Home > Uncategorized > Is a clean inbox possible?

Is a clean inbox possible?

Three or four years ago, I made a resolution: every time I got out of my car, I would leave it 100% clean.  Child got a lollipop after his haircut?  Wrapper and stick come out of car as we leave it.  And the little paper claim check from valet parking.  And the empty soda can. Not later–now.  Every time I step out of the car, all trash and miscellaneous items come with me.  I have kept that resolution meticulously.  I no longer drive a roving garbage dump.  My car is pristine, and my quality of life is better as a result.

Is it possible to do something similar with your email inbox?  Every summer, I clean my inbox down to less than 10 messages.  This year I started at over 1300, and the cleaning took over a week of an hour or two a day. (I can’t take much more than that at a sitting.)  Could I clean my inbox regularly, and keep it as clean as my car?

I’m not sure it’s possible.  There are good reasons to leave something in an inbox temporarily. For example, my administrative assistant is on vacation this week, and I have kept her note saying when she’ll be back and who to contact in her absence.  When she’s back, I’ll delete it.  It needs to sit there a little while, but I’d really rather not have it sit there until next summer waiting for an inbox cleansing marathon.  

I don’t think a direct analogy to my car is going to work–I’m not going to clean my inbox every time I step away from my mail program.  So what would work?  I’m going to try spending half an hour every Friday cleaning my inbox.  I’ll report back on whether it works.

How do you keep your inbox under control?  Do you let it grow to 10k messages and then just delete everything without reading it?  Do you clean it on some schedule?  Leave me a comment about what works for you!  And I’ll report back on how this goes for me.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Grooming the inbox must be like exercise, daily or every other day, not in one big block. It’s a good activity when you’re on conference calls and such. Filters that label msgs when they arrive in the inbox (so you can one-click file) are very helpful.

  2. August 13, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I highly recommend a clean inbox. I clean it every morning, and I triage my todo lists every Monday. I figure you want to start each day with enough breathing room to be creative, and you want to end each day (week, month, …) feeling like you did something more useful than comment on blogs.

    Err, ahem. Moving on….

    Part of the trick is to move mailing lists to somewhere else than your inbox. Otherwise you just get flooded. Mailing lists are one category of email where I feel fine deleting months worth of unread messages. If you click on a message in gmail you can ask it to filter messages “like this”. You can then set up a filter to move them to a side folder and “skip the inbox”.

    Personally, I have had to get better at telling people “no” and “maybe later” on the spot, rather than leaving messages sitting there just in case I have time later. I figure you can always change your mind later. Meanwhile, it is better to give an instant “I can’t do that right now” than to leave someone wondering what your position is on the matter.

    More broadly, the strategy is to process email instantly, and if it really merits further work later, to move it to some sort of todo list. You can then process your todo lists once a week or so. In theory a todo list is no different than using your inbox as a todo list, but I find that keeping them separate is a useful mental hack. It makes extending the todo list require an explicit action.

    Even more broadly, you really want to start each morning without a list of long-term obligations hanging over you. If on the off chance you find yourself waking up and having absolutely nothing useful to do with your day, then sure, you are saying “no” too often. If you are anything like me, though, you are saying “yes” too much and starting each day with an avalanche of stuff that “needs” doing.

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