Clearing out the Digital Clutter: Tackling the Email Inbox

With seven people in my house, it’s hard to keep things neat and tidy, but you’d never associate me with clutter.  I’m not one for knick-knacks or piles of magazines or piles of anything really, unless you count laundry!

In my office, my desk is clear, the bookshelf is organized and I’ve even gotten my office supply obsession under control.

It’s not till you peer into my hard drive that you find my dirty little secret.

I keep everything.  Emails, images, e-books, program files I no longer use…everything!

You never know when you’ll need that email from 2008 right?

Fortunately, technology has made it possible for me to hang on to all of those wonderful things in such a way that they are out of sight, unless I need them.  When I need them, they’re right at my finger tips.

Here’s how I do this with my emails.

Gmail.  Need I say more? For my business based emails, I use Google Apps.

I’ve played with lots of systems over the last few years, and this is what works for me.

Everything goes to my inbox.

I used to have everything filtered out so that I had dozens of different labels.  The problem with that was that it was easy to overlook emails or postpone looking at certain folders/labels.  It also kind of camouflaged how many emails I was getting on a daily basis.

With everything going to my inbox I’ve become much more particular about what lists/ezines I subscribe to.  This alone has eliminated a lot of digital clutter and wasted time.

I review my inbox periodically throughout the day.  If something needs my immediate attention or can be handled within a few minutes, I take care of it right then and there.

Once it’s addressed, I archive it.  I have labels/folders for each of my clients and a few other things (not the dozens and dozens like before).  Everything else just goes to the regular gmail archive and if ever I need it again, a quick search brings it right up.

If it’s something that can’t be addressed immediately, it stays in the inbox.  That way, it’s in my face and I won’t lose track of it.

If it’s client or project related, I enter it into my project management system and assign it to a team member.  The email then gets archived.

Some things don’t fit into either category.  They may be ezines or trainings, or other things that don’t need to be addressed right away.  They get ‘starred’ and archived.

That way I can come back to them when I have time.  I usually read through them in the carpool line, at soccer practice, or on trips.

It’s a pretty simple system.  My inbox is no longer overflowing.  Everything that needs to be addressed is handled promptly and everything else is still there for me when I’m ready.

This may not work for you.  But give it a shot.  If it doesn’t work, move on to something else.  The key is to do something.  Digital clutter is no joke!  It affects your productivity and your mindset just like the physical clutter in your home or office would.

Sometimes the job seems too big.  I’ve had clients with over 10,000 emails in their inbox.  I have one client with over 14,000 unread emails in their inbox as we speak. Don’t do that.  So many important things fall through the cracks!  But if you find yourself in a similar situation, there are a couple of things you can do.

1) Get help.  Seriously.  With a little bit of input from you, a VA can hop in and clear those suckers out.  Maybe even find you a few opportunities that you didn’t even know you had!

2) This one might seem a little drastic…archive everything.  Draw a line in the email sand.  Maybe it’s today, or last week, or last month and archive everything prior to that date.  It may be a little scary, but it’s a clean start.

If you’re ready to get some help with your inbox or setting up Google Apps for your business….

Schedule a Take It Off My Plate Session to find out how we can do it for you.


  1. Shelley says:

    Marta, I LOVE number two! If a client had that many emails, I would suggest the same! I use gmail, too, and recently have been having a hard time after switching to iPad. What apps do you recommend to stay productive using google apps on iPad?

    • Hi @Shelley, thanks so much for the comment. I’m an Android gal at the moment. I’ll be hopping on the iPad train soon! In general, Boomerang for Gmail is my current favorite tool. It lets you ‘boomerang’ an email so that it comes back to your inbox a set time later. This is great if you want to clear a message out of your inbox but know you need to respond to it by a specific date. Another way I use it is to boomerang messages back to me if I don’t receive a response within a day or two. I’ll be sharing more tools and productivity tips soon!

  2. Hi Marta,

    Simple but effective – I like what you’ve out.

    I find that I practically never go back to those “bypass inbox” emails. Last month I started a self-imposed campaign of gradually unsubscribing from EVERYTHING except very few select newsletters.

    I also use ballet / soccer etc waiting times to archive emails and generally clean up from my phone.

    Great post. I will definitely use your idea to start clean and archive everything to start clean.


  3. Wow, 14,000 emails is insane. I thought I had it bad with over 1,000 last month. I did a cleaning and unsubscribed from a number of lists and rss feeds which helped but I still have to work on it. (I’m a chronic list collector)

    I have many labels and folders – now I need to learn to archive – sounds so much easier.

  4. I totally understand what you are saying. I used to filter my emails into folders but I would never look at them. Now I have everything go to my inbox and lately, if I haven’t taken away anything from newsletters or stores, I unsubscribe to them. I can’t stand having a filled inbox. The most I have before I shut down at 5:00 or before bed is 10 emails. I used to dread opening my email because I was just subscribed to too many things.

    I also have folders for each client and as I get each task done, I check them off. I use Outlook so I can flag and check as I go. That way I stay on track and don’t forget to do anything.

    I also save everything. I have emails from 2008. Every couple of mothns I will back up my outlook at store it on my external hard drive and/or flash drive. That way, I can clean out my email.

    Every since taking these few steps, I don’t mind my email any more.

  5. I wish I could say the same about my email. I still have hundreds of unread messages, but not really personal or urgent ones — some newsletters and stuff like that.
    When I have a good day and not tons of work to do, I open them all and read them carefully. In all other cases, I just check the senders and the titles and open only some of them.
    Then, in weekends or in slow days, I perform a search in my inbox for messages from specific senders that I want to keep up with.
    I’m very glad to say that I almost never missed an important message.

  6. I also use the search by sender in my inbox to find a specific emails. I don’t spend much time reading emails. After saving those I need to folders I just empty the inbox (I currently have 39K unread emails in my inbox most of which is spam). I don’t worry about the amount of it because it only takes a moment to empty it. 🙂

  7. Nice post Marta!
    I love having an organised inbox. Whenever I check my emails I read everything new and either respond immediately, file or flag for later. Once every couple of days I’ll go back through the flagged items to make sure I have forgotten any requests and work on the more time consuming tasks that weren’t urgent.
    Thank you for commenting on my blog! Best wishes for UBC!

  8. Nice Post Marta!!
    Most of us spend our time seeing our emails…

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