Your email inbox is not a filing cabinet

“I know the email is in here, just hold on.”

I was recently asked to forward an email I had received to someone else. I couldn’t remember the exact title of the message that I wanted, so I spent a few minutes searching and scrolling. Fortunately, I only had a couple dozen messages in my inbox. I’ve seen people scroll through thousands of messages in a desperate hunt for that one phone number, street address or appointment confirmation. It’s agonizing. Why do we do that to ourselves?

An interesting thing about email is that, for many, it’s both a delivery system and a storage facility. When we “check email,” we often open our email software, browse the many messages contained therein, and then quit the application without removing any of the messages.

Consider the paper mail that reaches your mailbox: you don’t open the box, sort through the envelopes and then close it back up again, leaving everything inside. Nor do you return from the grocery store and leave brimming bags on the kitchen counter. Yet, email is often ignored in this way, to our detriment.

I recommend using a simple four-step process to get your electronic mailbox as close to empty as you can, every day. The steps are:

  1. Decide what each message is.
  2. Decide what must be done.
  3. Do what must be done.
  4. Delete the message (or archive it in a separate folder, if that is what your employer directs).

It’s an adaptation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method for processing email, which is a highly formalized system of productivity improvement. You can read David’s book (and I recommend that you do), but you needn’t follow his instructions in full to reap huge benefits. Here’s a simplified adaptation that I use for managing email.

Defining Work Time

Before we begin exploring the how, let’s define the when. The good news about email access is also the bad news: it’s nearly ubiquitous. You can send and receive email at various points of the day. For those of us with connected smartphones, email is almost available during every waking moment of our day.

As such, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to check it whenever the opportunity arises. Instead, tame that tendency by defining email time. I like to check email at 8:00 AM, 12:00 noon and 5:00 PM. This has several benefits. First, it familiarizes others with my communication schedule. It also helps me stay focused when I do sit down to work through email. Finally, it alleviates the guilt of not checking during off hours. Define a time to sit down with your computer, smart phone, or tablet and work with your email. All set? Now, let’s begin.

What is it?

When a new email message arrives, you must ask yourself, “What is this?” It sounds silly but it’s crucial. There are three possible answers:

  1. It’s garbage
  2. It’s something I need to do
  3. It’s something I might refer to later

That’s it. Every message you ever receive will fall into these three categories. Now that you’ve identified what each message is, proceed to step two.

Decide what must be done

The first one is simple: garbage. As soon as you see it, delete it. Spam, advertising you aren’t interested in, messages from old mailing lists you’ve lost interest in, etc. It’s all trash, so trash it. Immediately.

The next category is the action category. These messages require someone — typically you — to do something. For instance, “Call Jane about the committee meeting,” “Forward the presentation to Frank,” or “Ask Faith about the campout next week.” Once you’ve identified what the required action is, make note of it in the appropriate place (on your to-do list or calendar) and then delete the message. Yes, delete it. (Unless, again, your company requires you to retain your email for legal reasons. In this case, move it to an archive folder.)

The final category is reference material. These messages do not require action, but they do hold information that could be useful someday. Identify what that information is, store it in the appropriate place and then delete the email. Yes, delete it. On to step three.

Do what must be done (the appropriate place)

This step is a biggie. Just as you don’t pull a hot turkey out of the oven without first knowing where you’re going to set it down, you should’t delete that email message until you’ve identified a trusted place to put its important information. This is what David Allen calls a “trusted system.” Essentially, it’s an obvious, reliable stake in the ground that holds your information.

It can be anything you want. You might choose a paper notebook — I carry one around for jotting a daily task list. There’s lots of software available, from simple to involved, which you can use for this purpose. My choice is Evernote, because it’s simple to use, powerful, cross-platform (Mac, Windows, web browsers and an increasing number of mobile devices are supported) and above all, reliable. Evernote works by creating virtual Notebooks, each of which can contain several notes. Notes and notebooks can be sorted, categorized and organized to your heart’s content, and online sync keeps them up-to-date across all you devices. So, if you create a note on your computer, it will show up on your phone or iPad without you having to do a thing.

