Inbox Zero? Maybe Not. Inbox Manageable? Absolutely!
A disorganized, overflowing email inbox can be a daunting obstacle to overcome. Not to mention the silent-but-still-screaming-at-you little red numbers sitting on the icon of your preferred mail app. Spam and junk email also quickly adds up to a constant stream of distracting correspondence. This clutter can make you less productive, and overwhelmed, especially if email is a major part of your job. Not only that, important messages can end up getting lost among all of the others.
Here are a few suggestions for clearing out your inbox and for keeping all of your important email organized.
Stop the Influx
It’s much easier to delete a junk message in your inbox than it is to unsubscribe from recurring correspondence. But, does this save you time in the long run? It may take a minute or two, but look into removing yourself from the mailing lists of sites that frequently send unwanted messages. This will keep junk messages from showing up in your inbox to begin with and save you the trouble of getting rid of them. In fact, with every client I work with, I recommend using Unroll.me. This is an awesome service that not only can easily unsubscribe you from unwanted emails, but its main glory lies in its ability to aggregate junk mail that you actually DO WANT to read - someday.
Simply set up an account, and it will guide you through a simple process of determining which emails you want to add to a daily roll-up, which to leave in your inbox, or which to unsubscribe. I use it in ALL my email accounts.
Another service that I have used to help manage email is Mailstrom. A slightly different service than Unroll.me, Mailstrom lets you bulk-delete emails (in the hundreds or even thousands) quickly using tools that sort by Sender, People I've Emailed, Subject, Unsubscribe (Regular emails), Time (Age), Social, Shopping or Size.
You can also choose to "Chill" messages and hide them until a selected date, "Expire" messages so that they only stay in your inbox for a set period of time, or move them to another folder. You can also Archive or Delete them as needed.
You can even mark items as Blocked or Spam, or unsubscribe from newsletters, all right from Mailstrom! The site also offers a handy graph of the number of messages in your Inbox at midnight, your progress towards Inbox Zero (how many messages you removed today vs. how many you received today) and your current message count.
Folders and Categories…and Evernote, too
Most worthwhile email services allow you to create folders within your inbox, whether you access your email via the web or a desktop or mobile interface. By sorting messages into different groups or categories, you can more easily find the messages you need when you need them. If you use email for work, several folders based on subject will be more helpful than a single work folder. Some mail services can automatically sort messages into different folders based on criteria you set up. (Apple Mail has a “smart mailbox” and Outlook has “rules” you can set up.) And I can’t write a blog post about digital organization without mentioning Evernote…so remember that you can also always forward emails into your Evernote account to be stored with the other notes about that project/category (if you are using Plus or Premium.)
Tags and Labels
While folders are an effective tool for keeping your incoming messages organized, they are less helpful in the case of messages that fit into several categories. By applying tags to messages, you can mark them so that they can be sorted - and more importantly, FOUND later. Multiple tags can be applied to a single message, which allows them to be sorted into more than one category.
Set Up Filters
Most email services allow you to set up filters or rules which tell your mail service to treat certain messages a certain way. For example, if a particularly difficult junk mailer won’t remove you from their mailing list, you can set up a filter that automatically removes all mail from that sender to the trash. Filters are also useful for keeping your folders organized, by automatically sending messages containing certain words or phrases to a specific folder.
Search Your Email
Your email has a handy search tool that you can use to quickly find email in your inbox. The search tool allows you to easily find emails from a specific person or company, messages sent to a specific email address, or emails containing certain words. This is especially useful if you need to reference an old email that's been lost in your inbox. (And don’t forget, you can do this on your mobile device, too!)
Keep Things Maintained
No matter what tools you use to clean up your inbox, it’s important to keep things organized to avoid another mess from forming. If you set up filters, many of your messages will be organized automatically. Make sure to update your filing system as needed and apply new filters to messages that show up in your inbox. Try to deal with incoming mail as soon as you receive it, rather than waiting for it to build up.
Cleaning up your inbox will save you time, both at work and at home. Setting these tools up may take some time, but the time and effort an organized inbox will save you is worth it. Trust me. I help my clients with such daunting tasks and the sense of ease and relief is priceless.