The number of emails Isabelle Kohler receives every day has increased exponentially in recent years. She reflects on this inbox overload and the impact it has had on her work. She also shares some tips on how to stay productive despite the constant stream of emails.

A few years ago, I discovered the concept of compound interest in finance. It was a turning point in my life, an important moment when I understood the importance of being more strategic with my money. I started investing with the expectation that compounding would provide a solid return over the long term.

For those unfamiliar, compounding is the process by which an investment grows exponentially over time as earnings are reinvested to generate additional income. It works well – I’m witnessing it with my own financial situation, even though I only started investing a couple of years ago.

What I realised is that the concept of compounding can also be applied to other aspects of my life, albeit with less positive consequences.

My email inbox seems to follow the same compounding effect. The magic of compounding in finance is that it can turn modest initial sums into substantial amounts over time through the exponential growth of reinvested earnings. I have observed the same “magic” effect with my inbox: the number of emails I receive has grown exponentially over the years. It used to be manageable; now the number of emails demands more of my time and attention. In addition, responding to an email generates follow-up emails that pile up, much like reinvested interest. The more emails I receive and respond to, the more follow-ups they generate, adding to the total number of emails in my inbox. Another example? Compounding allows us to generate income at night while we sleep. Thanks to international collaborations with countries in different time zones and colleagues who tend to sleep less than I do, my inbox also generates emails at night.

Unfortunately, the compounding effect of the inbox has negative consequences for me, such as a lot of stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed. I often feel like I am standing under an avalanche. Long gone are the days when I was confident that I could achieve “inbox zero” – this is no longer an option. Starting my business and being more active on LinkedIn did not help either: as in the financial world, diversifying my inbox portfolio led to an even greater increase in emails landing in different inboxes.

To stay productive, I have tried the following strategies, with varying degrees of success:

  • Use email filters to automatically sort incoming messages: a great way to find the important emails from my boss or PhD students, but it does not affect the total number of messages I have to reply to.
  • Implement the “two-minute rule”: if an email can be answered in two minutes or less, I do it immediately. If it takes longer, I put it aside for a designated time for longer replies. Unfortunately, my week is not long enough to set aside all the time I would need to answer all my emails.
  • Set specific times for email: I regularly set aside blocks of time during the day to check and respond to emails. I avoid the first hours of the morning (when I’m most productive) and won’t go longer than one hour. I’ve had periods where I’ve needed a timer to limit my email response time to less than two hours per day. I lost motivation, purpose and fulfilment as I spent more time answering emails.
  • Digital detox: I set aside days or half days in my week to disconnect from my inbox. This allows me to recharge and focus on more fulfilling tasks. The only problem? The anxiety comes back when I open my inbox (which was compounding while I was enjoying other tasks). I think my anxiety is also compounding.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): I use ChatGPT to compose emails that require a long reply for people I don’t know well. Although I’m getting better at the subtle art of prompting, I think that ChatGPT hasn’t mastered the Isabelle style enough to be used daily.

I wonder about the work-life of my colleagues of older generations. I wonder if overwork comes from constant connectivity. The stress I feel when my inbox is full is also related to the number of people I will disappoint by not answering their email (or taking weeks or even months to do so). I don’t think this situation is sustainable – neither for me, nor for anyone reading these lines who is in a similar situation.

Will AI help us streamline this process so that we can get back to other, more fulfilling tasks? Or will we enter another era where instant digital communication takes up even more space and time?

If you have any tips on how to turn the compounding effect of our inbox into a positive experience, just drop me an email! It will be automatically flagged as “high importance” and answered within a few weeks. I promise.

If you are interested in learning more about how to navigate academia, do not hesitate to join the NextMinds Community! For this, you have plenty of choices: visit NextMinds website to learn more about my work, sign up for the newsletter, and follow me and NextMinds on LinkedIn. You can even send me an email directly, using!