Evernote is fantastic for storing reference material, or what I call “cold storage.” Receipts from online purchases, how-to’s, restaurant menus, theatre schedules, the kids’ sporting information, contracts and more. Once you have the pertinent information in a reliable system you trust, you can delete the email message.

As for action items, how you handle these is up to you. Evernote will create an action list, if you decide to use it. You can also create a list in a notebook or task-oriented software like Remember The Milk, Teux Deux or even Omnifocus if you want to go hard-core.

The important thing is trust. You must have faith in the system you choose, whatever it is. That way your brain will stop pestering you and, more importantly, you’ll be able to delete those messages. So, to recap. When an email message arrives, follow these steps:

  1. Decide what it is.
  2. Decide what must be done (trash, define a task or place in cold storage).
  3. Do what must be done.
  4. Delete the message.

49 Comments for “Your email inbox is not a filing cabinet”

  1. posted by NettyM on

    My boss and I have an ongoing argument about deleting emails. He thinks he’s being so efficient by deleting emails. Then, he can never find things he needs and I have to send things back to him. This happens several times each week.

    I usually only spend a few seconds finding the emails, thanks to fabulous Gmail tools called ‘search’ and ‘labels.’ Now I’ll admit that I need to improve on clearing my inbox, but I probably won’t do that by deleting – I’ll archive things, often with labels, so I can refer back as needed.

    So maybe the inbox itself shouldn’t be a filing cabinet where everything gets tossed without being sorted, but you don’t have to delete everything to unclutter it. That’s the beauty of electronic communications.

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @NettyM — I think Dave’s point (and the point David Allen makes in GTD) is that archiving is the same as deleting. The idea is to keep your inbox clean, which you can do through deleting or archiving.

  3. posted by Jenny on

    I would add a step to your ‘garbage’ emails before deleting them. See if there is anything you can do to prevent getting them again. If they are just spam, there is probably nothing you can do, although if you get the same ones repeatedly, you could set up a filter to trash them for you. Old mailing lists can be unsubscribed from. Advertising that you are not interested in will usually have a link to take you off their mailing list as well.

    It will take a few more minutes to deal with this now, but it will stop you from having to deal with it many times in the future.

  4. posted by David Caolo on

    NettyM: Great point. The most important bit is: 1.) Being able to find important information when you need it and 2.) Moving necessary actions into a system that you trust. I know several people who perform veritable magic with tags, color coding, folders and so on. It’s impressive, but too much work for me. Trust is the main issue. As long as you trust the system you’re using, you’ll benefit.

    Jenny — another good point! Definitely find that “unsubscribe” link, mark the message as junk or spam, etc. It’s effective and so satisfying!

  5. posted by Barb on

    Don’t forget that in Outlook, you can change the order of email in your Inbox or (or in Sent or other email folders) by clicking on the “Arrange By” button and choosing “From” rather than “Date.” All emails from the same person will be grouped together. This is helpful for a session of deleting emails, too.

    I have multiple folders labeled by category for those emails I want to archive. Finding things in the right folder makes life much easier.

  6. posted by Tim Stringer on

    A strategy that I find works well is to automatically filter out e-mails that likely don’t require immediate attention. This can be accomplished using the mail rules/filter functionality that exists with most e-mail programs and online services. To simplify this process, consider using a different e-mail address when signing up for online services and have everything sent to this e-mail address redirected to an mailbox called “Filtered”.

    In my case I use Google Apps/Gmail – I have a [email protected] that I use as my primary e-mail address and an [email protected] that I use when signing up for online services. The end result is that the amount of e-mails that arrive in my inbox are drastically reduced and include those messages that are most likely to require immediate action. An e-mail from a client arrives in my inbox, whereas an update on my Air Miles points is automatically moved to my “Filtered” folder.

    Speaking as someone who specializes in OmniFocus, I disagree that it’s a “hard core” solution. It does take a bit longer to learn than simpler task managers, but it is well within the grasp of anyone who is willing to make the investment. For me, OmniFocus is an essential part of my e-mail workflow as I can easily create tasks that reference specific e-mails. Once the task has been created, the e-mail can be filed/archived.

