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The complete guide to cleaning up your email inbox
Mailbutler offers the complete guide to cleaning out your inbox, helping you to stay productive and sane when the emails are rolling in.
James has five years' experience as a Content Marketer, bylines on Left Foot Forward, Submittable, and INOMICS, and a Master's in History. In his free time he likes to read, play guitar, and write for his personal blog.
It’s no secret that email anxiety is a real thing. If you have experienced any of the following:
- Guilt due to the fact you left emails unanswered for way too long
- Annoyance because you don’t know what to do after you receive an email
- Frustration because you have no idea how to prioritize incoming emails from different departments, clients, projects
then there’s no better time to sweep away all your email worries! Our team has put together the most complete and actionable guide on cleaning up your email inbox. We even added six effective organizing habits that you can instantly adopt to curb all your email woes.
The time is now to declutter and spring clean your inbox
By completing this guide, you will have:
- A freshly organized and downsized inbox
- An efficiently downscaled folder system
- A healthier mindset and relationship with emails
- 6 new organizing habits you can start right now, today
The importance of cleaning up your inbox
While many of us begin spring cleaning to organize our closets and to remove clutter, this is a friendly nudge to also give attention to your digital space – especially your email inbox!
In fact, studies have found that digital clutter can hinder your productivity in the same way a messy office does. Just like how you should respect your physical belongings and space, cleaning and tidying up your digital space is the key to peace of mind.
So grab your mops and sponges (or your delete button): here are a list of steps to clean your inbox.
How to clean up your inbox
1. Move all 1,974,039 of your emails into one organizing folder
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by an inbox full of unread and waiting to be answered emails when you’re trying to give it a spring clean.
So the first step is simple: start fresh. Drag and drop everything to a folder where you can then sort out the mess. That way any emails you receive during your clean up won’t interrupt your process.
2. Picture your ideal inbox, then go through the cleaning in one go
The focus of tidying up is not to define what you want to get rid of, but what you would like to keep.
First, picture your ideal inbox: what kind of emails will you be keeping, what’s important enought to keep? Then, imagine the peace of mind and the relief of stress that come naturally afterwards.
Holding on to this thought, commit to the cleaning in one go. The key to successfully cleaning up your inbox is to complete this in one shot and not wait until you feel like picking up the task again – because let’s face it: it’s now or never.
3. Ask the 5-year question
The 5-year question encourages you to think deeper into your relationship with emails, and the values they bring to moving forward your goals. Ask yourself the following question:
‘When was the last time I needed an email that was 5 years old?’
If your answer is ‘never’, continue to lower it to ‘4 years’, ‘2 years’, until you reach a time range of emails you’re comfortable with storing, knowing they serve a purpose in your life.
The answer can be different depending the role of email in your job, but the next step is simple: take a bold, confident move – and delete/archive everything that is before this time range.
The focus of cleaning up your inbox is not to define which emails you want to delete, but which ones you would like to keep.
4. Trim down your email folder system
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a famous saying that can easily go wrong when it comes to organizing your emails: the more layered and complicated your folder system is, the more hidden spaces you are creating to bury emails you should simply delete. Chances are once you moved an email into folder, you’ll never remember it again.
This article from Fast Company sums up the only 5 email folders you need. To keep your inbox manageable, keep your filing system as minimal and simple as possible, and remove:
- Folders within folders that can be easily merged
- Folders for email topics (meetings, individual projects..)
5. Pick 1-2 email keywords that you can go through as a whole
Instead of deleting emails without a clear target, an easier and more effective strategy is to start little-by-little. Some common types of email we all receive and manage are: internal emails, automated reminders, calendar invites, reminders, sales, product offesrs – the list goes on.
To break down the cleaning process, you can target one or two common keywords, sender address, and names, and filter them in search.
For example, start with the following:
- A no-reply email address
- ‘Download Link’
This method ensures you can go through the same types of emails in smaller batches and deal with them systematically.
6. Look for newsletters you’ve been continuously ignoring
The monthly digest that sends you a list of dreadful news articles that don’t spark joy; the count-down webinar reminders from agencies you don’t recall signing up for; even worse, those weekly offer emails you’re receiving in exchange for a free shipping coupon code…
Simply put: most of us have no idea how many newsletters we’re subscribed to.
From your most recent emails, look for a few newsletters that you have been ignoring for a while. Ask yourself the ultimate Marie Kondo question: do they spark joy?
More importantly, do they offer value that works towards your goal and vision? If the answer is no, give your silent gratitude (or not, if you never asked to receive them) and unsubscribe from them in batch.
7. Delete or archive emails you can’t take action on anymore
Do you want to make a change in your relationship with emails? Begin by confronting the unattended ones! The reason why we keep unread emails lingering around is simple: we don’t know what to do with them.
Email struggle is real: we’ve all procrastinated on replying to an email, or panicked because we completely forgot to follow up after weeks have passed by. What we shouldn’t do is continue fostering this avoidance.
