How to Declutter Your Email Inbox Now and Keep It That Way For the Rest of Your Life
I've been using email since at least 1994, and I've managed it on Rocketmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, Outlook, and various email apps over that time. I finally made the jump from free services to a paid service a few years ago, and I've been happily settled into Fastmail (referral link) ever since and love it.
Whichever email service you use, though, the following tips will help you clean out the whole last year of email and keep it in check going forward. Square away a couple of hours to really dig into this task, and you'll come out feeling like a warrior. No, really.
6 Steps to Clear Out an Entire Year of Emails From Your Inbox
One. Collect all your emails from the previous year into one folder to declutter your main inbox.
This annual folder is the one you will focus on clearing out. Cool Mom Tech has an easy Gmail how-to that will show you how to get it done.
Hot tip: You can select long lists of emails all at once with just two clicks. 1) Check the box to the left of the first email you want to include, and then 2) hold down the Shift key while you click the box next to last email you want to include. All the emails in between will be automatically selected!
Two. Set up no more than 5 other folders to collect common types of email together.
If you already have a folders system in place, simplify it down to no more than five.
The reason for limiting the number of folders is obvious: you don't need to create even more avenues for clutter. My email folders are these: Work, Play, Love, Newsletters, and Receipts. The simpler the system, the less confusion and stress it can cause down the road.
Three. Search for common names, addresses, and words to round up similar emails so you can deal with them en masse.
I searched for the word "release" and pulled up 57 news release emails I'd left unread, and I knew they were all deletable without even having to open them. They're basically spam.
Get creative and make a game of it. I decided to search for my parents' old phone number — they put it in their email signature — and I was able to move all of their old emails into archives without doing any reading. I searched for a client's email address and did the same. You can clear out hundreds or thousands pretty quickly using this method.
Four. Unsubscribe from newsletters that haven't won your deeper attention.
Search your email for the word "unsubscribe". It will dig up most of the newsletters you subscribe to plus the spammy ones you don't. Now unsubscribe from 90% of them.
Newsletters keep falling into your inbox like garbage into a garbage can, which means that you are treating your inbox like a garbage can. Also, this newsletter just depresses you about global politics, and that one just tries to sell you things you can't afford, and you didn't even sign up for the one that just tells you what some stranger does to repeatedly organize their closets.
Five. Delete, archive, or mark as read every email you're not going to do anything about, starting with the oldest unread email. Then do it with all the read emails.
The sender does not expect a response from you at this point, so screw your guilt. Stop thinking aspirationally about what's sitting in your inbox. You didn't deal with these emails six months ago, and you're not going to go through the shame of dealing with them this late in the game.
Be brutally honest with yourself. Delete what you won't need or won't act on, and move the rest into folders. Don't take more than 5 seconds to make a decision about an email. Any longer is too much of an emotional investment, and it's a sign that you need to let that one go.
Delete, delete, delete, and then delete some more. Feel the wildness of it. Note your moment of panic, but move on. Even good work comes with fear.
Six. Take every email that is 7 years old or older and delete it (or at least mark them as read and put them in an annual folder).
I do this every year, and it's liberating. Goodbye! I internally shout at all that detritus. Be gone! You won't miss all the old stuff, I swear to you. You think you will, but you won't.
5 Ways to Keep Your Inbox Uncluttered So It's Easier for the Rest of Your Life
One. Delete or archive emails once you've responded to them.
If you get them out of your inbox, you won't have them distracting you from the emails you do need to deal with. Anything you leave sitting in your inbox makes you feel like you've failed or forgotten something, and that's a stupid thing to saddle yourself with.
Two. Add tasks and events from reminder emails to your calendar and delete or archive those emails.
This one just makes sense, but it literally took me decades to figure this one out and make it a habit. Most calendars have a notes section, so you don't need the email to store the details of an appointment or task.
Three. If you have multiple email addresses, forward them all to one central location and only access them there.
Forward all your email addresses to one inbox, and set it up so you can reply to those emails from whichever address most makes sense. Set it up once and forget it. It sounds complicated and boring, but it's worth doing, because instead of checking emails from several accounts you can just log into one and never chase down or miss emails again.
I have seven email addresses — it's ridiculous, but that's how it is — but now it's like I have just one inbox, and this small corner of my life is that much simpler.
Four. Turn off email notifications from outside apps and social media.
If you want to engage with an app or social media, go there. You will check on Twitter, Facebook, and what have you if it's important to you. Email notifications for things that aren't happening in email aren't necessary, and you know you will ignore most of them anyway.
Five. Turn off desktop notifications for new emails.
Set up a couple of times a day when you open your inbox and reply to emails. When you're done, close it. You will waste far less time and stress on email when it becomes a demand you dedicate specific time to twice a day rather than 27 times a day.
This might seem counterintuitive if your goal is to deal with email in a timely manner, but being constantly poked by your inbox and then dealing with your email haphazardly throughout the day turns your inbox into the nag you learn to ignore, which just starts the email clutter drama all over again.
And there you have it: eleven ways to clean up your email inbox and keep it that way throughout the year. Good luck!
This piece is also published on Medium.