  7. posted by NettyM on

    Don’t forget the magic of filters! Again, I reference Gmail, but I set up filters so that all emails on a particular subject or from particular senders get a label. You can even have them bypass your inbox, and Gmail will sometimes offer to unsubscribe you from things if you’re trashing them (I forget when that happens). I have a label ‘lists’ for all the things I’m subscribed to but don’t read every time. Every week or so, I’ll click on the label, glance at them to see if I want to read anything, and then delete the ones I don’t want.

    @Erin – I work and live with some very literal people, and if they are following instructions that say delete, they’ll delete and never consider archiving, even if they might need it later, because that’s not what they’re thinking about when they are following the instructions. 🙂

  8. posted by Amanda on

    Archiving is not the same as deleting! And these days you can keep so many messages with no storage issues, that I don’t see much reason to delete messages with any value. I have had an essentially empty inbox for years, but constantly use the search feature in Mail or Gmail to find pieces of information or just remind myself of exactly what was said in an email. If somebody is scrolling frantically through their inbox, they have two problems: too many emails in the inbox, and a lack of understanding of how to search emails.

  9. posted by kerry on

    Great tips – I tend to treat my inbox as my ‘pending’ intray and everything either needs deleting/actioning/archiving for info. Admittedly I have 6 different archives each with sub folders but managing a team of 12 and the various tasks I have it’s a necessity. I file in a way that suits me which means I don’t have difficulty finding emails when I need to.

    One thing I would suggest which I’ve personally found helpful is, if using MS Outlook, to turn off the automatic notification of email being received. I can lose focus on the task in hand if I constantly see email pinging in the bottom corner of the screen; turning it off allows me to check my inbox at the pre-determined times 🙂

  10. posted by Laura on

    I rely heavily on searching in Gmail. Knowing I can always find an email means I don’t need to keep it in my inbox. I’m surprised people don’t use the search function more.

    IMO applications like are the biggest help though. When your unimportant email goes into a separate folder, it doesn’t clutter up your inbox in the first place. I don’t think I could stand it if newsletters and such were cluttering up my inbox since there are so many of them nowadays.

  11. posted by LisaD on

    For me there is a fourth category – to read. I have a few newsletters that I do read, but don’t always have time to read them when they arrive.

    Of course, I also have a few that I don’t read, but that category was covered!

  12. posted by Anne on

    I use Gmail for my main email and rarely use labels or archive or delete anything. And using “search” I rarely spend more than a few seconds finding any message, even if it’s from 5 years ago (and let”s face it, finding that email from 2008 with the name of that eczema cream you used during your last outbreak isn’t going to be any easier if you’ve archived or deleted it). I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer about this, but my inbox doubles as my filing cabinet, and I never have any problems. I can see my new messages easily because they’re highlighted in bold.

  13. posted by Robert on

    I have to disagree with your general assement about deleting anything. I use email for both work and personal, and harddrive space is cheap. It has greatly benefited me on numerous occasions, both personally (for historical reasons) and in business to be able to access emails from many years ago. Emails that by my standard at the time I may have dismissed as “no longer needed”.

    Alternative suggestion:
    Just make a routine to archive all emails that are older than 3 months (or whatever time frame works for you) and you are done.

    This method is tremendously easier to manage, less time consuming than analyzing every email and therefore more likely to be done for the forseeable future.

    General Note:
    Learn your tools. Searching, filters, folders, tags, auto-repsonders, vacation messages, etc.. are all very valuable tools for people that use email frequently. And if you don’t, then it doesn’t matter how much mail is in your inbox anyways, and it’s not worth the effort to learn.

    (love your site here, first time posting )

  14. posted by Tim Stringer on

    To add to Amanda’s comment, I agree that archiving and deleting are completely different. E-mail software and search capabilities have evolved significantly over the years and it’s very fast and convenient to locate specific message stored within an e-mail archive. Storage is cheap and plentiful and I generally archive any messages that may have a relevance in the future and delete the ones that I would never need to refer back to.

