I’m generally pretty organized with my email, and I like to have nothing in my inbox except stuff I haven’t acted on yet. However, a spurt of recent travel and work commitments meant I’d fallen into a familiar but dangerous pattern: grabbing information from emails I needed (and replying when necessary), but not filing or deleting them, and not checking out stuff that didn’t look urgent. The end result: I suddenly had 1328 emails in my inbox, and 401 of them hadn’t even been read. Sounds like a nightmare, but in reality it only took me an hour to get my inbox back under control.
I’m well aware that there’s a Gmail-inspired school of thought that says you don’t need to worry about managing or deleting email (beyond perhaps labelling it): there’s plenty of room to keep everything, and search will find what you want. Each to their own, but I’ve never worked that way, and my email habits date from when space was relatively precious. Keeping a clean inbox means I know that everything’s been dealt with. And there’s a great sense of achievement when you do get an unruly batch of email under control.
While I was confident that I could sort through my personal mess pretty quickly with some single-minded success, I must admit I was surprised it only took an hour. What were the elements of my strategy that made that possible?
Work in Disconnected Mode
To ensure that I didn’t get distracted, I assigned time during a lengthy train journey to the task and disconnected my 3G broadband. That made sure I couldn’t goof off by checking Google Reader, or clicking through on links within email. This is fairly straightforward if, like me, you’re a dedicated Outlook user, but it’s also now an option even if Gmail is your preferred mail client, thanks to the addition of offline mode.
Don’t Reply to Anybody
My aim here was to work through and sort email, not engage with correspondence. I flagged any email that did need a reply with a tag so I could return to it later, when I was connected. (I had a similar tag for emails that I needed to print, nearly all of which were tax receipts. One day I’ll eliminate paper from that process, but probably not this financial year.)
Sort Your Inbox by Sender
Sorting mails by who has sent them has several advantages: you can get rid of multiple irrelevant messages (whether from a person, a newsletter, or a notification service) without reading them all. That leads to some very speedy bulk deletion.
Use a Filing System that Makes Sense for You
I have a fairly well-developed filing system for email with about a decade’s thinking behind it, five major categories and a bunch of sub-categories. That works for me, but I wouldn’t argue on that basis that anyone else should copy it. If you do prefer to rely on search, you could just dump everything in a folder called ‘Done’ for that clean inbox feeling.
Be Ruthless About Deleting Stuff
Not everything needs to be kept. As a journalist, I get bombarded with a lot of irrelevant press releases. If they contain potentially useful information, I store them as text files (low space, easy indexing). Everything else gets deleted. “Keep everything” is a poor mantra no matter how cheap disk space is.
Know Your Keyboard Shortcuts
During the entire process, I don’t think I used my touchpad except for the initial ‘Arrange by: From’ command. Using keyboard shortcuts (mostly just the arrow keys, shift and Del) made life much quicker.
At the end of the hour, this was how the situation stood. Swathes of messages had been deleted, others had been filed. I had nine messages I needed to reply to, and six messages I need to print. 13 messages remained in my inbox that required action of some sort, which is a number I can live with (and a realistic number of tasks to have in a short-term nag list). I’ve been good since then and largely kept my inbox empty, but at least I know if I do slack off again that getting back on track won’t be too difficult. With that said, I bet there’s ways I could improve my approach. Share your thoughts in the discussion.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on Lifehacker Australia in 2009. Since then, the author has made a couple of changes to this process. He says: “My basic approach to clearing out email remains exactly the same, with one enhancement: I now forward every piece of email to my Gmail account, which creates an easy-to-search archive. I still prefer a desktop mail client for writing and calendar management, so I don’t work in Gmail day-to-day, but this process means I don’t need to maintain my archive of text files, and speeds up inbox clearing even more.”