How I Cleaned 1328 Emails Out Of My Inbox In An Hour

How I Cleaned 1328 Emails Out Of My Inbox In An Hour

I’m generally pretty organised with my email, and I like to have nothing in my inbox except stuff I haven’t acted on yet. However, a spurt of recent travel and work commitments meant I’d fallen into a familiar but dangerous pattern: grabbing information from emails I needed (and replying when necessary), but not filing or deleting them, and not checking out stuff that didn’t look urgent. The end result: I suddenly had 1328 emails in my inbox, and 401 of them hadn’t even been read. Sounds like a nightmare, but in reality it only took me an hour to get my inbox back under control.

I’m well aware that there’s a Gmail-inspired school of thought that says you don’t need to worry about managing or deleting email (beyond perhaps labelling it): there’s plenty of room to keep everything, and search will find what you want. Each to their own, but I’ve never worked that way, and my email habits date from when space was relatively precious. Keeping a clean inbox means I know that everything’s been dealt with. And there’s a great sense of achievement when you do get an unruly batch of email under control.

While I was confident that I could sort through my personal mess pretty quickly with some single-minded success, I must admit I was surprised it only took an hour. What were the elements of my strategy that made that possible?

Work in disconnected mode

To ensure that I didn’t get distracted, I assigned time during a lengthy train journey to the task and disconnected my 3G broadband. That made sure I couldn’t goof off by checking Google Reader, or clicking through on links within email. This is fairly straightforward if, like me, you’re a dedicated Outlook user, but it’s also now an option even if Gmail is your preferred mail client, thanks to the recent addition of offline mode.

Don’t reply to anybody

My aim here was to work through and sort email, not engage with correspondence. I flagged any email that did need a reply with a tag so I could return to it later, when I was connected. (I had a similar tag for emails that I needed to print, nearly all of which were tax receipts. One day I’ll eliminate paper from that process, but probably not this financial year.)

Sort your inbox by sender

Sorting mails by who has sent them has several advantages: you can get rid of multiple irrelevant messages (whether from a person, a newsletter or a notification service) without reading them all. That leads to some very speedy bulk deletion.

Use a filing system that makes sense for you

I have a fairly well-developed filing system for email with about a decade’s thinking behind it, five major categories and a bunch of sub-categories. That works for me, but I wouldn’t argue on that basis that anyone else should copy it. If you do prefer to rely on search, you could just dump everything in a folder called ‘Done’ for that clean inbox feeling.

Be ruthless about deleting stuff

Not everything needs to be kept. As a journalist, I get bombarded with a lot of irrelevant press releases. If they contain potentially useful information, I store them as text files (low space, easy indexing). Everything else gets deleted. “Keep everything” is a poor mantra no matter how cheap disk space is.

Know your keyboard shortcuts

During the entire process, I don’t think I used my touchpad except for the initial ‘Arrange by: From’ command. Using keyboard shortcuts (mostly just the arrow keys, shift and Del) made life much quicker.

At the end of the hour, this was how the situation stood. Swathes of messages had been deleted, others had been filed. I had nine messages I needed to reply to, and six messages I need to print. 13 messages remained in my inbox that required action of some sort, which is a number I can live with (and a realistic number of tasks to have in a short-term nag list). I’ve been good since then and largely kept my inbox empty, but at least I know if I do slack off again that getting back on track won’t be too difficult. With that said, I bet there’s ways I could improve my approach; share your thoughts in the comments.


  • How relevant this article is… at my workplace they have just implemented 100MB mailbox limits because backups are apparently too expensive. Now 1000 employees spent hours (some took days) reducing their inboxes below 100MB so they could continue to send emails.

    Everyone here thinks this a joke. It’s quite hard for our graphics designers and many other roles.

    Any other readers got limits this low?

  • I like to keep all my mail. You never know.

    However i would love it if i hit the delete button it archived it instead. Somewhat like Gmail keep it, but get it out of my inbox, anyone know how?

  • If you use Outlook, the last set of emails you kept in your Inbox as you needed some type of action you should have converted to Tasks (if you use Tasks).

    To convert an email to a task, drag the email to your Tasks folder. If the email contained attachments you needed to read, right click and drag the email to Tasks and chose Move to Folder.

    Actionable items are better as tasks than sitting in your Inbox.

  • I find sorting my inbox by sender/subject a real time-saver – you’re much quicker when you aren’t constantly shifting mental gears.

    I also (try to) limit myself to only ever taking 4 actions when processing email: 1. actioning quickly; 2. flagging for later; 3. filing for reference; 4. deleting (and unsubscribing).

  • I recently started work at an organisation using a statewide organisational webmail service. With only 100mb available, I quickly filled it up. But the tech guy set me up with a gmail account that now sucks in all the work emails and sends my replies as if they come from the work address. Hey presto, 7 gb of space. and my emails are much easier to access.

  • @Michael,

    My old work had a limit that low. At 90MB it would start complaining, then at 100 it would just die. Everyone used to keep an archive.pst on their local data partition, then one of the guys in my group had a hard drive crash and lost every email older than about 2 weeks, including background on many current projects.

    I kept my archive on my network share so it would be backed up.

    I agree that it was a dumb policy, but that IT department was full of dumb policies.

  • I too like to keep all my emails. This of course runs into a lot of trouble with accounts on other people’s servers. Hence, some years back, I started running my own dedicated mail server. 5 years later with 1.8 million emails in the archive, it’s still going fine.

    The benefit with my own email server with unlimited storage is that I keep everything on it. All the documents I’ve ever created, etc, I just email it to myself. This way, they are all instantly searchable.

    The downside to this arrangement is, I have to be pretty diligent in cleaning out my inboxes and filing away emails into the different folders. I make sure I maintain a ZERO inbox.

    But I guess, after a few days of practice, anyone can learn how to file away their emails into separate folders as they see fit. For me, it was out of necessity, as I receive around 400~500 emails a day (non-spam).

  • wow @ UncleBob… you’re my hero… your OWN mail server AND 400+ non-spam email per day?! where do you find the time to speak (down) to us, your subservient’s?

    anywho, back on topic, I, like FrankCoughlan, use gmail to bypass the 150MB limit here at work. Works perfectly… until gmail fails. But when’s that ever gonna happen?

    What’s that…?

  • @David Wyndham
    We have just started doing archive.pst files. If they are on the network drive this doesn’t solve the backup problem. If they are on local c drive you make use of wasted space (but risk losing it all)

    @Frank Coughlan
    Our IT department is too cautious to have corporate data sitting on Google servers rather than locked down internally

  • If you are receiving a large number of messages such as newsletters and offers, deals of the day (gropon) and so on, I found an interesting product called ZigMail ( that can sort and organize all of those types of messages for me… they even give me a free email address that i can use for those type of messages in the future and/or the service can scan my current account and clean them out for me! I used to get 50 – 60 messages a day in my personal account that were like that… now I just get 1 digest each morning from ZigMail and it shows me the list of everything that was organized… pretty sweet deal actually.

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