    I used to store messages is an elaborate hierarchy of folders, but found that I almost always used search to find the messages rather than going to the folder — simply because searching is faster and more convenient. I now only have only a few folders, and, in their place, sometimes make use of “Smart Mailboxes”, a feature of the Mac OS Mail software that allows me to create a mailbox that self-populates based on specific criteria (e.g. some text in the subject line or specific recipients).

  15. posted by David Caolo on

    Laura, I hadn’t heard of before. Looks interesting, thanks.

  16. posted by cathleen on

    I never delete email and it has saved me numerous times, both professionally and personally.

    I don’t get the need to “delete” that some people have, very strange to me.
    Also, I don’t want to spend (waste) the time that “filing’ and archiving takes when my powerful search engine can find what I want in milliseconds.

    Do whatever works for you 🙂

  17. posted by cathleen on

    Forgot to add:

    I work at the company named for a fruit and get approximately 100-150 emails per day. (No spam at work and most of these require an action or plan on my part if only to read it and cogitate.)

    I work with some people who spend an hour a day or more just filing their emails into a system and not actually working on the content.

    But most people eventually find a system that works for them and I’ve never seen two people do it alike 🙂

  18. posted by David Caolo on

    Robert, great suggestion. I guess it’s a matter of preference. I certainly save the crucial information from each message, but outside my email client. It’s the same as archiving, I suppose, I just do it externally.

    I also agree the the “path of least resistance” is the one most likely to be chosen. For me, hitting a hotkey to bring up a blank note in Evernote and pasting the crucial bits is doable.

    Perhaps I should explore email archiving options in another post. Thanks for the great idea!

  19. posted by David Caolo on

    Anne, if that works for you, awesome! I just get anxious when I see an inbox bursting at the seams. Perhaps it’s because I was raised by paper stackers!

    It sounds like you trust your system and use it effectively. That’s the most important bit. Thanks for commenting.

  20. posted by Anne on

    “I don’t get the need to “delete” that some people have, very strange to me.
    Also, I don’t want to spend (waste) the time that “filing’ and archiving takes when my powerful search engine can find what I want in milliseconds.”

    Cathleen, thank you! I think those two sentences are all that needs to be said on the topic. It’s the same with files on my hard drive (in my laptop named for a fruit!). If the file doesn’t contain searchable text, I just give it a very descriptive file name so I can always find it within seconds. I do put the files into various folders, but don’t spend a lot of time sorting things or agonizing over categorizng them.

  21. posted by Anne on

    @David – thanks. Your system isn’t for me but I’m looking forward to your future posts.

  22. posted by Ankur on

    Excellent post David, my inbox is slowly growing and every couple of months I go through and delete half the items. I’ll try your method and using evernote to keep notes of everything.

    I wanted to recommend to those who like to use “task-oriented software” to check out wunderlist from wunderkinder. It’s free and very easy to use and is multi-platform (it even works very well on my blackberry!)

  23. posted by infmom on

    Try as I might, I can’t comprehend email hoarding. To me it’s no different from stacking up every single piece of paper mail you ever get because you “might need it someday.” Invariably when a hoarder is questioned, he or she trots out one example where if he/she hadn’t hoarded he/she would have lost some critical piece of information.

    Well, whoop te freakin’ doo. Saving 10,000 messages because you “might need them someday” or “can search through them with Gmail” doesn’t make it any less hoarding.

    I use MailWasher Pro to pick up my email from all my accounts (private, public, and business). I then mark the ones I don’t need to read for immediate deletion. MailWasher then starts up Eudora, my email client, and I download the rest. I have a system of filters set up to mark the important emails (from my editor, from my business, from my family, etc) and color code them so I know which ones require my immediate attention.

    All my online inboxes are empty, Eudora has only the stuff I really need to deal with, and it takes me very little time to attend to the mail. Things I might need to refer to later get saved in their own archives.

    It’s a simple system to set up and it works. But getting over the “I have to read everything online” and the “I might need this someday” habits (which I never had) has proved to be way too difficult for several people I know.

