A few weeks ago, I wrote about ways to deal with an email account that has become hard to manage. This week, we’ll focus on the specific problem of having too much old mail to wade through. The ideas in the previous post still apply, and they’re especially valuable if you find yourself still dealing with a lot of incoming mail all the time. But for those of you who want tips for quickly cutting away huge chunks of old email, this is your lucky day! Today’s Tidy Tuesday post outlines a process you can use to perform an email reset, where you get back to (or at least near) a fresh and clean mailbox.

Step 1: Choose What to Keep

Clearly, the fastest method to achieve inbox zero is to nuke the entire collection: “Select all” followed by “Delete.” But it’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this now, you’ve probably already decided against that approach. Most of us aren’t willing to take such a scorched-earth stance on our messages, with good reason. That massive set of thousands of messages contains at least a few items we’d like to hang on to. But what do we keep, and what do we toss out?

You have two main options for answering this question:

  1. Pick what you want to keep and then get rid of the rest (a.k.a. “whitelisting“).
  2. Pick what you want to get rid of and then keep the rest (a.k.a. “blacklisting“).

You’ll end up with some exceptions in either case as you go through the clean-up process. That’s fine; the point is to think about your goals and priorities ahead of time since doing so minimizes the number of decisions you need to make during the process. These mid-job choices often err on the side of keeping what you don’t really need, which defeats the purpose.

Whitelisting yields good results by forcing you to focus on what’s valuable instead of what’s annoying. Repeatedly asking yourself “Does this add value to my life?” is a more enjoyable and edifying exercise than asking “Do I get annoyed by this?” or some similar negative question. It’s also good practice for every other area of life that you might need to organize, digital or otherwise.

Blacklisting feels like a safer approach, but it’s easy to keep too much. If you want to use this method, try to be very liberal about what you put on the list, like “anything I’ve kept without reading for more than a month” or “all promotional emails.” Remember, you have way too many emails, and deleting a few dozen here or there isn’t going to solve the problem.

Don’t worry about getting too detailed at this stage. You can always modify your list here and there as you work through your collection. What you want is a set of guidelines to refer to for quick answers, or to inform your sorting and searching activity to quickly separate the (hopefully small) “keep” pile from the (hopefully enormous) “trash” pile. Just jot down a short list to keep your mind in the right place as you proceed.

Here are some examples of things you might want to keep:

  • Personally written messages to and from friends, family, and colleagues
  • Order confirmation emails for financial reference
  • Specific newsletters that have personally relevant and helpful information
  • Messages containing website account or software registration details

Note that in the case of order confirmations, you don’t need to keep every email that relates to a specific order. Many online stores send multiple confirmations, shipping updates, requests for reviews, and various other follow-up messages. As a rule, try to keep only a single message that includes the relevant information: purchase date, itemized product list, and payment details. You don’t need shipping confirmations or anything else.

I take advantage of the fact that deleted messages live in the Trash folder for 30 days by preemptively deleting even things like shipping confirmations for orders I haven’t received yet, since I know if I really need to, I can look in trash for those details. More often, I just go back to the original website and check on my order status there under the account management page.

Here are some categories you might want to get rid of:

  • Shipping confirmation emails for anything that has already arrived
  • Promotional emails that are older than a week, or even a few days
  • Anything you intended to read but haven’t been able to for 30 days or more
  • All messages older than three years (maybe, depending on your temperament and goals)

Remember, these are just samples. They work well as a starting point, but you should feel free to modify them as needed to fit your situation.

Step 2: Search and Sort

Once you’ve got some basic ideas for what to keep and what to get rid of, it’s time to start sorting and filtering your messages. Unless you’re going with a simple date-based cut-off, the easiest way to do this is to use your mail provider’s powerful search tools (special terms or operators). With these tools, you can filter messages along many helpful lines, such as:

  • Including or excluding certain terms in the subject or body
  • To or from specific people
  • Sent before, after, or between certain dates
  • Including or excluding attachments

The ever-popular Gmail is extremely powerful in this regard. This is unsurprising since it’s built by a company whose name is now synonymous with search. You can find instructions for special Gmail search operators directly from Google Support here, or from the venerable Clean Email application team here.

Apple’s Mail client for macOS, iPhoneOS, and iPadOS, also provides ways to perform advanced searches through email messages. Instructions for these tools are here (macOS) and here (iPhones and iPads). Apple also boasts the ability to perform a natural language search in their Mail client for desktops and laptops, which can make the process easier.

I have to give another shameless plug to Clean Email, a web-based tool for doing exactly what I’ve described above. If you don’t feel comfortable managing effective search terms right inside your current email client, consider this tool to greatly streamline the process. I recommend it because I’ve used it with great success:

As I wrote in an earlier email-related article, Clean Email might not work for everyone, but it’s worth a try if you have this exact problem to solve.

Step 3: Obliteration

Once you identify each batch of emails that you want to get rid of, just delete them. Poof! Gone. It’s truly liberating. If you’re not 100% sure that deletion is the right choice, consider the following:

  • Deleted emails usually go into a “Trash” or “Deleted Items” folder first, where they remain for some period of time. If you decide you shouldn’t have deleted something within that timeframe, you can go easily recover it. (Verify this in your email client before deciding to use it as a backup option, however.)
  • If you’re still paranoid about losing something important, consider moving emails instead to a “To Delete” folder instead. This becomes your own personal triage location, certain to avoid accidental auto-deletion by your provider. After you finish wiping your inbox clean, revisit that folder in a week or a month and decide then whether it’s safe to delete them after all.

If you receive a lot of emails from specific senders or on certain topics, you should also consider setting up email rules to automatically sort incoming messages in the future. And, if possible, unsubscribe completely from newsletters, promotions, and anything else that doesn’t regularly add value to your life.

Step 4: Clean What Remains

As you sort through your emails and wipe out giant swaths of what you don’t want to keep, you’ll undoubtedly come across messages that fall into the “keep” category. These should be archived into a few (ideally not more than a dozen) high-level category folders or labels, such as:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Orders
  • Finance
  • Health
  • Registration

It’s tempting to go crazy with archive folders, but don’t do it. For the vast majority of us, a complex sorting hierarchy becomes unmanageable very quickly. Remember those powerful search tools built into your mail client? They work just as well on reasonably well-sorted emails that you want to keep. 98% of the time you want to find a specific message, a quick search is the best way to do so. You won’t even need to narrow it down to one of the high-level folders first. Searching is fast, easy, and effective. Don’t be afraid to use it.

Step 5: Make it a Habit

The first mass inbox cleaning is usually the hardest, for multiple reasons. Going through the process once should be enough to last you a while, enjoying the well-deserved feeling of accomplishment and the benefits of an organized mailbox. However, email is a tough beast to tame, and you may find that you need to do it again.

Whether or not you experience (or anticipate) a cycle between a messy inbox and a clean one, turning the above steps into a habit can head off that feeling of overwhelm in the future, maybe even indefinitely. Keeping your inbox clean is far easier than getting it clean in the first place. Literally just a few minutes per day of focused time can make all the difference in the world. Check out the Tidy Tuesday articles on habits generally and on email specifically for some tangible ideas.

Do One Thing

Choose one online store advertisement series, aging newsletter, or another email sender to search out and delete all at once.

Prove to yourself that not only can you delete emails that you don’t need to keep, but you can also eliminate dozens or even hundreds of messages at a time. And if you can do it once, you can do it over and over, hacking away at that messy inbox until only the good stuff remains.

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Ready to get your data under control? You can do it!