4 Insanely Simple Steps to Email Inbox Sanity

Email insanity

The other night, I glanced over as my wife was using her laptop in bed. I couldn’t help but notice a number that jumped out at me: 7000+ unread items in her email inbox. I think my wife uses her inbox as a holding pen for her messages. She also isn’t too strict about using a second email account as a bacon address for her less important messages. While never as, um, interesting as my wife’s email practices, my inbox was out of control last year. Four changes helped me bring sanity to my email inboxes.


1. Declare Bankruptcy to Start With a Clean State

The first step I took, when my Gmail inbox was a disaster, was to declare email bankruptcy. I had a large number of messages that I intended to get to some day. I eventually was honest with myself, and figured that if I hadn’t read a message after a period of time, I probably wasn’t ever going to read it. So, I reviewed all messages that were less than a few weeks old, and archived the remainder.

I can happily report that I have been able to keep my inbox under control ever since declaring bankruptcy. I wish I had noted the date that I took that step, but I think it has to be close to a year since I did it.


2. Don’t Obsess Over Tagging and Folders

After declaring bankruptcy, the next step for me was to become less obsessive about tagging every message, and to seriously slim down the number of tags that I use. I went through my tags, and merged several of them into brooder categories.

I also reduced the number of tags that I apply to individual messages. I do have several Gmail filters set up that pre-label a majority of incoming messages. Beyond that, though, I typically will only apply one tag to a message. Part of this is because I use Apple Mail to access my Gmail account. Within Mail I use Mail Act-On, an Apple Mail plugin. With a quick key command, I can move a message to one of several Mail folders, and get it out of my inbox. This assigns the message to the identical Gmail label. Being limited to one label/folder helps speed things up, since I’m not worrying about every possible label.

Also, I often don’t even bother with labels. I just tap the archive key, figuring that I can rely on Gmail’s search capabilities to find messages later.


3. Don’t Sweat It, and You Won’t Hate It

The third change was a change in mindset: do it but don’t sweat it. I carve out periods of time to get through my messages. If I don’t get to my mail, though, I don’t sweat it. This helps me not dread going through my email. The mere fact of not dreading email helps me get through my mail almost every day.


4. Don’t Use a Unified Inbox

The third change is one that is contrary to a technique we’ve discussed here previously, and is a change that will cause many of geeks out there to gasp in dismay – I no longer use a unified inbox for all of my accounts. The reason for this is simple. I had one account that was dragging down all of the others. It was busier than the other accounts, yet less important. If I don’t get to that one, it’s no big deal. With my accounts segregated, I can now get my main inboxes to zero on a regular basis, and get to that “busy” inbox when I have more time. That also helps with my “don’t sweat it and you won’t hate it” mindset.


There are four steps that anyone can take, without much effort, to help get a crazy email inbox under control. If you have any tips for managing your email, let us know in the comments.

Evan Kline

Hello, I'm Evan. I write about tech from my perspective – that of the average 40-something tech geek. You can also find me on Twitter and at my real-life job as a lawyer.    MORE ABOUT ME.


  1. Great points Evan, I followed many of these same steps while following previous tips from you and Bobby’s articles on productivity and inbox zero.

  2. Loved the simplicity, they don’t require effort of any sort…mostly acceptance of “the things you can’t change” or reducing stress over unread mail.

    I’d add another pretty simple to implement step, it’s maybe more hands on but it helps to deal with large volumes of email traffic:

    Always make sure to touch an incoming mail once and decide what to do with it before you move on!

  3. Hi – Totally agree. You might want to also give Boomerang a try. A wonderful simple app to manage inbox volumes by sending email away until the best date to handle it. It pops the email back into your inbox on an assigned date, showing as unread.
    Very handy for client follow-up, chasing leads and following through on longer term commitments.

  4. I definitely don’t obsess over folders. Every few months, I dump my inbox contents into an “Archives Month Year” folder. I can always use search.

    Yeah, I use a desktop mail client for most of my email (though most accounts are easily accesible online as well). Decades-old habits are hard to break.

  5. Hey Evan,
    You have done a great job in pointing this simply steps . This are very helpful i guess . I used to do the same and also told others too . You have a great blog ..

  6. Pingback: How Many Unread Messages Are in Your Inbox?

  7. The title was not misleading, these are insanely simple techniques. I will have to share these with my boss. I do not have a problem keeping my inbox organized and up to date, but I am quite anal. My boss’s inbox always has ridiculous amount of unread emails and it really is a black hole and he loses client emails all the time. He has gotten in the habit of cc’ing me on everything just so he will be able to rely on me to find it if he needs it later.

  8. You forgot to mention inbox tools that make the email environment pleasant, enjoyable, and efficient! I learned about an amazing browser extension called PowerInbox (powerinbox.com) – it lets me interact with the content of my emails right inside the emails themselves. When i get an Instagram email, I can now view, comment, and like the photos via Instagram inside that email itself! It’s amazing and not even limited to Instagram emails – they support LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, FollowUp, and many more! Using their email apps is just like using apps on my iphone! Their blog can be found at blog.powerinbox.com – I’d recommend it!! But interestingly enough, Instagram photo-engagement didn’t end there. With their introduction of Sidebar, I can log into my Instagram account and see my entire feed of photos, view all likes and comments by other Instagram users, and comment back and like the photos right there, immediately.

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