Start from bottom (oldest) to the top of your unread emails. If this consists of emails you have forgotten from years ago, don’t panic – it’s highly unlikely your contact is still expecting a reply at this point. Take a deep breath, remove them and let go of your email guilt!
8. Go through your read emails from the bottom
The final step to cleaning up your email inbox is to tackle the remaining read emails. Every glance at an unread email drains a bit more energy out of our day. But every glance at a read and ignored email means we are enabling the habit of letting emails to clog up our digital space.
These questions let you evaluate the relevance of the emails to your current work and life:
- Is this an email that belongs in one of my folders, and thus can be moved?
- Is this an email I’ve already replied to, and thus can be archived/deleted?
- Has this email been unattended for so long that there’s no point to react now, and thus can be archived/deleted?
- Has this email already served its purpose, and thus can be archived/deleted?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of them – go ahead and clear them out!
Now that you’ve given your inbox a scrub ‘n’ clean, the next question you might have is: what about the new emails? Am I simply going to repeat this process when the emails pile up to another unbearably, frustratingly high number?
Organizing habits to help you maintain a clean inbox
We’re not here to offer short term fixes to inbox management. In fact, the cleaning process is just half way to your success. We also want to make sure your email inbox stays clean, forever! To that end, here are some effective habits that anyone can adopt today to maintain an organized inbox.
1. Turn incoming emails into tasks
Emails crave our attention with no consideration for your unique work routine. Just like every other form of distraction, it’s important we don’t react to incoming emails in a passive manner.
One of the most important habits in maintaining a tidy inbox is to turn emails into actions on your to-do list. Each time you receive an email that requires next steps which can’t be done on the spot, such as
- Scheduling an event
- Reviewing a document
- Replying later and CCing a colleague
- Making a phone call
Don’t just leave it there. Instead, add these reminders to your calendar or to-do list, then archive the original email if you can.
If you want to further streamline the link between your inbox and task management, a feature of Mailbutler we frequently use to stay on top of our to-do list is Tasks.
We previously shared a complete guide and workflow using Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done (GTD) strategies to help you decide what to do with each incoming email.
2. Set up email rules that automatically filter your emails
Another common problem is not knowing how to prioritize on incoming emails. Setting up filters and labels can help you identify emails that should catch your eye – and attention – more than everything else.
For example if you work in sales or PR, it might be a good idea to set up a list of your most important clients and contacts so that incoming emails have a different color or look.
3. Think twice before signing up for something new
The next time you’re about to give away your email address in exchange for something free, think twice about what it means. You are potentially opting in for emails that you have no time to read, and do not contribute towards your goals.
Before filling in your email address for anything, ask yourself:
- Does this newsletter/email list offer something that helps me work towards my goal?
- Does the company/service provide something that aligns with my goal and vision?
If the answer to both is ‘no’, why let their emails fill up your precious time and inbox space?
4. Set limits to how much time you spend in your inbox
Checking emails mindlessly can give us a false sense of productivity and busyness. Instead, we encourage you to set up healthy boundaries that gives you enough freedom in managing every aspect of your work tasks. Tracking apps and tools such as Timing and Timeular can also help you understand your usage and time spent checking your emails.
This great article from Ink+Volt lists the importance of time-blocking for any kind of daily tasks. Instead of checking emails as they arrive every other minute in your inbox, try booking hours in your calendar to manage emails in batch. It’s also important to turn off email notifications when you’re not checking them.
Mailbutler is a free plug-in for Apple Mail, Gmail and Outlook that lets you control when you want to send an email in the future and when to follow-up if you have not received a reply after X days. Instead of just leaving the email in your inbox to remind yourself, Mailbutler allows you to smartly schedule emails at times that are most practical for you. The follow-up feature reminds you to get back to your contacts at the perfect time.
6. The 2 Minute Rule
Not everyone is ready to kickstart a fully-fledged GTD workflow in their busy inbox (even though we really suggest you give it a go), but there’s a general rule of thumb that you can make incredible use of right now to improve the way your emails are handled. It goes like this: For every incoming email, ask yourself if you can deal with it in under 2 minutes. If the answer is yes, complete it immediately; otherwise, put it to your task manager or snooze it for later.
This great article by Asian Efficiency explains the power of 2-minute rule. While Gmail provides Snooze as a native feature, there are other ways you can achieve this in other email apps. If you are using Apple Mail or Outlook, Mailbutler adds this powerful inbox-taming feature to your inbox:
Snooze allows you to temporarily remove emails from your inbox until you’re ready to handle them later. You can even define working hours so that Mailbutler snoozes emails until your next working day.
Ready to kickstart your spring clean & fresh with a clear inbox? 📭
If you find this guide useful, help a colleague/friend out by sharing or retweeting this guide with them! What are your secrets and best habits in keeping your inbox organized? Let us know in the comments or on social. Happy cleaning! 🧹
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