  24. posted by Babs on

    Another tool in Outlook that I use all the time is the followup flag in the toolbar at the top of the email. It can automatically move your email to your task list if it is an action item and you can set the day & time you want to work on it.
    Thanks for all the great tips in the post & comments.

  25. posted by Roxanne on

    Like many others here, I rarely delete e-mails, and I don’t see a need to do so with today’s technology. I file or archive messages, rather than delete, and I’ve got a great system for both work e-mail (Outlook) and personal e-mail (Gmail). I use folders, labels, filters, and flags. Gmail’s search function is so great that I can find anything I need in just a minute, so sometimes those labels aren’t even necessary. (Outlook’s search sucks, but my folder system is reliable enough.) I always try to keep my inbox as clear as possible, though, only allowing items that need immediate attention to stay there, and filing them away as soon as they’re “complete.”

    I also agree with a few others who pointed out that deleting is quite different from archiving. Deleting gets rid of a message permanently. The only messages I delete are spam.

  26. posted by WilliamB on

    This demonstratably doesn’t work for me, especially for personal email. If I move a personal email from the Inbox to a different “working” folder, it’s out of sight out of mind. It’s not quite so bad at work – the bigger computer screens really helps me there – but I have to _think_ to look in those other folders.

    To put it differently, I’m an “in sight” processor. What I need to use, should be out so I can see it. When I’m done it can be filed or trashed. For paper files I can at least see the folders that matter; for electronic, they just disappear into the aether.

    Erin would *hate* my desk at work.

  27. posted by Kathy on

    I recently adopted a simple system for my personal email. At the beginning of the month, I go through my mail from two months earlier (so in early June, I check for any mail left over from April). If I haven’t read it or dealt with it by now, I probably won’t. So I either do whatever needs to be done (respond, note information, whatever), or delete it.

    I still have folders for emails I want to keep for reference, but I’ve really reduced the amount I keep. I like my inbox to be uncluttered; my goal is to only have active emails there, and to be able to see them all at once. Since I review them once a month, it isn’t an overwhelming task.

    For work, I keep more emails in case I need to refer to them again; there I rely more on folders and still try to keep only active messages in my in box.

  28. posted by JM on

    For those who don’t delete, particularly for work emails, it does cost your employer money. The employer pays for storage, which in a large organization can be very costly. My employer has email box limitations, and when someone approaches them, daily email notifications will be sent. And heaven forbid your emails need to swept up in litigation! The cost of collecting, reviewing and then producing them can be huge and depends on volume. You may even be required to hand over emails from your personal account. You may think this is unlikely — either litigation or having to give access to your personal account — but it happens ALL the time. No one is immune.

  29. posted by Teri on

    David it so nice to see you are open to entertaining the notion that your way isn’t the only logical and sane way. I would agree with other a few other posters that there is a need to delete unnecessary emails at work even if you never delete your personal emails. Storage is limited for some companies. I actually worked with a teacher who had over 20,000 emails in her work account. She didn’t know she had to empty the deleted items folder.

  30. posted by David Caolo on

    Teri, thanks for the kind words. I understand that personal productivity is just that — personal. it’s been very educational to hear how others get things done. I’m looking forward to exploring those options, too.

  31. posted by David Caolo on

    Kathy, that sounds great! I like it.

  32. posted by Sue on

    This hit one of my problem areas on the head. It’s so easy to ignore my inbox.

    First, I’m a public employee so everything is technically a public record. However, even if I delete my own mail, a record of it is kept somewhere on our system. So that’s no excuse.

    Second, my e-mails are automatically archived after 30 days. My archives are accessible and searchable. So at least my actual inbox can’t get too full.

    Third, it’s easy to ignore inbox maintenance. I have so many other tasks demanding my attention, all of which seem so much more important.

    Finally, I’m ok with leaving my e-mails in my inbox indefinitely. I always read and respond within 24 hours, so I don’t have undone items in my inbox. I try to remember to delete the stuff that’s not really important for the public record, like e-mails asking for my schedule and notifying us of building maintenance. I also know that the inbox is sortable and searchable, so I’m never scrolling through hundreds of e-mails to find what I want. I can easily pull up an old e-mail, usually in a few seconds, simply by sorting by sender.

