It was a slow half-rainy half-sunny Saturday. I decided to quickly finish up with the closing of the month and all I needed was a couple of those forgotten invoices from my inbox. So I sat at the computer and then it hit me.
It’s not that I never thought about it, it just hit me with all its force how full my inbox was.
Over 24 000 emails gathered throughout the years. Four different accounts – true – but it doesn’t change the numbers.
I’ve been a minimalist (also digital minimalist) for years now, and I practice what I preach. But I never dealt with what I managed to gather before I had decided to really be mindful about it all. It meant my inbox has been pretty well ‘groomed’ for the last two years or so, but before that…. not so much.
Inbox zero is not only good for practical reasons. Decluttering your inbox feels much like decluttering your home, like getting rid of all the mess in your life too. Which means it’s really good for your overall mental well being.
I spent an entire Saturday in front of the computer sorting out that mess. It meant mostly deleting, to be honest. It soon turned out that Inbox Zero – my end game – was totally achievable. Even with this ridiculous number of (mostly) junk mail.
What exactly did I do?
I use the native Apple mail app – MAIL. In it, I have combined all the accounts I have and set up a structure of folders (or labels as Google prefers to call them;) . It is a pretty minimal structure where all the emails from my inbox land. Aside from the folders, I use 3 colors of flags for marking the emails I still need to work on. Red is for important and requiring immediate action – a to-do list of sort. Blue is for the things to read later – interesting newsletters, articles and messages I need more than two minutes to reply to. Orange is for all the things that were already dealt with, just needing additional confirmation so that I can close them for good. After I mark an email with one of the flags I move it to its folder to maintain this mystical inbox zero 🙂 As soon as the case is closed I remove the flag as well.
What I’ve been doing for years now is using ‘rules’. Which means I set up a tree of rules for the system to know how to act without me doing as much as moving a finger. For instance, each time I make an order on Amazon all correspondence about it lands in the folder called ’shopping’. I really don’t need to read those and manually transfer them. We all have dozens of matters like that we can automate so that it saves our time and attention. Then every couple of months or whenever I feel like it – I batch delete all the confirmations I no longer use.
Long story short – after all those hours I came up with the list that has been helping me for a couple of years to stay on track. The first rule is CONSISTENCY, the second SIMPLICITY. If it’s complicated you won’t do it, and if you don’t do it EVERY DAY – it won’t work. As simple as that. So here it is – my list of how to stay sane and not to give in to the flood that is your inbox.
First things first – purge.
I spent the whole day doing just that. Deleting away all those 15-year-old reminders of parties, special deals and funny memes. It’s the majority of all that. Just getting rid of all the clutter. Thank you minimalism. I used the search feature and kept deleting in batches. All 350 emails from my favorite supermarket. Back in 2012. All the reminders of the connection someone was eager to make on Linked In. All the super deals on the bathtubs I was researching when doing the renovation of the house. In 2007! It’s so weirdly satisfying when you see the number drop from 24k to 18, then 17 and 12k. Beautiful feeling let me tell you.
Unsubscribe with passion.
Something I’ve been practising religiously for the last years is unsubscribing from all the unwanted newsletters. It’s not always easy, some of them are pretty persistent to keep you hooked. When you’re persistent too, it’s doable. Find the joy in hitting ‘unsubscribe’ – it’s literally a mountain of clutter you’re saving yourself from.
PUSH notifications ruin your productivity and impact your mental health. Block your time instead.
We don’t need to be in our mailbox every 12 minutes. And often enough we are. Why? Try not to react when your device beeps announcing a new exciting arrival. The struggle is real. Keep in mind that multitasking – neurologically speaking is overrated. When we do a lot at once – we’re not very mindful at all. We tend to start to lose those bits and pieces. I’m sure you know the scenario – you’re working on something trying to focus and you get 28 notifications. Your inbox, FB, IG, bank and a dozen (at least!) different apps are asking you to go play with them. The answer should be a strong NO. That is of course if you’re willing to do something productive and not spend the next 3 hours going from one distraction to another. Giving in to the terror of the PUSH feature will leave you frustrated and less able to concentrate on what’s important. Instead, try turning all of the notifications off, and only check your email – say twice a day – intentionally. See how this works for you.
We all receive dozens or more emails a day. But it’s just like with not answering your phone when somebody’s calling you. I hope you take care of those boundaries by the way ;). You don’t have to drop everything and read and reply to an email as soon as it’s announced in your inbox.
One thing that’s worth remembering about notifications is that it’s not only “push”. It’s also the tiny red indicator that you have 43 new emails waiting. Getting rid of that eliminates the need to immediately check what’s there.
If you just got your first e-mail account TODAY – how would you start organizing it?
It’s often that people don’t even bother asking that question along the way. It might somehow never occur that we can actually CHANGE things no matter how far along we are. So. If your account disappeared altogether, and you were to set up a new structure, what would you do? How would you go about it? What would be important to you to take care of?
I decided to divide my structure clearly into personal and professional. And in those two, I set up a couple of more folders, so that everything could be easily found.
Let all your devices be on the same page.
There are people out there who have gazillion unread emails on their phone and then some more on the computer. They are overwhelmed and miss the important stuff because they never thought to synchronize the accounts and the devices. If you remember that devices are there for you and not the other way around you will be so much better off in the end. In most cases what you want to do is to have the same email setup on your phone, tablet and computer.
It means whatever you do on any of the devices will end up exactly the same everywhere else.
Judging by what google analytics tell me – most of you who read this are between 25-45 years old. Which means you weren’t born with an iPad in your hand. It also means nobody taught you how to use email. I get it, I’ve been there. But when you think about it – it really is something we do DAILY. It feels crucial to have it figured out so that we actually do what we do intentionally. If we skip this part – all we do is passively react to what’s happening instead of taking action. And since you’re reading this I’m pretty sure you don’t want to be reactive anymore.
2-minute rule. Have you heard about the 2 minutes rule?
I highly recommend it in various aspects of life (like PROCRASTINATION). When it comes to your inbox management it simply means – if you can do it in under two minutes time – do it now and forget about it. When dealing with emails make sure to act quickly and confidently. After all – you know you set up the system working in your favor that you’re only maintaining now.
How to maintain the system?
– Remember to do it. Daily. Make it your new habit. Work out the best solutions for you and then stick to them. The system only works when you do.
– Delete as much as you can,
– Reply if it is something you can do under 2 minutes,
– Immediately shove it to its destination folder,
– Schedule it to appear in your inbox later (boomerang), or
– Schedule your written reply to be sent some other time and don’t forget to
That’s it. We use emails to communicate better, to work and play more efficiently. If not handled intentionally though this whole endeavour might turn out to be a time trap and a cause for frustration and anxiety.
The key is (as always) in the mindset.
Maybe you have a brilliant way that helps you manage your inbox? Do share in the comments:)