages from my internal staff and two different answering services. And I get a lot of phone calls. To avoid those calls getting lost in my inbox, I created a rule so the senders of the phone messages all go into this folder automatically.

Clio Notices

As you probably guessed, due to your powers of deductive reasoning, this is where notices from my case management software go. We get a fair number of these with reminders, bill payment notifications, secure messages, etc. So rather than clutter my inbox, I drop them here using an Outlook rule and review them in bulk.

Step 3 – Master the Keyboard

This process is much easier if you are using your keyboard. In OS X, the keyboard shortcut to move an email is CMD+SHIFT+M. In Windows, the shortcut is ALT H,M,V (I do not use Windows and pulled this from the Microsoft Outlook help page).

Alternatively, if you are a mouse person and using a programmable mouse like the Logitech MX Master 3, you could program your mouse for this function. You could set up a hotkey for your three main triage folders and have a different button click for each folder.

Step 4 – Declare Inbox Bankruptcy

I mentioned the inbox bankruptcy recommended by Jeff Su and other inbox zero enthusiasts. If you have email from 2019 in your inbox or have been habitually using your inbox as a to-do list, it can be overwhelming. Jeff recommended moving anything older than sixty days out of your inbox.

I did about 45 days. After moving those emails, I filtered them to make sure none had attachments since those tend to be more important. I then also sorted by sender to make sure there were none from clients or court staff that I had missed which actually required attention. From there, I popped into that folder once a week or so and usually was able to archive an email or just file it in Clio and get the folder cleaned out.

Step 5 – Triage

This is the sort of fun part. I enjoy starting the day with 175 emails and getting it down to a much smaller number in my morning triage. The first time you do the triage it may feel a bit overwhelming. But don’t despair. After the first time, it gets much easier, and when you get in the habit, you can even do it from your phone.

The triage is where you glance through your inbox and move emails to the appropriate folder. The exception I used here is David Allen’s two-minute rule. If the email would require less than two minutes to act on right now, I just do the action.

But here is the important part: this only applies if you are able to do the action now.

For example, an email might have a one-page document attached. I could easily review that document in less than two minutes. But I could not fully handle the email if I am checking email on my phone. I would have to download that attachment to the client’s folder, possibly forward it to the client, and then log my time in Clio. So while it could be done in two minutes, it cannot be done in those two minutes; thus, the email goes to the Read Through folder to handle later.

Step 6 – Rinse and Repeat

That’s it2. Once your system is in place, you may backslide. But with the appropriate folder structure already in place, it is easy to pull a Sister Mary Clarence and get back into the habit.

How do you handle your email overload? Send me an email to let me know! Just kidding. Let us know in the comments so that Medium can send me the email.

  1. In the rare event a court actually lets me weigh in on scheduling, which is always a true delight.
  2. He says 1,500+ words later


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