    However, I probably should sort my e-mails into folders by project. And I should be better about deleting the unimportant e-mails. But I’ve been here 11 years, so the idea of going through my archives and sorting everything by project is just too daunting for me to consider at this point.

  33. posted by WilliamB on

    @Sue – I hear your pain about archives. But you could start now with your new stuff. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be an improvement.

  34. posted by Lauren H on

    David, I completely agree “Your email inbox is not a filing cabinet”…or a to-do list, calendar, address book or many of the things people often try to use it as. Now here is where a good old-fashioned unitasker would come in handy: email inbox=collection point. Just like a physical mailbox, it should serve one purpose.

    I’m going to agree to disagree on the strong “delete” recommendation though…I tell clients that if they’re spending too much time deciding whether or not to keep it, just keep it. I do recommend having a single processed or archive folder, using a great search tool ( for PC) and setting up auto-archive/delete if appropriate. All this sorting into folders is over-rated…if you stop using your email as a filing cabinet, that is.

    Thanks for the great post!

  35. posted by Azlie Alias on

    Great article. Recently I felt the need to housekeep and I found myself deleting 3000+ emails and saved loads of space in the inbox.

    Didn’t archive though. Still have that conventional “I ll have to relook into that later” attitude. Hehe

  36. posted by Liz on

    I save every email I have ever gotten from my work account. Why? Sheer paranoia. My bosses have said things about me in my review process that are simply not true. I have been able to go back and defend myself because of my saved emails.

    I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but it is.

    I use xobni to help search and I file emails away by month and archive them.

  37. posted by Liz on

    One follow-up: My inbox itself only has to do items in it. It’s currently at 10.

  38. posted by Marcia on

    I’m not sure if anyone mentioned Credenza. It’s a tool the works with Microsoft Outlook to create folders and organize them. I know you can DIY this, but it is sometimes helpful to have a more structured method. I save my emails by client. It also allows you to link other files on your computer to the subject, as well as calendar appts, etc. The free version works for me.

  39. posted by Roxanne on

    @Lauren H: But that’s the great thing about e-mail! You can use it for so many different purposes. Why does it have to be compared to real mail? It’s far different. My inbox is most definitely a to-do list. I used to use Remember the Milk, but transferring the to-do items from an e-mail to a separate program just wasted time. It’s easy enough for me to flag an item with a due date or level of urgency.

  40. posted by Carla on

    A couple things that have helped me in my daily attempt not to be swallowed alive by e-mail at work:

    The “Clean-up” option in Outlook is fantastic! It moves all e-mails that are fully contained within a later version of a conversation into another folder. By default that is Trash, but I set mine up to go to a separate folder until I felt comfortable that nothing was being deleted that I actually cared about. There are several settings that allow you to customize exactly what it cleans up. I used to do this manually…since I started using it a couple months ago, I’ve gotten rid of almost 6000 e-mails.

    For Roxanne who mentioned problems with Outlook’s search, make sure that the SearchIndexer service is on and that Outlook is in the list of indexed locations if you are using Windows. (Check in Indexing Options inside the Control Panel). I felt that the SearchIndexer was slowing down my machine, so I reduced the locations to basically just Outlook. Now my Outlook search is really fast, and the indexing isn’t slowing down my machine to a crawl.

    A caveat: The pesky thing about Clean-up is that when you “know” you received an e-mail from someone about a particular subject, the copy of the e-mail from them may no longer be in your inbox. When I would sort by “From”, the e-mail I wanted would be with the person who responded Thanks! instead of the person giving the information I wanted. This makes search really critical (see above). Also, I try to delete the Thanks! e-mails as they come in so I am only keeping the relevant part of the chain.

  41. posted by Ryan on

    While I generally agree that people should have a logical method for processing email, like others here I disagree with the ‘delete’ recommendation. In fact, I flat out think it is wrong and I’m getting a bit sick of reading articles that tell people to delete old email messages. One reason is what NettyM mentioned – I constantly have coworkers asking me to resend documents because they’ve done the ‘correct’ thing in deleting their old email messages. They’ll say things like ‘I didn’t think I would need that anymore.’ Your recommendation is now costing me my time. The correct thing for them to do is archive their email in a separate folder.

