One reality of modern life is that we not only have lots of physical stuff to manage and organize, but we have an entire digital world that can become cluttered as well. Email is one of our biggest challenges, because it multiplies as quickly as we can process it. This week I’ll be sharing some tips to help you clear out your inbox. In future posts I’ll discuss how to use email more efficiently and keep your inbox clean moving forward.
Make the time – If you’ve neglected your email for a long time you probably have hundreds (even thousands!) of messages built up in your inbox. You’re not alone! In order to get started processing this backlog you need to block out some time. Commit to spending just 15 minutes each day this week clearing out old messages. You’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish with some focused effort.
Start with the easy ones – Search your inbox for messages that contain the word “unsubscribe” and you will come up with all the newsletters, coupons, and notifications that you never look at. If these are more than a couple of weeks old the information is likely out of date and you can safely delete them.
Process the rest – Sort what’s left by date and jump in. Try to look at each message only once to decide if you can delete it or save it to a folder or archive. You probably get most of your messages from a few people: your significant other, closest friends and family, and a handful of colleagues. You can bulk process these by searching an individual’s name or email address, selecting all of their messages, and moving them to their proper place.
Gmail has many great search features that make easy work of processing your email. For example, you can use the term older_than:1y to find all your messages that are older than one year. Here is a handy chart of all the advanced search terms for Gmail.
The way you use and process online correspondence can have a big impact on maintaining a decluttered inbox. Here are some tips to help keep your sanity while you clear out the junk:
Use one inbox – You might have several email accounts that you use for different purposes. Instead of taking the time to log in and out of each one, use a single account for all processing and have the others forwarded there. I recommend using Gmail for your master inbox because it has great search features, lots of storage, and it allows you to send messages using different from addresses. You can configure these in the accounts and imports tab under settings.
Reserve your inbox for important stuff – Allowing newsletters, coupons, and other non-urgent messages to sit in your inbox distracts you from the truly important ones. Create folders or labels for these things and cultivate the habit of moving them out of your inbox ASAP. I like the tab view in Gmail that you can set up with the configure inbox option. With this, you can select from five message categories (primary, social, promotions, updates, and forums), and your incoming mail will be automatically sorted. Using this tool I know I can find my important communications in the primary tab, and the others can be addressed when I have time.
Use tools to schedule emails coming and going – Most people keep messages in their inbox because they require an answer or contain information that is needed later. Boomerang is a free plugin for Gmail that allows you hide an email and schedule when it will return to your inbox. I use it often for travel itineraries, shipping notifications, and upcoming meeting details. Another great feature within Boomerang is send later, which allows you to compose an email and then schedule it to be sent. This is useful if you want someone to receive your message first thing in the morning or on a particular day of the week, such as on Monday for emails composed over the weekend. FollowUp.cc is a more advanced tool for email management (and one you have to pay for), but it has functions that are useful particularly for business owners or people working in teams.
Now, this final step is most important: maintenance. Keeping control of online correspondence is a matter of developing some regular habits for organization. Here are some ways to keep that inbox clean and clutter-free:
Unsubscribe ruthlessly – Take a look at all the newsletters, updates, and promotional messages you receive each week. Do you read them? Is the information important to you? Do you need to know about the sales at your favorite stores, or is it just a temptation to buy? Unsubscribe from anything that is not making your life better. You can easily find all these messages by searching the term “unsubscribe”.
The email management tool unroll.me can also be used to unsubscribe from emails en masse and will create a daily digest of the mail you want to keep. It is free to use and worth checking out if you have a lot of subscriptions.
Turn off email notifications – Turn off notifications of new messages on your phone and computer. You don’t want to be a slave to your email, and these are a constant distraction from your tasks at hand. Notifications from social media can also clog up your inbox. Check your settings on these accounts and ask yourself if you really need or want an email every time someone comments on your post.
Cultivate a habit of processing email – There are many approaches to this and I recommend trial and error to find out what works best for you. You can set specific times during the day to devote to email, and stay out of it otherwise. If you tend to get sucked in to responding to messages while putting off more important work, try avoiding email at the start of your day. If you have a job that requires a quick response to messages, use email checks to break up work on other projects – once every hour or half hour.
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