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The First Step Toward Email Sanity

I receive, on average a hundred emails a day between my work and personal accounts.

A couple weeks ago, I opened up my Gmail account—I had 14,603 items in my Inbox.

At work, I noticed I had 2,216 emails…unread.

I knew I was facing a moment like Michael Scott—I needed to declare bankruptcy.

Nick Bilton, a tech writer for the New York Times recently wrote this piece on email bankruptcy. When I shared Bilton’s piece on Facebook, I got the question, “Did you really just delete everything?” A friend in IT at work said, “Some people just delete all their emails. You’re not going to do that, are you?”

Well, sort of. Yeah.

In both accounts, I wanted a safety net. So in Gmail I created a label named “Languishing 2013.” I applied that to every single message in my inbox. I looked at the last few weeks of messages to make sure there was nothing needing attention.

Then, I archived those 14,603 emails like a boss.

At work, it was a bit more complicated. I went into the Outlook program on my laptop (I normally use the web app). There, I created a folder called “Languishing 2013.” And I moved every single email—thousands and thousands of them—from my inbox to that folder. I wanted to shout like Braveheart. Except I wasn’t dying…and I was in my cubicle at work.

By creating my “Languishing” label and folder, I aimed to avoid getting judged by people who think it’s irresponsible to just delete all your emails. (I got off on a technicality, but I’ll take it.) But I get all the joy and freedom that this drastic step offers. (And, truth be told, I had scanned the subject and first line of every one of those emails when it came in, so that may make this easier.)

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For a number of months, I had long kept lots of emails in my inbox in hopes of taking some action on them—starting a project, reading a book, setting a meeting, etc.

But the truth of it was, I was kidding myself, and I was kidding my colleagues and friends.

I was not going to read those 20,000+ emails. I was not going to start all the good ideas therein. I was not going to do anything except reference them.

The thousands of emails in my inbox were functionally archived. But they sat there, stressing me out.

So my first tip on email sanity, dear reader, is…

Stop kidding yourself.

If you’re going to go back to them, prove it, Hot Shot.

If not, fess up.

Tune in Thursday for five more tips on email sanity.

Do you agree or disagree? Have you ever declared email bankruptcy? How’d that work out for you? Leave a comment. 

  • Clay

    Adam, I get a lot of e-mail each day,. most of them are automated – advertisements, blog updates, reminders, the like…. all of it is self-inflicted. I delete some right away from the phone, others still sneak through and there have been times when I have missed an important message from a friend or colleague because of the sheer volume of e-mail landing in my accounts….. so occasionally, I go through the inbox and sort by person and delete away…. I have never thought to delete and entire day, month, or year – that’s a novel approach. Time is important and I tend to be spending my time in Covey’s quadrant III or IV and less in the important part of my day… but I keep working at it…. nevertheless, I am always working at making the days count

  • Adam Jeske

    Good stuff, Clay. “Self-inflicted” is right! Thank you for reading (and for making the days count).

  • Joshua Lancette

    Email, my old nemesis! This is a great idea. Most of the time it feels like answering emails is my full time job. Looking forward to the other tips coming Thursday.

  • Andy Moore

    We should compare notes. My new system involves heavy use of evernote, and is changing my world. Gmail currently at zero, and work inbox rapidly decreasing by the day.


  • Randi

    The Languishing 2013 archive is a great move! Since I saw your last post I decided to move towards getting rid of the thousands of email floating around in my inbox too. I was having no problem deleting pages emails while they were a year old, but still felt like there was going to be the off-chance of deleting something I actually needed from the last 6 months. The archive is a good way assuage the fear of shooting myself in the foot but also cleaning house! Another clutch move, Sir Jeske.

  • Dave Ruark

    Adam – I’m a big believer in not using your inbox as a todo list. It’s just too stressful. I agree with Andy Moore that Evernote is a good tool for managing todos/tasks…way better than an inbox. Evernote has a feature that you can email something to your account. I just forward emails that have things for me to do in them–takes a few seconds per email. Everything else either gets deleted or goes into a folder labeled ‘reference’ where I can search for a message if I need it. Inbox zero is a good feeling.

  • Nathan

    I keep no more than 10 emails in my inbox when I leave work each evening. I flag those needing response/action. I use folders for areas of my job that I have scheduled time to work on so all those emails are stored together and move them from my inbox until I’m ready to deal with them. I get a bit OCD about my 10 inbox items…