Simple strategies to clear email clutter — From Gina Trapani of Lifehacker

As the final installment in our Unclutterer month of sharing, I am honored to present Gina Trapani, founding editor of Lifehacker.com, a daily blog about software and personal productivity. We are truly honored to have Gina as our keynote guest post author.

Just like physical clutter creates negative psychic weight, so does clutter in the digital spaces we work in every day—like our email inboxes. Email overload is one of the biggest sources of anxiety and overwhelming for anyone who works on a computer every day. When you’re faced with an inbox stuffed with hundreds of messages—and you’re not sure what you meant to do with each of them—it’s too easy to feel like you’re drowning in stuff and you’ll never catch up. Here are a few simple ways you can clean up your email box and get that wonderful feeling of being free and clear of email overload.

The Big Inbox Dump

If you’re starting out with an inbox full of messages dating back months, it’s time to move them out of your sight and start fresh. The reason why all those messages piled up for so long is that you didn’t handle them as they came in, and that’s the first habit you’re going to get into—starting today. Make a new folder called “Backlog,” and move all the messages in your inbox older than a day into that folder. Phew! I bet you feel lighter already. (Don’t worry—we’ll talk about how you’re going to get to those later.)

Make an Empty Inbox a Habit

Starting right here and right now, you’re going to process your email as it comes in, and as you’re done with each message, you’re going to either delete it or file it away in a folder separate from your inbox. This means your inbox will be completely empty—clutter-free!—on a regular basis. From here on in, think of your inbox as a temporary holding pen for stuff you haven’t dealt with yet. (Which, coincidentally, is the definition of “inbox.”) Once you make a decision or take an action on a message, move it out of your inbox. That way, you can see at a glance what email you have to process, and everything else is out of sight (and out of mind.)

The Fewer Folders, The Better

Since we come from the physical, paper world, we tend to have a “filing cabinet” approach to our digital documents. But you don’t have to make as many digital folders as you do physical folders because you can search digital documents like email in ways you can’t search paper. So when you decide on the folders (or Gmail labels) you want to use to organize your email, don’t go overboard. Use as few filing places as possible to keep things simple. Remember, you don’t want to trade inbox clutter for folder clutter.

I recommend using only three folders to organize your email. You can read more about my three-folder “Trusted Trio” system here. (Gmail users, here’s your version.)

Tackle the Backlog

Now that you’ve processed today’s messages and gotten to an empty inbox and a resolution to keep it that way, it’s time to tackle your backlog folder. First, ask yourself: if an email is older than a month, does the sender really still expect a response? Be honest. Most likely, the answer is no. If it was that important, the sender probably contacted you again more recently, or using another method. This may seem scary to some folks, but I recommend taking all the messages older than a month (or even two or three weeks, for the brave!) and simply moving them into your email archive.

Now you’ve got email backlog from the past month to process. Each day, commit to reducing this pile by half. Start at the oldest messages and respond and file using your new folder system. If you’ve got 500 backlogged messages, after the first day you’ll only have 250. After the second, 125. The third, 62, and so on. Within a couple of weeks, using this new system, you’ll be free and clear from email backlog.

Remember: New messages that come in today get priority over backlog. Your new empty inbox habit will be the key to keeping your inbox clutter-free from day to day. Once you’ve read a message, decide what to do with it on the spot. Don’t leave anything in your inbox, and you’ll thank yourself every time you read the words “You have no new messages.”

Gina Trapani’s new book, Upgrade Your Life, is a compilation of Lifehacker.com’s best tips for working smarter. You can download a free sample chapter of Upgrade Your Life at the book’s official web site.

18 Comments for “Simple strategies to clear email clutter — From Gina Trapani of Lifehacker”

  1. posted by Dream Mom DBA www.dreamorganizers.com on

    Good post. I’ll have to make the three folder rule something I aspire to though; I can’t imagine that just yet. I confess to not knowing how to do an e-mail search either, although I’ve never had to, since I can always find what I am looking for.

    I keep an empty in-box at home (I am self employed)though. While I do have folders, I keep anything that takes more than two minutes in a folder I call, “9 p.m.-To Read, To Do file.” I usually process those at the end of the day, when I have more free time.

