Ten Tools for Pruning Your Inbox

By Marilynne Rudick on July 8, 2010

E-mail is like kudzu—turn your back and it takes over. Both kudzu and e-mail require constant maintenance and ruthless pruning with sharp tools.

Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, a book about conquering e-mail overload, offers this imperative: “Empty the inbox at least once a day.” Hurst makes a convincing case for zero sum e-mail: a cluttered e-mail inbox is inefficient. It takes longer to find a message. It’s hard to remember which e-mails say what and whether the e-mail has been answered.  Important e-mails get overlooked or lost. But worst of all, from my point of view, a bulging inbox makes me feel out-of-control.

A few times I’ve achieved an empty inbox. It was liberating. But it didn’t take long for the inbox to fill up. Here are some strategies I’ve adopted to prune my e-mail.

  1. Use the two-minute rule. If it takes two minutes or less, do it immediately (borrowed from Hurst).
  2. Decide on an e-mail strategy. Review messages as they come in, or set aside specific times to read and answer e-mail.
  3. Segregate e-mails. Use a different e-mail address to filter incoming emails.  For example, I use one address for essentials—work-related e-mail and e-mail from friends. I’ve relegated nonessential e-mail—promotions, subscriptions—to a different address. That lets me read and act on the essential e-mail without being distracted by the nonessential.
  4. Use Rules to organize your e-mail. Another strategy is to create different e-mail folders and use rules to sort incoming mail automatically. For example, you can create a rule that e-mail from certain addresses goes to a Subscription folder. Or any e-mail with joke in the subject line goes to the Not Important folder or is automatically deleted.
  5. Archive old mail. Set up e-mail folders to store messages you’ve acted on or need no action. Or use your e-mail application’s archive function to clear old mail from your inbox.
  6. Delete, delete, delete. Set a time limit for reading nonessential e-mail.  If you don’t get to the newsletter or blog post within that time, delete it. Chances are if it stays unread that long, you’ll never read it.
  7. Establish your own internal response policy. For example, “I will respond to time-sensitive e-mail immediately, to work-related e-mail within 24 hours, and to e-mail from friends within 2 days.” Then stick to your policy!
  8. Unsubscribe. Every time I start a new project, I subscribe to newsletters and blogs on the topic. Long after the project is finished, the e-mails are still clogging my inbox. Unsubscribe from information that no longer interests you.
  9. Know when to end an e-mail exchange. It’s a good idea to acknowledge important e-mail and send a thank you. But one response is usually enough. No need to keep the thread going. (Thanks for the great lunch. . . I enjoyed it, too. . . Let’s do it again. . . Yes!)
  10. Use the phone. Are you having difficulty setting up a meeting? Have you been unable to resolve an issue after several exchanges? Pick up the phone and talk to the person, rather than prolonging the time-consuming and unproductive thread.

Do you have tips or strategies you’ve used to slim down your inbox? Please post them as comments. I’ll compile your suggestions in a new post.

Learn More

  • To find out how to use rules, see Tips for Managing Your E-mail Rules. This is about Micrsoft Outlook, but the strategies apply to any e-mail program.
  • For an interesting and provocative take on managing digital information, including e-mail and photos, read Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy.
Categories: E-Mail & Messaging


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  • I keep my mailbox neater than I keep my house, that’s for sure!

    Every once in a while I sort my emails by sender instead of by date and look down the list. It’s easy to find the stale ones and delete them, such as newsletters, completed transactions, funnies from relatives.

    A friend reset my Outlook to show a preview for every email. Now I don’t have to open them all, I can just read and either act, save, or delete. Duh! I can’t believe I wasn’t doing this!

    Posted by: Jill on July 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm

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