5 Tactics To Tame Your Inbox Avalanche

New social tools will augment email and may help reduce overload, but only if they are used properly. Here are some practical solutions for using email and activity streams together at work.

5 Tactics To Tame Your Inbox Avalanche


week’s post
looked at the prospect of using activity streams to eliminate,
or at least reduce, email overload. As I wrote in that post, I firmly believe
that email is not going anywhere soon. But new social tools will augment
email and may help reduce overload, but only if they are used properly. Here
are some practical solutions for using email and activity streams together at

1. Each according to his own kind. 

Take the
Bible’s advice and use the appropriate channel for each type of information.
For example, status updates, general inquiries, and informational messages are
best served via activity streams. Broadcast the “server going down
for an hour” message once and let it dissipate into the ether, rather than
forever clutter up your colleagues’ email boxes. On the other hand, messages that require a reply
should be sent by email. When using email to ask a question, avoid sending the
message to multiple recipients without specifying who is supposed to answer.
Educate your workers to follow these rules. “Punish” those who violate these
rules…by ignoring them.


2. “If the
solution doesn’t fit, you must limit.”

Johnny Cochran’s
advice, limit clutter by aggregating multiple information feeds into one. There
are aggregation tools for email as well as for activity streams. These are
client-based software products or cloud services to which you add your various
account information and passwords to retrieve and display messages in one
window. There is a great convenience in having only one place to go to get all
your mail or activity stream information. Some aggregators also provide additional
services like prioritization of important messages.

For email, one reader from last week
suggested EmailTray, although there are
others like Windows
Live Mail
. With the advent of standardization, commercially available activity
stream aggregators also exist (like FriendFeed). Some tools
like Zimbra provide
aggregation for both email and activity streams.  One caveat: Just having all the information
in one place won’t make it simple to follow. First of all, all these tools
require you to learn a new user interface. More importantly, incoming messages
are by nature out of context, so it will still require some work to figure which
end is up. But at least you only have to open one window to see it all. 


3. Filter, filter, filter. 

Filtering is one of the most potent tools in the
war against information overload. There are two basic types of filtering: collaborative
and content-based.

With collaborative filtering, you define messages to categories according
to who sent them, or to whom they are addressed.  Products like Microsoft Outlook, HootSuite, and TweetDeck support this out of the box, but you have to manually set up and maintain
the filters. If you are like most people, your filtering requirements change
often, and maintaining these filters is a hassle. However, when you are working
together on a project, collaborative filtering works really well for the
duration of the project.  The problem is
that when you use multiple tools, you need to set up filters separately for
each tool.


Content-based filtering focuses on locating specific subject matter. For
example, creating a Twitter list based on the presence of hashtags (#) is an
example of content-based filtering. Other examples include using tags, topics,
or keywords to locate content in messages. Enterprise products like SharePoint, Connections, Yammer, and Chatter support tagging and keyword filtering. These tools make it easy to follow
interesting topics, without having to create a link with those who are
participating in the discussion. However, since there is no standard for
tagging taxonomy, figuring out what words to follow is often difficult. Also,
mail programs treat message content differently than activity stream tags, so
you usually need to create multiple filters.

4. Start small. 

Companies adopting activity streams as an adjunct to email are advised
to start small in order to let workers understand the impact of the tools, and
to flesh out the technology’s value.  Start
with a motivated team and then publicize the results. Just remember that only
about 10-20% of workers are early adopters, so early wins don’t translate into
corporate-wide successes. Adoption strategies are needed to get typical business
users on board. But that is a story for
another time….


5. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. 

Whatever strategies you employ to simplify communications, take this last
piece of wisdom from
Thomas Jefferson and get everyone on the same
page. People are loath to change work
habits…particularly when related to technology, so preparing them properly and
setting expectations is really important. Furthermore, some workers are afraid
to broadcast what might be seen as silly or inappropriate content to unintended
recipients, so training them is critical.

In my next post, I will present a vision for what I believe
we can expect from the future communications platforms, and the path to getting


What do you think?
Comment below.  You can also email me at or tweet me at @dlavenda.

Author David Lavenda is a high-tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

[Image: Flickr user Mona Loldwoman]


About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.