When you think about ‘how to declutter your inbox’, do you automatically think of your email inbox or a big basket of papers? Things have changed over the years and our most commonly used inbox has shifted to digital. Although electronic files mean less physical clutter, they still play a large role in our productivity and peace of mind. If you have thousands of emails to dig through, you may feel overwhelmed by that red little number attached to your email app icon. Even though you may joke about the number, and state you won’t ever declutter your inbox, the stress that accompanies that itty bitty little number is still within you (check out my article on The Negative Effects of Clutter). So, let’s chat about how organizing your email inbox can improve your efficiency and peace of mind while reducing stress.
First Stage of Email Organizing
A huge backlog of emails can create extra stress. As a first step to decluttering your email inbox, I recommend creating a temporary file folder labeled ‘Email Reorganization’ and moving all emails over to it — even if we’re talking thousands! Like anything large and looming, take it one step at a time and diligently chip away at your email backlog. Give yourself a deadline, or do whatever you need to do to ensure you complete the job, not just start it!
After you’ve moved your backlog to a new folder, start by setting up a folder structure for your emails that works for you. Try to keep it simple! We could create an entirely separate blog post just on folder structures, but here are a few suggestions. Feel free to make it your own.
Just like physical paper filing, it’s important to label a file according to how you would look for it when you need it again. So, as you go through the emails, name the folders by what makes sense for you. Keep things general at first such as ‘kids’ or ‘pets,’ rather than a folder for each child or pet.
With email, you have the added benefit of search features (but try not to use it a crutch that lets you build up high quantities of emails). Use the search area to find emails from a certain person or on a specific topic and then move them to a new file folder (or delete them) all at once. You can also search for a specific date range and then mass delete a large portion of old emails.
Simple Email Folder Structure:
Inbox, Follow-Up, Reference (possible subcategories: House, Kids, Expenses, Medical), Trash
Steps to Declutter Your Inbox Backlog
- Delete Immediately
You can delete a lot of old emails in your ‘Email Reorganization’ folder simply by looking at the subject line. I suggest doing a quick scan to select multiple emails at a time that you can quickly delete without opening. TIP: use your search feature to search for specific email addresses that you know you can delete. Newsletters, emails from old jobs, spam, etc. Then mass delete.
- Unsubscribe Immediately
Ask yourself — do I ever use this information? Does it truly help me? If not, click unsubscribe at the bottom of the email (or through your email service if it provides an unsubscribe link at the top). Sometimes the links are hard to find, so look carefully. Get in the habit of simply unsubscribing right away if you know you no longer need the information or have any desire to continue reading it. TIP: Think about how many times you auto-delete emails each day, week, month. Now imagine if you took those extra seconds to unsubscribe, how much time you’d save not having to delete future emails that you know you won’t ever read.
- File Immediately for Reference
Use the file structure you created and only keep emails you will truly need. This part is essential! Just because electronic files aren’t visible doesn’t mean they can’t become clutter. TIP: Ask yourself questions like, ‘Will I really come back and read this?’ or ‘Do I really need to save this as a record?’ or ‘Can I get this information elsewhere?’ as you sort through your backlog.
- Follow Up
If you can do it within 1 minute or have the time, follow up right now. If you don’t have the time, place it in the ‘pending’ or ‘follow-up’ file you created. TIP: Be honest with yourself — if you will never follow up on the email, delete it.
- Implement the Daily Tasks Below
It’s all about habits, right? If you begin implementing the new habits I outline below, you’ll never get the massive backlog again.
Second Stage of Email Organizing
While you chip away at your email backlog, you can begin implementing simple steps to keep up with incoming emails. You may recognize similar steps to the overhaul process.
Daily Steps to Declutter Your Inbox
Pick a time each morning to review the new emails that have arrived since you last checked your email. Then take action:
- Delete Immediately
You’d be amazed at how many emails you can delete with one click because they’re either spam, only need to be read once, or require no follow-up. If there is no reason to file the information away for future use, delete it.
- File Immediately
Only save emails that you truly need in the future. Delete all others.
- Reply Immediately
If an email requires a minute or less time, respond NOW and then file away or delete the email.
- Follow-up ASAP
Emails that require follow-up or further action that you cannot attend to immediately should be placed in a follow-up folder or left in your inbox. However, if your inbox quickly fills again, and either overwhelms you or you lose action emails, you will know that using your inbox as your pending folder will not work for you. This means you’ll need to create a separate follow-up folder.
Email Inbox Maintenance
Start by implementing the daily tasks right away so that moving forward you have a good practice in place. Then whenever you have the time to work on your backlog, use the overhaul method and continue to clean house! Just like when I organize tangible objects with people in person, the volume of your emails can feel overwhelming. If you stay focused and continue applying a daily system, you really can declutter your inbox and feel peace of mind and relief. You can do this!
Last tip: the goal is to keep up with your email regularly so you never have to go through the complete overhaul process again. However, for some people (like myself), an empty inbox is hard to achieve every day because life just gets busy. If this is you, switch your daily declutter to partial daily and the rest weekly. Designate a time each week that you clear your inbox or ‘to do’ folder. For me, I delete emails daily, unsubscribe if necessary, and respond to the immediate action items, but the ones that aren’t immediate or urgent sit in my inbox for the week. Every Sunday, I clear my inbox and take care of the remaining action items, reducing my inbox to just a few emails. Ahh, the bliss of a clear inbox.
Are you ready to start the challenge of taking that bold, red number over your email app and making it disappear? Comment below with how many unread emails you currently have in your inbox!
As always, reach out to me if you have any questions or need help with the backlog.