A Simple Guide to Reducing Inbox Overwhelm – Here’s Exactly What I Do

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Clients often ask me how to manage the 20,000+ emails in their inbox, a few thousand of which are unread, because they’re becoming afraid of missing something important, or they can’t find an important email that they know they didn’t delete. A couple of clients have even asked me how to get to Inbox Zero.

While I can’t tell you how exactly to manage your email without working with you individually, let me just lay out the very simple way that I manage my email.  And let me reiterate the word: “SIMPLE.”

I Unsubscribe Like Crazy

Firstly, I unsubscribe as many email lists as possible. If I signed up for something to get a discount code, I’ll quickly unsubscribe at the very next email that they send me. This can be tedious if you’ve subscribed to many lists over the years, but there are services that can help you to unsubscribe to the ones you choose much more quickly that one-by-one. Just search for them online. Apple Mail, Gmail, Outlook all add an “Unsubscribe” link at the top of the message when they notice a working unsubscribe link in the email.

  • One note: on rare occasions, the unsubscribe link at the bottom of an email may be a trick, to confirm that you’re a real person. If something looks weird or fishy in the email, just delete it rather than clicking unsubscribe.

I Delete Like Crazy

I immediately delete the junk emails and the emails I know I won’t read (and unsubscribe as needed). I’ve become very aware of my time, and if I receive something that will take me more than 2 minutes to read and absorb – say an article that may be interesting — I delete it. If I think that it’s important enough for me to want to read it later, I’ll schedule or time block it in my calendar (see below).

I Do the Work, or Respond to The Quick Ones, Right Away

When I check my email inbox, I immediately respond to the emails that can be handled with a simple answer. This should take less than 2 minutes or so per email.

  • If I need to keep the sender’s email for tracking or later reference, I move it into one of my subfolders. My folder structure currently looks like this:

In my email system, these are actually called “New Mailboxes”, but they exist as subfolders withing my main email inbox.

The way they work is that when I move an email into a subfolder, the email still resides on the email server. It just doesn’t appear in my main Zeenat’s Inbox anymore. This allows me to search for any email using the search feature no matter which subfolder it may be in, even while I’m in Zeenat’s Inbox.

Subfolders A, B, C and D are current large projects or reference folders. Once those projects are completed, I’ll archive those emails, delete them, or move them to my hard drive.

I Forward Emails that I Want to Delegate

After the immediate response emails, I look at which emails require me to delegate the task to someone else.

  • I then forward the email to that person.
  • If I think I’ll need to follow up with them, I’ll schedule an appointment in my calendar to call or email them at the date and time that I want to follow up.
  • Again, if I need to keep the sender’s email for tracking or later reference, I move it into an appropriate subfolder.

I Defer the Work by Scheduling or Time Blocking in My Calendar

Next, I look into the emails that require me to do something that takes time. This could be something like reviewing a contract, filling out medical forms for schools, researching hotels for my mom, or crafting a response email to a client.

  • These are now not just “emails”; they’re work that has to be completed. I schedule or time block the appropriate time in my calendar, at a specific date and time, to complete each of these, keeping in mind their deadlines or priorities.
  • Once I transfer any important info from within the email to my calendar, I choose to either move the email into a subfolder, or I delete it.

Bottom Line:

To Summarize, Here is a Simple Guide to Reducing Inbox Overwhelm:

1. Unsubscribe
Start to unsubscribe, no matter how many emails you have in your inbox, read or unread. You might feel a little anxiety at first, but let me assure you that Macy’s will have another One Day Sale soon! And if you practice Mindful Consumption (read 5 Key Principles For Successful Decluttering Without Regret – the C.L.E.A.R Framework. for how to do this), you won’t be at the mercy of tempting flash sales or special events anymore. Purchasing should be on your terms.

2. Delete
Delete all your unwanted emails.

The easiest way I’ve found to do this, especially if you have thousands of emails in your inbox, is to sort your emails alphabetically by sender.

Then, delete all the emails from that sender that are over a year old.

Finally, scan the emails remaining from that sender and be ruthless about deleting stuff that you can find on a website, notices of things that have expired and so on.

For this “first pass”, you’ll probably find that you’re still left with many emails from each sender, and that’s ok. You’ll need to make multiple passes to get your inbox to a manageable size.

3. Do
Do the work, or respond to the email.

If you can do what’s required in an email within 2 minutes, do it already. Use subfolders sparingly if you absolutely need to keep an email for reference and tracking. 

4. Delegate
If you need to delegate the work contained in an email to someone else, forward it to them immediately. If you need to check in with them about it later, schedule that into your calendar.

5. Defer
If it takes more than 2 minutes to deal with the email, then schedule time to do the work in your calendar.

6. Go slowly
Do a little every day rather than try to clean up with your inbox all in one day. It’s easy to get fatigued doing this very tedious task, and you risk making bad decisions when you get tired.

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Zeenat Siman

Zee Siman is a Professional Organizer and Productivity Consultant eager to help working moms and dads take transform their homes and schedules from chaotic to calm.

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