    I keep two other folders though, that are very helpful. When retailers send me a promotion code that I may want to use, I place it in a file called, “On-line retailer promotions”. I also place any on-line order here-instead of printing the page with my order-I just click, send link by e-mail and store it there. The other one is for “Subscription Confirmations” which contain any software keys I may need.

    Good post though. I do love the simplicity of the three folders.

  2. posted by Alex Fayle on

    I couldn’t agree more! I keep my inbox empty every day. I have worked with that mindset since I started to use email back in the early 90s.

    I know many people who say to me “I can’t do that! I get too many emails a day!” Sometimes, the number of emails seems to make people thing that they are more important, or something…

    Recently I read something on Tim Ferriss’ blog (http://tinyurl.com/yoss2w) where he tells people to hire an assistant to answer emails if you get too many each day. He also suggests standard responses to certain types of emails. Just because your email has your name on it, that doesn’t mean you can’t delegate dealing with it to someone else.

    Cheers,
    Alex

  3. posted by Hick Ninja on

    I find that it saves me time and is easier to use if I actually never take anything out of my inbox. Basically, I treat the inbox as the archive folder. Both Outlook and Thunderbird have the concept of tags or flags, and of search folders.

    I just leave everything in my inbox. the read stuff is archive, the unread is to process. If it needs a followup, tag it “followup”. If it’s waiting for something, tag it “waiting”. When I need to review my followup or waiting items, I just look in the search folders. If I want to be fancy, I can tag them “done” after I have followed up, and then I can see in weekly review what I have accomplished over the last week.

    So I’ve been chuckling at all the “inbox zero” posts that have come across all the productivity blogs over the last couple years, because I basically have the exact same system, except my Inbox is always 4000 – 5000 messages. The system should be called “categorize your email” or something. But that’s just common sense.

  4. posted by Michele on

    I confess that until today I didn’t understand how gmail labels work.

    I’ve shaved my Inbox from 160+ messages to 35. What’s left in the Inbox is stuff I’ll need to act upon in the next few days — so it’s more of a to-do list that I need to keep in the open rather than squirreling away into cubbyholes. The most important messages are immediately in view, no scrolling and no clicking to older messages.

    Yay!

  5. posted by Tara on

    Alex, you’re so right about the belief that there’s a direct proportion of importance and number of emails received per day. I can’t count the number of times I hear, “I didn’t check my email for one day and there were 500 messages!”

    An overflowing inbox indicates a few possible clutter problems; too many subscriptions that you can’t keep up with, non-functioning spam protection, Poor filing system, etc. I worked for one person who had nearly 20,000 items in his inbox. He couldn’t find a thing!

  6. posted by Beth on

    I just spent an hour or so organizing my Outlook. I am pretty good with creating folders – one folder for each client I work on, one for personal emails, one for charity events I volunteer with, and one for order confirmations. It is just a matter of setting up rules to file everything after I receive or send emails.

    So now – I have ZERO messages in my INBOX, ZERO in my SENT items (either filed or discarded)and have reviewed my folders and discarded emails I have no need for. Next is tackling my archived files.

    I too have one client with close to 10,000 emails in her box. She can never find a THING! Of course, this is the same person that has piles upon piles of books, papers and God knows what else in her office. And she believes in (and paid money for a consultant) in Feng Sui!

    I say OY VEY!

  7. posted by Amir - Easy way to declutter your inbox on

    There is an easy way to organize your inbox!

    Disclaimer: I helped in the development of the product!

    The biggest problem with cleaning your inbox, is that we either don’t know how to do it (to many emails) or we don’t have the time to look for the right folder or remember where did I file this communication?. A product called MoveIT from bluelightit.com helps the process of filing emails. It’s easy, intuitive and users report savings of over an hour a day. works with Outlook only (outlook add-on). have a look at the website at http://www.bluelightit.com/MoveIT. not the greatest looking site but worth to try it.

  8. posted by Jon on

    I think that sorting and categorizing email is a complete waste of time. I use a similar system to Hick Ninja. With a combination of tags, follow-up reminders and read vs. unread you can accurately track and manage the infow of emails. Further, for the people that “can’t seem to find anything” for crying out loud, install a desktop search client: Windows Desktop Search, Google Desktop, X1, Copernic, etc., etc., etc.

