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Making More Time To Write: Cleaning Up Your Inbox and Improving Your E-mail System

Don't know about the rest of you, but I have a tendency to let my e-mail pile up...or at least I did. This year, I'm determined to keep better control over my e-mail Inbox (or Inboxes, since I have more than one e-mail account).

What I'm finding: bad e-mail organization/handling results in wasted time (time that could be spent writing) and missing important messages.

Here's a list of things I did toward achieving a better e-mail system, in case any of you want to try the same:

1. Did a mass search for certain senders and subject header phrases to make it easier to list messages for mass deletion.

I've been getting notices from Twitter about new followers, for instance. I use Gmail, so I clicked on the "Show Search Options Link" to the right of the search field, specified that I only wanted to search mail in my Inbox, entered the phrase "is now following" in the search subject field, then hit SEARCH:

Once you get a list of all the messages, then click on SELECT ALL:

Click on "Select all conversations that match this search" to also select the e-mail results on other search results pages (else you have to repeat the process):

..and then DELETE:

2. Unsubscribed from as many e-mail lists as I possibly could.

I had initially subscribed to various mailing lists with grand dreams of being able to scan all of them, but I'm realizing that there is just NO WAY I can keep up. The messages inevitably start piling up, and more important e-mail messages get lost in the mix.

Instead, I read the lists on the Web whenever possible (bookmarking them in my To Read list -- browser bookmark organization is another topic I probably should cover sometime). And I'm going through each of these e-mails in my Inbox and taking the time to find the "To unsubscribe, click here" link. If there IS no link, I go to the source Web site and look for it, e-mailing the administrator if I have to:

Some companies make it a real challenge to get taken off their their e-mail lists, counting on you giving up before you manage to unsubscribe. DON'T GIVE UP. Just think of how much time and hassle you'll save in the future by making some effort now.

If there are lists whose mailings you'd really like to keep, filter them into a separate folder/mailbox. You'll have to remember to check this separate mailbox but at least it gets them out of your Inbox.

As for improving my e-mail system, I'm trying to get into the habit of NOT CHECKING E-MAIL SO MANY TIMES THROUGHOUT THE DAY. Or at least not feeling compelled to drop everything I'm doing and responding immediately. This is going to take some self-discipline, but I'm already finding that it's paying off. Part of this is also training my regular contacts to my new system as well, that I may not be able to respond to all messages right away.

What about the rest of you? What does your e-mail inbox look like right now? Any other tips or ideas to share about improving your e-mail system with the goal of getting more time to write? I may post a Part 2 for this topic, depending on responses.

Related Resources:

4 ways to take control of your e-mail Inbox
Fifteen Practical Tips for Managing Your E-mail : more for lawyers, but includes some useful tips.
7 Ways To Manage Your Email Like An Expert
Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload: also includes tips on how to send better e-mail.

Reader Comments (21)

Personally, I scan email often and reply to actual personal communications IMMEDIATELY, before they get lost in the haze. Everything else I know I can scan for later, and will be deleted automatically at some far flung future date after it's faded to utter, total irrelevance anyway so I just ignore them.

But I don't have 1% of the online presence Inky does...so I don't recommend my technique to anyone with more! I'm running at 110% just to keep up with blogs/Twitter/FB anyway - who has time for email?

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Carriker

When I used the Gmail interface for my email (via a nice little Mac app named Mailplane), I organized it with the Multiple Mailboxes plugin which is available from the "labs" link.

From there, I created various Getting Things Done type boxes where I would file email as it came in. This made the inbox really an inbox, not where things lived indefinitely.

Unfortunately, now I'm back to using Mail.app in OSX and it's not quite as easy to organize. I'm working on a system for it now.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

Here's a good habit to have: when an email newsletter comes in and you find yourself deleting it without a thought... stop. That's the time to unsubscribe to it.

Being the organized freak I am, I tend to keep inbox clean on a daily basis.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeryl K Evans

I use yahoo email, and I have folders for just about everything. So, if I'm not sure I want to delete something, I move it to the appropriate folder. That way, it is out of my inbox, but still available if I need to refer to it later.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLarissa

I'm a huge fan of Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero. I get really obsessive if my inbox has stuff in it, lol. I have a system of folders for keeping things I need, and a series of filters for moving stuff out of my inbox that doesn't need my immediate attention (like twitter notifications, for example). That way, it's not in my inbox (and not triggering things like my phones notification system), but I can still see its new by looking at Gmail and seeing that a particular folder has as unread count.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdogboi

I too want to reduce the amount of times I check email but I have also moved to web only access via gmail and I don't use client software which reduces the decision making time on whether to keep an email in a folder or delete. I keep all non salesy emails such as those from clients, friends, editors, agent, etc with the arhive feature so I can move quickly out of inbox but find in a search in seconds.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaisy Whitney

I clean my inbox as they come, unsuscribing as I get things I don't want, and deleting immediately. It's so much easier than losing things/scrolling through, and if it interrupts me during a task for a few seconds, it's not that big of an interruption, and I'm scatterbrained enough that I go with the flow of interruptions, rather than try to fight against them.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa W.

