Email Miniseries: Reducing the Clutter

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To wrap up the Email Miniseries, I would like to focus on the concept of excess items in an email inbox as clutter, and ideas to minimize the clutter. Think of your email inbox as a messy (or very messy, depending on the number of emails in the inbox) room or garage.

Close your eyes and picture a garage that is a total disaster area. How does it make you feel? Now, take that same garage and imagine it perfectly cleaned out and organized. Perhaps there is an item or two that has just been in use out of place, but otherwise, everything is in order. It is your dream garage.

Now think of your email inbox. How does it make you feel? Before I started clearing my email inbox to empty, I always felt like I was missing something, or emails that didn’t make me feel particularly good would subtly haunt me while they sat there. I never felt in control. It was very unsettling.

If you feel completely overwhelmed by an email inbox, there is an answer.

Getting Started

Whenever my email inbox starts getting out of control, I can almost always trace it back to the oldest email currently sitting there, which is usually calling on me to do something I really have no interest in doing, or just calling on me to craft a response I don’t have the energy for in the moment. So I procrastinate. Usually it turns out to not take that much time when I sit down to deal with it, but I find that just letting that one thing go starts a domino effect of letting even more things go over the next few days or week.

This is why email inboxes get out of control. In my mind, each email that is still sitting there represents something that needs to be dealt with. The email inbox isn’t the final home for anything. It is an inbox to be processed into another, more comprehensive personal organization system.

What do you do if you currently have hundreds or thousands of emails to sort through? My first recommendation would be to set aside an hour or so, get a good glass of wine (or perhaps a cup of coffee or tea) and some calming music. Even though there will be a fair amount of mindlessness going on when going through a massive backlog of emails, you also want to be focused on getting this over with as quickly as possible, and minimizing distractions will help speed up the process. Depending on how many emails you have to go through, you might need to make a series of dates with your email inbox over a week or longer.

When I first approached the idea of clearing my email queue to empty, I would work on my email inbox in batches. I thought of my emails as increments of 50, and every time I bumped the inbox number down by another 50, I felt the slightest bit accomplished. It is pretty easy to quickly scan through the email list and get an idea of whether you need to actually open the email or can just delete it within about 2 seconds.

Be Choosy

I have willingly given my email address out to a variety of websites and blogs with tips on personal development, web design, blogging, and writing in general. These are just a few major topics I am very interested in right now, and in my free time one of my favorite things to do is learn from other bloggers how to make it happen. In doing this, I have opened up my email inbox to a lot of excess information I probably don’t need or have time to go through.

I have created filters on many of the websites I have signed up for, or unsubscribed from them altogether. When I create a filter in Gmail to automatically archive emails from a certain sender or with a certain subject line (these are always from companies or websites), I just tell myself that I will be able to search through my archives if I ever really want to find the information they sent me. I think of this the way I think of catalogs that come in the mail: If I want to shop, I will shop. But I don’t need a notification to prompt me to do so.

Don’t be afraid to delete (or better yet archive) emails, especially in Gmail, and especially if it is something that is obviously an unnecessary communication. This is a large portion of my current personal email. I probably do need to do some more weeding out myself of what arrives in my inbox in the first place, but I have absolutely zero guilt about sending them to the archives when they do come in.

Reference Materials and Task Items

I was ecstatic when I learned about the email to Evernote option. I didn’t even know my Evernote account had its own email address for the longest time. After learning how to direct an email to a specific notebook, I was hooked. This function is yet another reason I am so glad that I have my task lists in Evernote. When an email calls on me to perform a task that will need to be done at a later time (particularly emails in my work inbox), rather than letting it sit there and haunt me, I forward it to its appropriate place in my “Reminders – Weekday” notebook in Evernote, where I can deal with it and manage it against my other tasks that are also calling for my attention.

The forward to Evernote function is also handy for forwarding reference material. Although sometimes it is just as easy to copy and paste a short email into its final place in my Evernote account, the forwarding function is particularly useful when forwarding emails that have attachments. The best thing about forwarding emails to Evernote is that I get to delete them after forwarding.

Categorizing Email

I am not a fan of categorizing email. In the spirit of my email miniseries, I took some time today to get my Gmail inbox to zero, which I had let reach over 100 emails over the past week of not keeping up with clearing it out. A few months ago I noticed that Google took the liberty of categorizing my emails into the following 3 separate inbox tabs: Primary, Social, Promotions.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the categorization from the get go, because for one thing I don’t really trust their categorization scheme. How does Google know what I consider social vs. promotion vs. primary? And for another thing, this doesn’t make my inbox any less crowded. Sure, it might create the illusion that the massive amount of incoming email isn’t so massive, but this little trick of the mind doesn’t work on me. I know that once I get through my primary inbox, I still have to move over to the social tab and clear that out, and then there is a yet a third inbox to clear out with the promotions category. No thank you.

One category of email is more than enough for me to handle. I have procrastinated on figuring out how to turn this little feature off until just now, when I went into the settings and figured out where to turn this off. It took less than 2 minutes.

A Hope for the Future

Honestly, how many emails did I send or reply to last year? Probably thousands, maybe even tens of thousands! And how many had any consequence in the grand scheme of things? Um, I am going to say exactly zero.

I know email is here to stay for a while, but what if someday we didn’t have email? What if in ten years everyone looks back and says man we were so inefficient, what were we thinking creating all those unnecessary communications? There has got to be a better way. But until that glorious day, I will continue processing through them as best as I can. Namaste.

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