    Three key things you need to understand and use in Outlook:

    1) Follow-up Flags
    2) Categories
    3) (Most Importantly) Search Folders

  9. posted by Tara on

    Can’t say that I agree about the waste of time part, Jon. I follow the OHIO rule with email. I only handle it once — read, file, done. It doesn’t take more than a second to drag it to a folder.

  10. posted by Laura on

    My opinion differs from Hick Ninja. I can’t imagine looking at 4000-5000 messages in my in-box and not being stressed out or distracted. I prefer to keep the in-box relatively empty and use the Task list for tracking what needs to be done. I keep a lot of email for reference, but prefer to keep it in a Reference folder.

  11. posted by Colin on

    As others have noted, the constant purging of your “inbox” is counterproductive and I would suggest leads to far greater stress as you constantly try to shoot down everything that comes your way.

    We’ve forgotten that the “inbox” on a computer is only a metaphor. You can’t “handle” pixels and bytes. For example, I have over 9000 read and unread emails in my web mail account and it cause me no stress because I can only see the top screen-50 messages or so at any one time. I only view the current window while I’m working. The rest is out of sight, out of mind.

    Computers have Random Access unlike your real world inbox, desktop or filing cabinet. With relatively unlimited storage online there is no need to spend time filing things-let your own personal simpleton file clerk, the computer do that!

    Like some of others above, I just tag actionable things as I go along and don’t even bother to open things that appear to be irrelevant at the moment. I can always search later by the sender or a key word in the project if I feel I’ve missed something.

    The commitment to a filing or “handling” process as well adds a significant margin of human error-something that would be a greater stress I would think, especially to the many in these forums who appear to be burdened by a perfectionistic mindset.

    The empty inbox seems to me a workaholic or control freak’s illusion of productivity: an obsessive ritualistic cleansing.

    The real standard for performance for me is summed up in the question: how many actionable projects have I moved forward or completed today? Not the state of my pretend “inbox”.

  12. posted by andi on

    yes, but what to do when Outlook/Entourage randomly starts duplicating your carefully sorted messages, and bringing deleted messages back from the dead?

    Calgon!

  13. posted by Marsha Egan on

    I too agree that the empty inbox is the stress free way to go!

    One thing that has been assumed, but perhaps not said, in some of these posts is that going into your inbox with the idea of SORTING rather than WORKING the email is the key.

    We can’t treat our incoming email like dishes in a sink, more like our postal/paper mail that we SORT when we take it outa the mail box.

    And yes, because of all the great sorting tools, we can definitely have fewer folders.

  14. posted by Matt Gillooly on

    I’m a recent convert, but so far it looks like this system really works. Thanks!

  15. posted by Angelique van Engelen on

    I am a convert, but not totally yet. Wonder if anybody would be able to help me with this issue; I have two computers, both of which have outlook. I haven’t synchronized these accounts because I am planning on shutting down one computer -it’s an old Win98 pc. During the past week I have worked on this old computer and I received important emails on this machine. I tried to retrieve these emails on my new computer but as I had already opened them on the old one there’s no way that they’re sent to me automatically.
    Is there an easy way in which to solve this (other than complicated synchronizing) or should I simply just forward my mail to myself? I had Incredimail installed once and seem to remember this program forwards backlogs automatically.
    regards,
    Clixy123

  16. posted by dean kakridas on

    It’s important to qualify which email client or webmail you are using before commenting because different rules apply wether it’s Outlook or Gmail.

    If it’s Outlook, like I use at work, the ‘zero inbox’ process is surely the best option.

    Not only is it the best option for organizational or stress-free purposes but it’s important for performance reasons.

    With 5000-10,000 emails in Outlook, everything slows down to a crawl: startup, search, shutdown- stability in general. When I emptied my inbox, Outlook started performing like an entirely different email app- one that was usable and more stable.

  17. posted by jenny on

    i’m laughing at myself, as i just copied the link to this post and emailed it to myself.

  18. posted by Shandos on

    I just wrote a shorter blog post related to this at my blog – I agree with keeping the inbox as empty as possible.

Comments are closed.