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The Easiest Way to Declutter Your Inbox

Read time: 5 minutes

Editors Note: This post was updated in November 2020 for better accuracy and comprehensiveness.

I have a confession to make:

I haven't deleted any email for at least 13 years.

My first Gmail account was back in the early days when you had to get an invite to sign up for the service. Since then, I've had four or five different Gmail addresses.

They're just so easy to set up.

And after decades of having hundreds (closer to thousands) of unread messages cluttering up my various inboxes, #inboxzero always sounded like some kind of myth. What could be so great about having an empty inbox? I mean, those messages are just junk, and they don't require any of my attention, right?

Here's how I used to deal with my email when the unread count got really high:

  1. Go to my inbox
  2. Click the button to check all messages
  3. Click "Select all 19,715 conversations in inbox"
  4. Click Archive.

Voila. #inboxzero.


Then it all just started piling up again.

I didn't have a system.

When I started Unity, we had also just moved into a new house. Before the move, we went through the immense task of decluttering our house. Every time I picked up an item, my mantra was "keep, toss, or donate?"

When unpacking, I had the same mantra: "keep, toss, or donate?" We ended up donating a whole car-load of items before and after the move. And it felt so good to not have all that stuff cluttering up the closets that we never, ever used.

That's when I began to understand how #inboxzero must actually be a legitimate tool for your mental health.

With my Unity email address, I was hyper-conscious about preventing a lot of emails. At first, I only signed up for newsletters from businesses and individuals that provided me with valuable information. But over the last 11 months, that list of newsletters grew, the number of services I signed up for exploded, and that inbox sure did fill up.

I felt myself falling back into the old habits of ignoring junk. But that led to messages that weren't "do it now" items getting lost in the clutter.

My watershed moment was when I came down with strep throat. That virus really knocked me out, and that's when the tide of messages came in. So when I came back to work the next week, the idea came to me:

Why don't I try the "keep, toss, or donate" sorting technique with my inbox?

And voila, after only 10 days using that method, I accomplished a true #inboxzero. One that didn't result from a massive archival of junk. And one that I feel confident in maintaining.

So how'd I do it?

1. The first time you see a new email, ask yourself "now, later, or never?"

Emails that need nothing more than a simple response are Nows. Time-sensitive emails are Nows. Messages you have time to deal with now are Nows.

Messages that require more complicated responses can be Laters. Newsletters with helpful information that you'd actually like to read are Laters. There might also be emails you want to be a Never, but if there is an action you need to take at all, they need to be Laters.

You know Nevers right away. It's the junk that used to pile up. It's the newsletters you don't know why you get. But Nevers can be helpful things too. Simple alerts and notifications that need nothing more than five seconds of your attention.

2. Sort the Nevers first

Do yourself a favor and spend thirty seconds dealing with these now to save yourself massive headaches down the road.

If the Never is something you never want to receive again, look for an unsubscribe link. Unsubscribe and then archive (or delete) the email. If there isn't an unsubscribe link, flag it as spam and move on. Typically, these are emails that are:

  • Unsolicited newsletters from businesses you don't recognize
  • Notifications from services you no longer use
  • From pesky salespeople with no imagination

If it's an alert or notification that just needs your attention, find out if there is another way to receive that information. Maybe you see the same information when you sign into a website, app, or service. Opt-out of the email alerts. No need to see it twice.

3. Take care of the Nows next

Actually reply now. Don't compose a response in your head and tell yourself you'll actually write it out later (or is it just me who does this?).

Do it now.

Hit that ball right back into their court. Waiting won't accomplish anything.

Consider creating a set of canned responses that can be used to respond to messages that don't require much thought. Many email clients allow you to set up custom canned responses as helpful ways for you to send simple messages that actually sound like you in a fraction of the time. Read HubSpot's guide on setting up canned responses in Gmail.

And when the ball is no longer in your court, archive the email. You don't need the visual reminder of that task anymore. And if you need to find that message later, you can always search for it in the archive.

When you're done with this step, the only things left in your inbox will be your Laters.

4. Deal with the Laters later

Just don't ignore these forever — then they'd be Nevers cluttering up your inbox, and you're not doing this to end up in the same place you started.

Schedule a time to come back to these today. And remember there was a reason they weren't Nows.

Maybe they require a bigger mental lift.

Maybe they require more time to sit down and write out a response.

Maybe they require time to figure out a problem.

So make sure you plan for a time when you can actually take care of the action items that are your Laters.

During your scheduled Later sweep, ignore any new messages you may have received in the meantime. Start at the bottom of your inbox and work your way up. This lets you take care of the older action items first. Follow through on the task to completion. When you're done, archive the email and give yourself a high five.

Move on to the next one.

Take care of it.

Archive it.

5. Repeat steps 1-3

Don't leave your inbox until you've completed these steps.

6. When you're done, eat some chocolate and bask in the glory that is #inboxzero.

Now doesn't that feel good?

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