As a professional organizer I feel a lot of pressure to stay on top of my own clutter. After all, who’s going to hire me if I can’t get my own stuff together? While I do a pretty good job of staying organized, I’m far from perfect. There are a number of areas in my life that could be improved, and a big one is my email inbox. I currently have over 1,000 messages sitting in there, and it stresses me out a little bit every day. Here is my plan to getting them under control, and if you also have a big backlog of emails to get through this will help you, too!
1. Tackle the easy stuff first – My first step is to get rid of the things that can be automatically deleted without any real thought. This is easy for me because I’m using Gmail (which I definitely recommend) and I have my inbox set to the tabbed view. This automatically sorts your incoming messages into categories that you can access by clicking on a series of tabs. If you aren’t using this and want to give it a try, here’s how:
The advantage of using tabs to organize your Gmail inbox is that it moves low-priority messages (like social media updates) out of your Primary inbox, letting you focus on just the most important items. Gmail uses an algorithm to categorize your messages for you, but you can retrain it by simply clicking and dragging a message to the tab where you want it to appear.
I got started by going through my tabs (other than Primary) and deleting everything there. I feel lighter already!
2. Use the search function – Another reason why I love Gmail is because it has powerful search tools built right in. Looking at my first page of messages, I saw a recent one from someone who I serve with on a committee. I suspected there may be more from her lingering in my inbox, so I plugged her email address into the search bar, along with “label:inbox”. I found 40 messages from her that had been addressed but never archived! I easily selected them all to get them out of my inbox.
You can use this method to clear out a lot of messages quickly. Simply search on the addresses for people and organizations you regularly correspond with. If you’re like me and have a bad habit of reading messages without processing them, you will probably find many using this method you can easily trash or archive.
3. Schedule time to address the rest – Once the easy stuff is taken care of, I’m going to have to dedicate some time to processing what’s left of the backlog. There’s really no way around this, so I’m carving out some time everyday to chip away at it. It may take a while, but it will serve as motivation for the next step. Gmail allows you to sort messages by newest or oldest first (to change this, click on the numbers at the top that read 1-50 of XXX), so you can easily start with the ones that have been hanging around the longest.
4. Create a plan for staying on top of it – When I work with clients organizing their homes, I talk about the importance of maintenance. All the time spent sorting and deciding what to keep and what to toss will be for nothing if you slip right back into old habits after it’s done. Similarly, I need a system for processing email so that I don’t simply start accumulating them once my inbox is clear.
I already have the Gmail plugin Boomerang installed, but I have not been using it fully. It allows you to temporarily archive a message and then return it to your inbox on a specified date. Using this feature will let me to clear messages out but not lose track of those that need follow up. I will also create a label (similar to a folder) to save messages for blog posts and articles to be read later, so I don’t simply leave them in my inbox and lose track of them after a couple of days.
Many productivity experts suggest batch processing email once or twice a day. Instead of jumping into my inbox every time a new message appears – which often becomes a big distraction from the task at hand – I am going to schedule specific times during the day to address it. I plan to do this over my morning coffee and again at the end of my workday.
5. Reduce the amount of stuff coming in – Finally, the best way to keep a clean inbox is to reduce the amount of emails we receive (duh). Just as we should be thoughtful about the physical items we bring into our homes, email subscriptions should be carefully considered and regularly evaluated. It’s so easy to sign up for an email list in order to receive a discount or promotion, but are those regular mailings bringing us any value?
Over the next few weeks I will be paying close attention to the emails I delete and asking myself if I really want to be on that list. I plan to be ruthless about unsubscribing to as many as I can, keeping in mind I can always sign back up if I miss it. One tip to easily find all your subscriptions is to search your messages for the term “Unsubscribe”.
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