    Heck, I don’t even think the inbox is necessarily a bad archive as long as you’re processing your email properly the first time through. It only becomes a problem when items you need to respond to get buried and then don’t get addressed. That’s what happens to me so I use a separate ‘archive’ folder but other people are more disciplined in their processing.

    The second reason telling people to delete their old messages is a bad idea is because often a person doesn’t know why they’ll need an email in the future. You might find weeks or months down the road that you need that email for a purpose you didn’t envision in the first place: verifying who had responded to an email, jogging your memory about what was said in a discussion, finding a document that didn’t apply to your job at the time but suddenly does, etc.

    So please, stop telling people to delete everything. There is no paper involved here and thus no (substantial) physical space or clutter. To me having a collection of all of my email is not clutter at all because it is neatly contained in a folder in Mail and is infinitely organizable through the search field and sort commands.

  42. posted by Elizabeth on

    It may be worth mentioning (and apologies if anybody has done so already) but in Outlook and other programs you can set a timeframe on the Deleted Items folder.

    I use it and set it to a year. So if I put something into Deleted Items it can be retrieved (or searched for) within a year. After that it is automatically deleted permanently by which time I will have forgotten about it because it won’t have been used and therefore won’t be necessary. That satisfies my fear of losing something essential. Others who are less paranoid might be able to try six months.

    I can also do a ‘hard delete’ (ie shift + delete) to immediately permanently remove an item that I know for certain I am never going to need again.

  43. posted by Alex on

    What is more efficient after the initial receiving of email than being able to search all of those emails from your computer or mobile device? If I delete all of these messages and need to reference the information later, I’m screwed. If I take the time to figure out how to catalog the information contained within an email and where to store this before deletion, I’m wasting valuable time. If I delete everything without questioning it, I’m a fool.

    I saw the title of this article and was excited to read as a few of my colleagues always tell me how silly it is to hang onto email. Yet I seem to be the one retaining all of the important information like phone numbers and addresses left in email signatures that they no longer have. This article helped me realize that my method of storing everything is fine as long as there’s a system to what gets saved and what doesn’t.

  44. posted by Lisa on

    I keep emails in my inbox until I have taken care of them and then move them into the archives in very detailed folders for reference. Otherwise I would never remember to take care of them. After six months I delete them.

  45. posted by ninakk on

    i don’t see a reason to keep old newsletters, movie ticket confirmations, the occasional “funny” email i don’t read or a “let’s meet at b instead of a this evening” from a friend, but work is another thing.

  46. posted by Jay on

    David, thanks for the original post. I appreciate your ideas. Even if I do not agree with all of them, they are worth thinking about.

    In a later post, you said that you save the crucial information from each message, but outside your email client.

    For me, saving the email itself (in archives or wherever) is more important than just saving the information. Co-workers have had situations where a boss contradicted an email she had sent. Having the email itself protected the co-workers.

  47. posted by Carissa on

    The importance is not necessarily on deleting e-mail, (although it is very refreshing to delete unnecessary e-mails!) it’s more on cleaning up your inbox. Converting e-mails to tasks, calendar appointments and notes will take care of a lot of that clutter. Archiving is also a great way to clean up. Make sure your archive files are stored on your hard drive though, and not on the server, where they will still take up room!

  48. posted by David Caolo on

    Jay, thanks for commenting. I definitely see how that scenario would require the original email to be intact! As I mentioned, those required to keep email for work ought to avoid deletion.

  49. posted by chuck on

    So you’ve replaced “I know the email is in here, just hold on.” with “I know I deleted the email, so don’t hold on.”

    There is a trend in people who micromanage their emails, there’s only one button in email that you should use and that’s the ‘read as unread’, and get on with your days, when you spend more time figuring out what to do with an email, deleting it, archiving it etc. then you’re doing it wrong.

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