The Fastest Way To Clean Up Your Inbox

When email was first introduced, it was a timesaver, but it’s gotten a bit unruly since then. With communication so cheap and easy, people now send emails for every note, memo, question, comment, pitch, or thank you. Pair that with multiparty chains and an expectation for immediate reply, and it’s easy to see how email became a ubiquitous source of distraction, wasted time, and digital clutter. 

clean inbox

It’s time to take control. Here is the fastest way to clean your inbox (and keep it clean).

1. Plan Judiciously

Do not trick yourself into thinking you should respond to every message in your backlog. Such an approach is overwhelming.

Instead, before cleaning your inbox, consider which emails must be responded to next time you sit down to correspond. Plan to keep those emails—and only those emails—in your inbox. Everything else should be marked as something to either delete or file for documentation.

Yes, that sounds extreme, but it’s easier to follow your own rules if they lack loopholes for the lawyer-side of your brain to take advantage of.

2. Develop A Filing System

How you organize your folder system will depend on your job and how you like to approach it. If your approach is project-oriented, devise a system for each project. Customer-oriented? Create folders for each client or company. And there’s always the tried-and-true month-and-year method.

The trick is to develop a system that makes it easy to find old correspondence, but doesn’t require you to create too many folders. If you work on many small projects per week, a folder for everyone will quickly grow unwieldy. Better to go with a date system.

3. Move Emails En Masse

Once you have devised a system, move emails from your inbox into your folders. Remember: You don’t have to move emails individually. Use your email client’s sorting tools to do it en masse.

For example, you can search a Gmail inbox for any email older than a year old by entering the command “in: inbox older_than:1y” in the search bar. You can search for individual users or companies, too. Just enter something like “in:inbox Washington Post Jobs.”

Once your email client has separated out the emails, select them all and move them into the appropriate folder.

4. Delete Ruthlessly

Even with an excellent filing system, keeping unnecessary emails makes cleaning your inbox a slow, ineffective task. Instead, delete ruthlessly.

When wondering whether you should delete an email, ask yourself these three questions: Does it require a response? Does it contain information necessary for an ongoing project? Do you need to keep it for documentation? Is the answer no to all three? Then delete it.

5. Set Up Filters

Your email client’s label and filtering system will automatically organize and sort incoming messages. Using it can be immensely helpful in keeping your inbox clutter free, even if you can’t get to it for a while.

Unfortunately, different email platforms utilize different systems, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Microsoft Outlook, for example, has a system called Outlook Rules. With Rules, you program your email to relocate messages from specific senders, flag messages for follow-up, and move messages with particular keywords into folders.

Taking the time to learn to use your label and filtering system gives you power over your inbox.

6. Make Inbox Cleaning A Habit

Your inbox is now clean. To keep it clean, make inbox management a part of your routine.

Set aside a specific time each day to respond to emails and do a quick inbox sweep. Then do a complete cleaning of your inbox once a week. We recommend thoroughly cleaning your inbox during the doldrums of Friday afternoon. That way you can prep your inbox for the coming week.

Cleaning your inbox quickly and efficiently is key to making work less hectic. Learning this skill not only increases productivity by allowing you to more easily prioritize your communications, it also helps you take back control of your workday.

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