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.