When I meet an overwhelmed entrepreneur, the first thing I look for is e-mail backlog. 

E-mail is most people’s first resort for communication, and – like paper mail – most people have crappy systems for handling it. It grows and grows until they can’t find e-mails, struggle to keep track of the most current information from clients, and panic that they’ll forget to do something because they’re constantly being bombarded by new e-mails. And then stress kicks in. Every time they open their inbox – heck, every time they THINK about their inbox – they start to feel that panicked, tingly feeling in the middle of their chest. Worried that they’ll forget something important because they’re just so overwhelmed, they become hypervigilant – constantly thinking about their to-do list and waiting emails. Most of the time, they check their smartphone every two minutes, worried that they’ll miss something.  They end up frazzled. 

It’s a stress disease, aggravated by what we call micro-transitions. Micro-transitions are the thousands of subtle shifts in focus we make thousands of times each day to accomplish tasks. Checking your email is made of up on dozens of micro-transitions:

You open your inbox
Scanning a list of new e-mails
Mentally sort them by importance
Open an e-mail
Read it
Realize you need to do something else before you can answer it
Go back to your inbox
Open another e-mail
Read it
Answer it
Go back to your inbox
See five new email
Open an urgent one
Remind yourself that you can’t forget to answer those other e-mails
Try to remember to answer those older emails while constantly sorting newer emails
And you’re probably getting text messages and Facebook notifications this whole time, too.
And on, and on, and on…

Those micro-transitions cause serious mental fatigue. They directly contribute to burnout. Before I make any changes to the rest of the business, I tell entrepreneurs to focus on minimizing e-mail related micro-transitions.  

They key to that is to change how you sort emails when they come into your inbox. See, deciding which emails are important and urgent is really a separate task from sitting down to work on e-mails.  Think of your email like your snail mail. If you pulled a stack of 50 letters out of your mail box, would you start at the top and open each individual letter in sequence? Nope. You flip through the stack first, quickly tossing junk mail in the trash. You put the magazines you want to read later in one pile. You stick the bills in another. You can tell the difference between a note from grandma and a wedding invitation just by looking at the other envelopes.  You visually and physically sort it all before you start opening envelopes. 

But most people don’t do that with their emails – especially not since they started using smartphones and having real-time access to their inboxes. In fact, most entrepreneurs still approach their inbox the way people approached email in 1996 – when they were receiving a fraction of the correspondence, and had completely separate email addresses for work and personal messages. Now, most entrepreneurs have all of their bills, personal messages, documents, client emails, PTA newsletters, receipts, shipping notices, and dozens of other messages dumping into a single feed — usually on their smart phone. It’s especially true of entrepreneurs.

Most people I work with realize this is a problem, but they try to fix it the wrong way. They jump right into complex new email systems or filtering programs, and end up more of a mess than they started.  It’s usually because they don’t understand how they need to filter or process email in the first place – because they’ve never viewed it as a separate task. 

 Before you try automatic filters or any other big change to your email system, I recommend trying a low-risk email sorting app to learn how you personally need to sort your email. There are dozens of these apps on the market. Each is a little different, but they boil down to the same function – they let you quickly move non-urgent emails out of your inbox so it’s easier to focus when you sit down to work

I have an iPhone and highly recommend the Triage Email First Aid App for this.  It’s what I use. Your emails appear like a stack of cards when you open the app. The app lets you sort them quickly using upward and downward swipes. Swiping “Up” archives them in Gmail (or whichever client you’re using) and swiping “Down” keeps them in your Inbox, marked as Unread. You also have the option to tap the email to open it, read it, write a short response, or forward it. If you open it, you can still use the swipe down to keep it in your Inbox and mark it Unread.

Apps like these are a perfect baby step for hypervigilant, stressed out, email-checking junkies who worry out about missing things and get overwhelmed by the sheer volume in the Inbox.  I recommend that clients sort based on only one criteria: anything that needs action stays in your inbox. Everything else gets archived. Emails from clients? INBOX. Content for posting? INBOX. Requests for bids? INBOX. Newsletters you want to read eventually? ARCHIVE! Junk mail? ARCHIVE! Non-urgent email from a friend that you don’t need to answer until next week? ARCHIVE! 

Later, when you sit down to work, you know that the things in your inbox are the things you need to work on. You don’t have to sort through the clutter because you’ve already done it. You’ve minimized transitions.

Then, you only need to schedule one or two times a week to deal with your archived items. Just plug them into your calendar and make it a ritual. When you’re ready, you just open up your All Mail folder in Gmail or Outlook or whatever, and go into “filter mode” again – only this time, the stress is lower because you know you’re only dealing with low-priority/unimportant items.  There’s nothing in this folder that’s high risk. You can delete all of the junk mail. You can send all of the newsletters into a folder to read all at once when you’re done sorting (batching! Yay!). You can mark emails you want to answer “unread” and send them back to your inbox. You can leave anything else in the archived area, where you know you can find it again if you need it.  

Best part? For anxious/hyper-vigilant business types, this kind of app gives peace of mind. When you finish sorting through the emails in the app, you get this nice “No new messages” screen.  It’s a psychological trick that lets you put down the phone and focus on your meetings or your kids or whatever is in front of you because – even though that email still needs to be answered – you’ve already done something about it. It sends a signal to your brain to stop stressing because you’ve DONE SOMETHING. You’ve sorted your email. You know you won’t forget to do it, because it’s marked unread and waiting for you when you log in to your computer.

This will actually help you work through your email faster when you do sit down at the computer and you’ll be less anxious about it. Studies show that using a quick sorting method lets your subconscious start working on answers in advance while you do other things. It decreases the stress of starting work because your subconscious is already prepared and clued-in to what it needs to do.  Work-flow researchers have found that it’s not the work itself that causes mental exhaustion. It’s micro-transitions. Those are the tasks that wear you down the fastest and increase anxiety that you’re missing something important.   Keeping it in a separate app also helps your brain work better, because it associates the app with sorting and your email inbox with answering/doing.

Think of it as batching your filtering processing. Instead of doing it every time you open your email to work, you do it 10x faster in a separate app while your brain is in “sorting/filtering” mode.

After a few weeks, you’ll start seeing patterns in your emails – and then you can start thinking about using automatic filters or flagging emails to make things even easier. But this is easiest and least stressful first step – it’s quick and it’s low risk because you can’t actually delete anything from the app. 

You don’t necessarily need an app to do this. Some people can train themselves to sort first, before clicking on a single email. You could try using your phone’s inbox to sort emails and your laptop to actually answer emails.  Some people use the “flag” or “star” options in their email client. There are a lot of options. The trick is to make sorting through emails a single, uninterrupted action – separate from opening and answering emails. This one, simple change can help you work through your email ten times faster – and you’ll see an exponential decrease in stress.

Opinions are totally my own. No one paid me or asked me to review their products. 

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.