Sunday, October 12, 2014

How to Keep Your Email Inbox Clutter-free

We've been focusing solely on physical clutter to this point--all the STUFF that we bring into our homes. The stuff that we don't need and that takes up space and time.

There are other types of clutter that affects our lives, and I'm going to start focusing on some of those things as well in this series. Today, we're going to talk about email clutter.

Few things overwhelm me as much as seeing a bunch of things I have to deal with in my email. People I need to respond to, dates I need to calendar, tasks I need to finish, questions I need to answer. I feel that in many ways, email has made our lives more complicated instead of making them easier. Just when you think you've finally dealt with all the emails, you have 20 more in your inbox. Important things fall off of the first page because there is a constant stream of information being sent to you. Forget going on vacation and not checking your messages, because if you do that, you will never crawl out from underneath the landslide of digital communications when you get home!

It's enough to make me want to delete my email accounts and go back to communicating by telephone or snail mail!

But since that's never really going to happen, here are a few of my best tips for keeping your email inbox free of clutter. These things do not come naturally to me, but I learned them from the best. My husband's email inbox rarely has more than 5 messages in it because he's amazing at keeping on top of it. You know he's having a stressful week when he has more than 20 messages in it.

1. When you open an email, deal with it right away, if possible.

First of all, delete emails immediately that are spam or promotions. I delete many of them without even opening them, but I do get them OUT of the inbox.

Second, answer people as soon as you read the email, if you have the answer. I used to be embarrassed about answering immediately, especially if the email came while I was on the computer. I had some weird thing about not wanting people to think I was constantly online. However, I have learned that if I don't deal with it right when I open it, the likelihood of my dealing with it at all practically disappears. New messages pour in, and pretty soon the first one is forgotten until I am cleaning out my inbox a year later and find it. Oops!

So, yeah. If it's something you can do right away, do it. Sometimes I get messages back being amazed at how quickly I responded, but I refuse to be embarrassed about it.

2. If you can't deal with it immediately, mark it as an action item.

I use gmail, which allows you to assign colors to the categories you give to emails. My "to-do" category is red, so that I can't miss that I have some things that need to be dealt with. I know most email providers allow some way to star or flag emails as important. Another way you can remind yourself that it is there is to mark it as unread.

Another awesome thing I have gmail set up to do is to add tags automatically to certain emails that come in. For instance, when I get blog comments, I like to reply to them. However, I will never remember to do it if those comments don't come to my email, and if they aren't marked in a way to remind me. So, I have gmail automatically tag anything coming from Disqus (my blog commenting system) as "blog comments-need reply" (which I have colored bright orange, so I know it is an action item).

Setting up such a filtering system is really easy. Just open any email from the sender you want to filter and click on the down arrow next to the reply button. This will bring up several different options, one of which is "filter messages like this."

Then, this dialog box will pop up:

You can also specify exact subject lines to filter, as well. See gmail help for all of the options.

Look at all those options! You can have things immediately marked as read and archived if you want. This would be a good option for things like order confirmations and receipts from online shopping. I have a few different filters set up now, but if I think of new ways I can use this system to make my email more streamlined, I will set up a new filter immediately.

Other action item tags I use in gmail are "calendaring item" (blue) and "to buy" (green).

3. Use categories and folders liberally

As soon as an email comes in, I try to categorize it, even if I can't deal with it quickly. This way, once it is dealt with, I can quickly archive it and know that it is going to the right place.

I don't bother with a category if it isn't an action item and I know I won't be holding on to the email once I answer it or complete the action. Those emails are deleted as soon as they are answered/acted upon.

Here is what a snippet of my inbox looks like:

The only one I didn't categorize is a question from my friend needing help making a Halloween costume for her daughter. I answered it, and while I didn't immediately delete it, I will.  Everything else is categorized, and will be archived as soon as I don't need it to be in my inbox anymore.

The Maestro immediately puts things into folders, but I keep them in the inbox until things are totally finished. For instance, that email that is categorized under "family updates" is my parents' vacation itinerary so I could know where they were all of last week as they traveled throughout New England. I've finally archived it, because they are back home now. The one that is categorized "voice lessons" is referencing an October performance that hasn't happened yet. Even though I have dealt with the email, I might need it before the performance for some reason, so I keep it in my inbox until I definitely will not need it again.

4. Unsubscribe from mailing lists.

I spend some time each month unsubscribing from things I am getting that I do not read. There are also services you can use to go through and unsubscribe from everything for you. I haven't tried it, because I don't want to be unsubscribed from mailing lists that I actually do read and find valuable.

5. Have a junk email account.

My personal account actually doesn't have much "mailing list" type email unless I really want to read it. This is because I keep a junk email account that I use every time I have to input my email online for shopping or joining mailing lists I don't really want to join. I only check it after I have purchased something online, and then I forward the receipt to my personal email if it is something I need to keep.

Right now there are over 5,000 unread emails in that account (occasionally I go through and bulk delete, because I can't stand seeing that many!), but since I rarely look at it, it doesn't bother me too much.

If your email inbox is out of control, you can start to use these steps immediately. But you have to also commit to dealing with a specific number of old emails a day. A bulk delete isn't a bad idea, either, actually. If something hasn't been read yet or has been sitting in your inbox for months, you probably aren't going to get to it any time soon, and if it's really important, the person can contact you again.

Today's assignment:

Go through the first page of your inbox.
Delete anything you do not need and categorize or archive the rest.
Answer at least five emails waiting for replies.

Depending on how long your replies need to be, this exercise should really only take about ten minutes at the most. Commit to doing this daily until you have been through your entire inbox. I've been doing this for a couple of years now, and I rarely feel like hyperventilating when I open my email now! It will still occasionally get out of control, but if I go through the above assignment after a month or two of being out of control, it doesn't take long to get everything back in order.

What are your best tips for keeping an organized email inbox?

Find all of the posts in this 31 Day Challenge here: A Place for Everything: 31 Days to Less Clutter and More Peace.

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Lara Neves
Lara Neves

Lara is mom to three daughters—two teens and a tween. She loves to share her parenting and homemaking triumphs and failures here at Overstuffed! She was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2015 and has been fighting it ever since. When she isn't working on her mother of the year award, you can find her reading, singing, or taking photos.


  1. My email can get out of hand so quickly - I sometimes spend a day cleaning it out and addressing what I have put off. Thank you for the great tips.

  2. It's truly amazing how much of a time suck email can be, isn't it?