The email inbox is the main hub, the HQ, for most busy people. Think of all the information that comes into your inbox on a daily basis. Communication with business partners, team members, friends and family, reminders, tax and billing information, promotions, updates, etc.
The inbox is like the port of Rotterdam (the biggest and busiest port in the world). A huge amount of ships bring containers from all the corners of the world. They all come into the same place, get sorted and sent out in various directions. In the same fashion, hundreds of emails come into your inbox delivering large amounts of information that gets processed and redistributed.
Because your inbox plays such a major role in your life, it is absolutely essential to keep it clean and organized. But we both know that is a huge undertaking and as much as we try, our inboxes get clogged up from time to time. Inbox zero is absolutely possible, but let’s be realistic, even the most productive people don’t have an empty inbox all the time. It is just the way things are. There are just too many emails coming our way and so many hours in the day. But to ensure that your inbox is clean and productive, you need to have a system, a process, of cleaning it out on a regular basis, even if you process your emails a couple of times a day (highly recommended).
So let’s dig into the exact process I use to clean out my inbox when I realize it needs cleaning.
Why You Need To Clean Out Your Inbox
So why even bother going through the process and cleaning out your inbox?
- Makes it easier to find things – if your inbox,and your entire email account for that matter, contains thousands of unnecessary emails it makes it that much harder to find that piece of information that you are looking for. It is easier to find 1 email in a 1000, than in 10,000. Having less emails to sift through will make finding what you need possible, quick, and relatively painless
- Receive less emails – in the process of cleaning the inbox, you are going to unsubscribe from a lot of email lists. Getting rid of your subscriptions automatically means receiving less emails in the future. Less emails to deal with is always a good deal.
- Decrease time spent in your inbox – as a results of receiving less emails, you are going to be spending (a lot) less time in your inbox in the future.
Step 1 – Find All “Unwanted” Emails
Let’s first define what I mean by “unwanted” emails.
Generally, you get two types of emails, those that matter, and those that don’t. Good emails are the ones from actual people, or ones that contain actionable, or important information. An email from your partner about a new client, or tax information from your accountant are good examples of emails that matter.
Bad emails are all those messages that you don’t care for. Social media updates, coupons for items you don’t want, or need, updates and promotions for services you will never use are some good examples of “unwanted” emails. To make it simple, if whenever you see a particular type email, you delete it without even opening it, that is an “unwanted” email.
Quick note: unwanted does not mean unsolicited. Unsolicited emails (spam) usually end up in your spam folder automatically. My definition of unwanted are emails that you have opted in to receive at some point, but you don’t really care to be receiving.
OK, now that you know what unwanted emails are, let’s find all of them so you can start eliminating them.
Using the search function in your email do a search for the following:
Just copy all this text and paste it into the search field like this:
This query will return all emails that you can potentially unsubscribe from.
Step 2 – Unsubscribe
Go through the emails you found in Step 1 and decide which ones are worth keeping and you want to receive in the future and which ones should be deleted and you don’t want to get again.
If you want to keep a particular type of email, just skip it and go to the next one.
If you want to eliminate it:
Open the email and scroll to the bottom of it.
Look for a link that says “unsubscribe”, “change subscription”, “opt-out” or something similar and click on it. This will either unsubscribe you immediately, or ask you to confirm your decision on the next page.
Congratulations, you have now unsubscribed from this particular list and you won’t hear from this sender again. But to be absolutely sure, we’ll take it a step further.
Step 3 – Future Proofing
Although you have unsubscribed from a bunch of email lists you can never be sure if you won’t hear from that sender again. Often times, you’ll get off one list and automatically added to another one. Or you might not be able to completely unsubscribe. So to guarantee that you won’t get this email again, you need to create a filter.
In Gmail, you need to (while still having that email open) click on More > Filter messages like these:
On the next screen, Gmail will have automatically filled out the needed information so just click on “Create filter with this search”.
On the following screen you need to select the following options:
This will tell Gmail to delete future emails from this sender and to also delete all previous ones. This way you are cleaning out your inbox by getting rid of all emails and future proofing it. After you have made all the necessary selections, click on “Create filter”.
Note: if you are not using Gmail, you can still create such a filter. Just follow the filter creation settings for your particular email provider or email client.
Once you have processed a particular unwanted email and you have created the filter, repeat the process starting from Step #1 and unsubscribe from as many emails as you can. The more you unsubscribe, the less emails you’ll get in the future. It is really that simple.
Step 4 – Old Unread Emails And Large Emails
Unsubscribing from email lists is just part of the cleaning out process. There are other types of emails that should not be in your inbox and should be cleaned out:
Old Unread Emails
Chances are, there are lots of unread emails in your email account right now. Some are probably recent and you’ll get to them soon, but some are pretty old and there is no point in keeping them. If they contained important information, the info is no longer important. If they had coupons, or deals for something, the promo has most likely expired. If you did not open an email for a month, chances are you won’t ever open it so it is best practice to get rid of it.
Do a search for the following query: “before: 2013/11/02 is:unread” (omit the quotation marks). Change the date to a month ago. I am writing this on December 2nd so I am putting in November 2nd.
This will return all emails that are older than 30 days and are unread. Skim though them quickly to make sure you are not deleting something really important. When you are done skimming (2 minutes tops), highlight and delete them all.
Some of the emails you’ve received in the past most likely contained a large attachment. If you have downloaded and processed that attachment already it is best not to keep it in your inbox as you might run out of space eventually.
In Gmail, do a search for the following query: “size:5mb” (omit the quotation marks). This will return all emails that are 5 MB or bigger. Go through them and delete the ones you no longer need. Adjust the 5 to a different number if you need to.
Old Unwanted Emails
If you’ve had an email address for a while, you probably have some really old emails from people you don’t keep in touch with, or services you no longer use. Consider deleting those emails if you no longer need them. For example, when I first cleaned up my inbox, I found many emails from marketing services that I’ve used in the past and some of them were no longer in service. Emails from a business that no longer operates are not something that I really need to keep.
The only downfall of this process is that you have to do it manually. In Gmail, click on All Mail. This will display all emails that you have, new, old, important…everything. If you click on the arrows towards the top you can start going back in time. If you have 1000s of emails it can take you quite a few clicks to get to the first page so here is a little trick that I use:
Copy the URL that you are on right now and paste it in notepad. Click on the right arrow to go the page with older emails. Copy the new URL and paste it in notepad as well. You will discover that the only difference between the two urls is one number. Here is how mine look like (yours might be different).
First – https://mail.google.com/mail/?shva=1#all/p2
Second – https://mail.google.com/mail/?shva=1#all/p3
So if you change the “p3” to “p100” you are going to go to page 100 without having to press the back arrow a hundred times. It will take a couple of tries to end up on the page where your earliest emails are but it is a lot easier than clicking the arrow over and over again.
So start from the oldest emails, work your way forward and delete whatever you don’t need.
Over to you now
That is the 4-step process I use whenever I need to clean out my inbox. Find the emails to potentially unsubscribe from, opt out and create a filter to future proof your inbox. Delete old unread emails and the ones containing large attachments and you inbox will get cleaner in no time. Cleaner inbox and less emails are the keys to becoming more productive.
Want to see a live demonstration of the entire cleaning out process? Check out this free video training which contains a live, look-over my shoulder demonstration of everything you see above, plus lots of other advanced email productivity techniques.
What are some of the processes you use to keep your inbox clean? Share in the comment section below: