Fixing the Leak: Cutting Down on INBOX Clutter

The problem isn’t that you’re bad at cleaning out your INBOX. The problem is that you have too much stuff coming in, in the first place.

Obviously, this is a bit of an oversimplification; there are certainly occupations which involve TONS of email, and there’s just no getting away from it. That said, if you’re anything like me, you get a lot of emails that didn’t actually come from a person. It’s these automated emails that I want to take care of, so that we can focus more attention on the communication that matters.

The INBOX Lobby

Under ideal circumstances, your INBOX should act like the front lobby of an office building. Communication comes in, gets directed to where it needs to go, and then clears out of the way. Unfortunately, most people treat their INBOX like a storage closet. Imagine if every person who came into our office just stayed in the lobby; they don’t go down the hall for their meeting, they don’t drop off their package and leave, etc. Pretty soon, that lobby is going to be packed to the gills, and no work is going to get done.

Identifying the Problem: The Leaky Email Pipeline

A lot of the emails that we get day to day aren’t things that actually require our attention. They’re newsletters, shipping notifications, promotions, political ads, and the like. If we’re diligent, we can delete or archive these emails as they come in, but that’s like putting a bucket under a leaky pipe. It’s a necessary solution in the short term, but at some point we’re just spending all our time emptying that bucket. Instead, we want to stop that email leak at the source.

Step 1: Archive Everything

Ok, we’ve identified our problem, and are committed to fixing it. However, we’ve already let things get out of control, and the task seems insurmountable.

First things first, archive everything.

Yes, everything.

Nowadays, server space is cheap and it’s much faster to search for emails than try to put them into some sort of folder hierarchy. What about “that thing” that I still need to do? Anything that’s still in your INBOX as a ToDo item has long since been either solved or neglected, and is sitting a few screens back in the other 1000+ emails in your INBOX. If you want, you can skim the first screen or two, to see if there’s anything recent that you need to put on a ToDo (i.e. don’t leave it in INBOX). You can try to delete some junk mail if you want, but don’t let doing that become an impediment to getting your INBOX down to zero. NOW.

It’s important to note that I’m talking about emptying your INBOX, not getting rid of your email entirely. Your INBOX should not be a storage place, it should be the “front lobby” for your work flow. Stuff comes in, it gets done, delegated, or deleted, it doesn’t sit there.

Step 2: Unsubscribe. Unsubscribe. Unsubscribe.

Now that your INBOX is clear, you can gradually but proactively start to fix the problem. From now on, when you get those automated emails, don’t just delete them – that’s just emptying the bucket. Deal with them. Since you’ve cleared your INBOX already, these should hopefully only crop up a couple at a time.


There are a few types of automated emails. The first, newsletters, is easy to deal with. Just look for the unsubscribe button at the bottom. Sometimes it’s a one click solution, other times you might need to fill out a small form. Either way, a little bit more time here, will save you time and stress in the long run. If you’re using Gmail, you might be able to find a generated “unsubscribe” link at the top of the email.

Website Updates

Updates from websites are very similar to newsletters, and depending on the website you might be able to treat them the same. In other cases though, you might want to take a few extra steps.

It’s easy to get signed up for a bunch of websites and then never use them. “11 Awesome Fitness Websites to Kick Off the New Year!” “17 Hot Project Management Services That Will Revolutionize Your Workflow!” “Sign up for a free account to save these recipes!” If you use a website regularly, just go ahead and unsubscribe or adjust your email settings, like with a newsletter.

However, if you don’t use the website – maybe you signed up just to try it out, and then forgot about it – it’s probably a good idea to go a step further and close your account. But, if I never use it, what’s the harm in just ignoring it? A lot of sites, rather than having you sign up with an email and password, will let you sign in with another social media account, usually Google or Facebook. This creates a major security risk if those websites are ever compromised, especially if you aren’t even aware you have an account with them. My recommendation is to tie up those loose ends and take the extra few minutes to close that account.

Website System Messages

Finally, there are some automated emails that you just can’t or shouldn’t unsubscribe to. These could be updates to privacy policies, banking alerts, or confirmation emails when you make changes to your account like changing a password. If you don’t need it, delete it. If you do need it archive it.

Step 3: Rinse and Repeat

Once you get your INBOX reset to zero, it becomes much easier to maintain. At first you’ll likely still be getting a steady stream of automated messages. Be diligent and take the time to unsubscribe. After a little while, you’ll start to see that flood of daily emails begin to subside. For everything else, make sure you deal with it. Emails from friends or co-workers should be responded to and then archived. Other stuff can probably be deleted.

If you’ve got the gumption, and want to start cleaning out your email archive as well, that’s fine too. You might find that once you unsubscribe from a few things, you get on a roll and want to do more. It doesn’t take much time, and the payoff in the long term is substantial.

Step 4: Advanced INBOX Management

If you only get as far as Step 3, you should see some sort of improvement in the amount of email you receive, and hopefully feel a lot less dread, shame, and anxiety when you go to check your email. More importantly though, you should start to have a clearer mental picture of the communication coming into your world, allowing you to have greater focus, respond to things quickly, and cut down on the I must have lost your email apologies.

There is nothing wrong with signing up for newsletters and web services, if they are things that you actually enjoy and use. The goal here is not to eliminate email entirely, but to have some sense of control over the things that vie for our attention. Once you have a clearer sense of your email workflow, you can gain even more control by setting up some filters.

Every email service or client is going to have a slightly different method for filtering email, and everyone is going to have their own needs for how they want to filter. Whatever the case, you should have some way to automate what happens to emails as soon as you receive them. You can do this based on the sender’s address, the subject line, message content, etc. I have mentioned that I like to save all of my emails to a single folder (which I call “Archive). There are instances where you might want to filter emails into another specific folder. Alternately, some email services (like Gmail) allow you to “tag” an email, by adding a descriptor like “receipt,” “bank,” “newsletter,” etc. Here are a few ideas that you might find helpful.

  • Newsletters are like magazine subscriptions. You want to sit and read them when you have the time, but don’t want them distracting you when you’re trying to get work done. You can filter these automatically into a separate folder, which you can peruse at your leisure – waiting in line, riding the bus, or just relaxing in the morning while you enjoy a cup of coffee.
  • We do a lot of financial work online now, and many people have switched to a paperless system. A lot of these emails don’t require you to do anything, but you probably shouldn’t delete them. Tags such as “bank,” “receipt,” “shipping notices” can be helpful here. If you pay your bills online, you can filter those emails into a single location, just like newsletters, which you can sit down and go through regularly.
  • Whenever you find yourself doing the same task over and over, it’s a good indication that you can add some automation to your system. For example, if I’m constantly searching for emails from my friend Tyler that talk about recipes for acorn squash, I might want to save those search parameters for easy access later. Take the time to learn about the advanced search options for your system, which will allow you to go through your emails with much greater precision.

I hope that you find these methods helpful. Let me know what strategies you use, to have some control of your digital communication.