This sounds horrible but nothing saves me more time than the fact that I no longer re-read emails.

I used to craft emails like any other writing, checking, re-checking, editing, etc.

Now I just write and send. I have an auto-spell check but other than that, I just trust that I wrote it well enough the first time and it saves so much time.

I used to let emails sit for ages while I waited for time to write an email, now I quickly dash one down and send...done!

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHillary

Message filters. Make them your friend.

Multiple mailboxes (addresses) for the different personas. And/or folders where messages are shuttled to. My geek email address has a folder for my ham radio stuff and another for my webhost. My author email address has a folder for my publisher and another for the publisher's marketing/promotion list.

Thunderbird email client. Not sure I understand nor like the latest release but I'm still learning how to use it. The "junk" button is great in that it learns from me what to consider junk then starts shuttling the junk ones before I even see them.

And speaking of spam, make sure you are truly a subscriber to that newsletter before you hit the "unsubscribe me" link at the bottom. The vast majority of email spam/trojans/viruses are geared toward M$Outlook.

I'm not into FB (although I have an account) and certainly not Twitter (no interest whatsoever) and rely heavily on email for communication. I also am slowly getting out from the Yahoo!Groups and finding forums instead. More organized, less crap, less Yahoo! privacy concerns

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaulaO

Paula O reminded me of something I've recently done to help with filtering. Since I own the domain my mail is on, I set my email address up as a catchall, so anything @ my domain will reach me.

What this means for me is that I can use different email addresses for different things. So for social networks, my email address is social@mydomain and for news sites my email address is news@mydomain. It all gets to my inbox, but it is easily filtered based on the to: field in the header.

If you own your own domain and use Google Apps to host your mail, this is easy to set up.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdogboi

I take the same approach as Vanessa. I check email too often, but prefer to do that than risk a pile up of new messages. I address every message as it comes in -- just like regular mail:

1. File / archive / delete.
2. Address if only takes a couple of minutes.
3. Leave if requires more time -- but I don't leave it long.
4. Unsubscribe.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeryl K. Evans

I think I need to follow your advice and dump some of the free e-newsletters that come into my box. I'm sure each are filled with plenty of great info, but for the most part I just archive them in my gmail. I don't know off-hand how many unread newsletters I have in my folders, but I'm guessing it's getting close to triple digits. When I sign up, I have every intention of reading each one as soon as it gets in, but that never happens. I also say that I'll make time to go back and read them, but with so many other things to do, that doesn't happen either. I'm happy with how I handle the rest of my email, but I'm definitely going to have to follow your advice on the free newsletters.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric J. Krause

There is actually a name for all that unread email: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacn_(electronic)" rel="nofollow">bacn. It's for all those newsletters and alerts and notifications we all get but never read.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaulaO

I have 1973 messages in my inbox. So I guess you could say I'm do for a cleanup!

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSherrie Petersen

Since I check upon and clean my mailbox regularly, I have hardly more than 30 mails in it at any given time. I recommend unsubscribing from newsletters, canceling automatic notifications (such as "is following you" from Twitter) and not responding to any kind of chain letters (chain mail? No that's something different - you get what I mean, don't you).

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDiandra

This is so me. On January 1st, I had over 800 emails in my Inbox. It took me hours to get it down to less than 100. I finally realized that if I didn't get to read those newsletters on a timely basis, I wasn't going to read them at all and deleted them. Many of them are archived on websites so I could find them there if I wanted to. It's a never ending battle, though.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Mullet

Well I tend to get all my email on my blackberry. I tend to read and delete daily. If there is something I want to save, I delete it on the berry and leave it in my mailbox. Every two or three months I go through all of my email and archive everything I save. I don't save anything unrelated to writing or house stuff. I save inspirational quotes or words because I go back to read them to be inspired. But, I keep on top of two of my email addresses. One, which I've had for more than ten years (and was the first email addy I had), can get out of hand, but I take some time to clear it every few months. I also unsubscribe to anything I don't need so that works as well.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeiddi

Thanks for the tips! It's always wonderful when I find practical advice like this.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterReesha

What a great way to start the new year! I agree that it's a good idea to filter emails into folders. This makes the mass deletions easier. I also agree with dogboi, and I have a separate email address for signing up at sites that I think will throw spam my way. I rarely check that one!

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

At work, I have to check email pretty frequently, since people will more often send an email than walk down the corridor to ask me a question.

But I use filters to send messages into appropriate folders. This works especially nicely with mailing lists, since each list can have its own folder, and the less important ones can be ignored indefinitely. It also helps with automatically mailed messages.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGary McGath

I would just create filter rules -- I'm so up-to-date my children want to read my email-news-alerts on my iPhone as-they-arrive.

January 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Kesner

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