The complete guide to cleaning up your Outlook, Gmail or Apple Mail inbox
Mailbutler offers the complete guide to cleaning out your inbox, helping you to clean out your inbox and maintain better organizational habits.
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.
Have you ever experienced email anxiety?
It’s a real thing and more common than you might expect, with some pretty stark symptoms, such as guilt due to the fact you left emails unanswered for too long, annoyance because you don’t know what to do after you receive an email, and frustration because you have no idea how to properly prioritize incoming emails.
But don’t worry – if you’ve got email anxiety and are feeling stressed about the state of your inbox, Mailbutler is here to help.
Our team has put together the most complete and actionable guide on cleaning up your Outlook, Gmail or Apple Mail email inbox. And on top of that, we’ve included six effective organizing habits you can instantly adapt to curb all your email woes.
After completing this guide, you will have:
- A freshly organized Apple Mail, Gmail or Outlook inbox
- An efficiently downsized folder system
- A healthier mindset and relationship with your emails
- A handful of helpful tips for organizing your inbox
The importance of cleaning up your Outlook, Gmail or Apple Mail inbox
While many of us associate cleaning with emptying cupboards and dusting off the skirting boards, it’s also important to give attention to your digital spaces, in particular your email inbox.
Studies have found that digital clutter can hinder your productivity in the exact 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 (read: your delete button); here are a list of steps to clean your inbox and declutter your digital space.
What’s the best way to clean up your email in your Outlook, Gmail or Apple Mail inbox?
1. Move all 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. Why not just use the inbox, you ask? Well, this way, any emails you receive during your clean up won’t interrupt your cleaning 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, i.e. what’s important enough to keep?
Then, imagine the peace of mind and the relief of stress that will naturally come after you’ve achieved this afterward.
Holding on to these thoughts, commit to cleaning in one fell swoop.
The key to successfully cleaning up your inbox is to complete this in one go and not wait until you feel like picking up the task again, because let’s face it – it’s now or never. (Tomorrow will be too late!)
3. Ask the five-year question
The five-year question encourages you to think more deeply about your relationship with emails. What value do they actually bring you? How do they help you achieve your goals?
Ask yourself the following question:
“When was the last time I needed an email that was five years old?”
If your answer is “never,” continue to lower it to “four years,” “two years,” etc. until you reach a time range of emails you’re comfortable with storing, knowing they serve a purpose in your life.
The answer might be different depending the role emails fill in your work life, but the next step is simple: make a bold move and delete (or perhaps archive) everything from before your time range.
4. Trim down your email folder system
“Out of sight, out of mind” is a famous saying that can easily lead you down the wrong path when it comes to organizing your emails: the more layered and complicated your folder system is, the more spaces you are creating in which to bury emails you should simply delete.
In all likelihood, once you’ve moved an email into a folder, you’ll never remember it again.
Fast Company sums up the only five email folders you need. These include:
- Inbox – The most important folder you can have! Messages should be kept here for a short amount of time before being replied to or organized into a new folder.
- Today – A folder for everything which requires a reply on the same day.
- This week – For all the emails which need to be responded to within a week.
- FYI – Emails that contain information you may need to reference but don’t necessarily require a response.
- Monthly/Quarterly – An optional folder for emails that require responses within a month or a quarter.
However, even these five folders may be too many! For example, having a folder for emails that require responses within a month may be a step too far, as you could easily forget about these messages and they could end up piling up in the folder.
It may be better to have all of those emails in the “this week” folder, as replying sooner rather than later helps to keep you organized and save you stress.
The most important thing to remember is to keep your Gmail, Apple Mail or Outlook inbox manageable.
Keep your filing system as minimal and simple as possible, and remove any folders within folders that can be easily merged, as well as folders for email topics (meetings, individual projects, etc.) All of these folders can be consolidated or removed and turned into ‘today’ or ‘this week’ folders.
5. Pick one or two email keywords to help your clearing process
Instead of deleting emails without a clear target, an easier and more effective strategy is to split the cleaning process into bite-sized chunks.
Some common types of email we all receive and manage are: internal emails, automated reminders, calendar invites, reminders, sales, product offers – and that’s just to name a few.
One great method of breaking down the cleaning process is to target one or two common keywords, sender addresses, or names, and filter them in search.
For example, start with the following ideas and keywords:
- Any no-reply email addresses
This method helps you to systematically go through the same types of emails in smaller batches, making the cleaning process more manageable.
6. Look for newsletters you’ve been continuously ignoring
The monthly digest that sends you a list of dreadful news articles that just get you down; the count-down webinar reminders from agencies you don’t recall signing up for; those weekly offer emails you’re receiving in exchange for a free shipping coupon code.
Most of us are signed up for a tonne of useless newsletters which simply take up space in your inbox and steal time from your day.
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 all in one go.
7. Delete or archive emails you can’t take action on anymore
A great way to begin changing your relationship with your email is by confronting all those old messages you never replied to but promised you would.
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 the 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 (or, if you’re certain a reply is necessary, send your reply now).
8. Go through your read emails from the bottom
The final step to cleaning up your Apple Mail, Gmail or Outlook email inbox is to tackle the remaining read emails.
Every glance at an unread email drains a bit more energy out of our day – which is why it’s better to block out spaces in the day to work on emails, rather than being repeatedly distracted by them throughout the day.
On the other hand, every time you look at an email you read but ignored enables your dirty habit of letting emails to clog up your digital space.
A few simple questions can help you evaluate the relevance of emails to your work 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 reacting 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?
Is the only solution to repeat this process every quarter once a new batch of hundreds of emails has piled high in my inbox?
Organizing habits to help you clean up Outlook, Gmail or Apple Mail inbox and manage your email
In short, no. We’re not here to offer short-term fixes to inbox management. In fact, the cleaning process is just halfway 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 Outlook, Gmail or Apple mail email inbox.
1. Turn incoming emails into tasks
Emails crave our attention with no consideration for your individual 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 don’t need it to complete the task, of course).
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.
2. Set up email rules that automatically filter your emails
Another common problem is not knowing how to prioritize incoming emails. Setting up filters and labels can help you identify which emails are the most important.
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:
- Do these newsletters or email lists 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 with your email inbox so you can manage your time at work better.
This great article from Ink+Volt lists the importance of time-blocking for all types of daily tasks. Taking that idea, instead of checking emails as they arrive every other minute in your inbox, try booking hours in your calendar to manage emails in batches. And remember: turn off email notifications when you’re not checking them!
Another useful tip is to use tracking apps and tools, such as Timing and Timeular, which can help you understand how you spend your work hours and therefore manage your time better.
5. Use Mailbutler to schedule emails and follow-ups at the right time
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 a certain amount of time (among many other useful features!).
Instead of just leaving emails in your inbox to remind yourself, Mailbutler allows you to smartly schedule emails at times that are most practical for you, turn emails into tasks, and remind yourself to get back to your contacts when it’s convenient for you.
6. The two-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, as we did in this article here), 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: for every incoming email, ask yourself if you can deal with it in under two 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 the two-minute rule. While Gmail provides Snooze as a native feature, there are other ways you can achieve this in other email apps – such as by using Mailbutler, which offers the snooze function for Apple Mail and Outlook!
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, improving your workflow and freeing you up to do the work that really matters.
How do I clean up my inbox quickly?
It depends on your email service provider. For example, if you use Outlook, you can take advantage of the following three smart features to clean up your inbox quickly:
- Clean Up Conversation to reduce the number of messages in your inbox by tidying up your email conversations (it works for folders and subfolders, too)
- Clutter to filter low-priority emails based on your past behavior and the rules you’ve set up (if you’ve set up any)
- Mailbox Rules to automatically send incoming messages to specific folders
As a Gmail user, you can clean up your inbox quickly by:
- Deleting entire email categories (Gmail’s default email categories are Primary, Social, and Promotions, but you can easily add more) by selecting all conversations in a specific category and clicking “Clear selection”
- Deleting emails by date with the help of Gmail’s advanced search capabilities
- Deleting emails by content by creating “Has the words” filters
How do I clean up thousands of emails?
If you use Apple Mail and want to clean up multiple email messages at the same time, you need to start by selecting the emails you want to remove and then choose “Trash” or “Archive”.
As you may have guessed, this approach can be extremely time-consuming and annoying if you want to clean up dozens, hundreds, or thousands of emails in one go.
This is when you should use Apple Mail’s filters to find certain messages in your mailbox (for example, Only from VIP, Only Mail with Attachments, etc.).
How to clean up your email from spam
It depends on your email client. For example, if you use Outlook, you can find all suspected spam messages in the Junk Email folder. If you’re 100% sure that all the emails in this folder are correctly classified as junk, then you can go ahead and delete them all.
Another option is to instruct Outlook to delete all suspected spam emails instead of moving them to the Junk Email folder, but this way you won’t be able to review the messages and find legitimate ones.
Similarly, Gmail’s spam filters automatically move spam emails into the Spam folder.
If you’re certain that all of the messages in your Spam folder are indeed spam, then you can select “Delete all spam messages now” to clean your inbox from junk mail.
How to clean up your work email
Here are five simple yet effective tips to help you clean up your work email inbox:
- Move all your current emails into one folder so new messages don’t interrupt the cleaning process
- Simplify your email folder system by deleting and/or merging folders
- Target emails by keywords, sender address, date, etc.
- Unsubscribe from newsletters you rarely read or completely ignore
- Delete or archive messages that don’t require any further action
Ready to kickstart your spring clean & fresh with a clear Outlook, Apple Mail or Gmail inbox?
If you find this guide useful, help a colleague or 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!