Clean Up Your Email: Whip Your Inbox Into Shape in an Hour

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Your inbox is a mess and you need to clean up your email. That’s okay—because, in an hour or less, your email accounts are going to be in much better shape.

In this guide, we’re going to give you simple, concrete tips you can put to work right now and get a quick result. Anytime your Gmail or Office 365 account has a few dozen (or a few thousand) too many emails, feel free to pop back over to this little guide.

Take the #HourInboxChallenge! Share your before and after inbox message counts or screenshots. Hit us up on Twitter @OutpostTeam, and include the #HourInboxChallenge hashtag!

How to use this guide to clean up your email

We’re not standing behind you with a stopwatch (hey, we need to clean up our email too). Use an hour as a timeframe to help you focus. Put to work the steps you need and do your best.

Can’t take an hour? Do what you can—a little goes a long way. After this initial hour, block out time every day to help you finish the job across your work email, or across multiple email inboxes.

By the time we’re done, you’ll have a much more spacious inbox, and you’ll know your plans for anything that does remain.

Ready to declutter your inbox and clean up your email in an hour or less? Time’s a-wastin’. Let’s get to it!

Clean up email inbox

Start with a quick tidy

Let’s start with some quick wins. You know how sometimes you do a little decluttering of your home or desk, and suddenly things already start feeling better? The same things happen with messy email accounts.

The key is simple: Small successes add up fast to show results and motivate you. They also set the stage for tackling bigger challenges and chalk up bigger cleared-out-inbox victories.

Pull up your primary work email. Don’t let the count or the glaring number of unread messages throw you off your game. You got this.

Turn on “Send & Archive”

If it’s not turned on already, hit Gmail’s gear icon and select “Settings.” Under “General,” scroll down to “Send & Archive.” Make sure that’s set to “Show ‘Send & Archive’ button in reply.”

If you’re using Outpost, the function is the same, but it’s called Send & Resolve.

Clean up your inbox

Once you send an email, you don’t need that message to stay in your inbox. Send & Resolve (or Send & Archive) combines two actions in one: when you send an email, you automatically archive it, removing the message from your inbox and storing it in your account.

The upshot? Send & Archive is one small way Gmail and Outpost help you declutter your email.

Prioritize the urgent and re-assign the irrelevant

First, deal with what is urgent and important from the people who are the highest priority to your job.

Scan your inbox for emails from your manager, project team, and so on. You’re looking for emails from key people that you don’t want to fall through the cracks. If you can, process those right away. If you need to, add a label (such as the project name or deadline).

If you’re using Outpost, you can actually assign an email to a specific person on your team if you’re not the right person to respond to a particular message. Especially if you find that you’re an email response bottleneck, assigning emails to someone else on your team can really help, even more so than CCing everyone on your team, hoping the right person will respond.

Clean up your inbox

Think of it like this: If someone in your office has a medical emergency, and you simply yell, “someone call 911!” it’s scientifically proven that you’ll get a slower response or none at all—it’s called diffusion of responsibility. People think someone else will call 911, because you made an untargeted ask to a group of people.

If instead, you yell, “Celeste Peterson, call 911,” Celeste is a lot more likely to make the call because you specifically asked her to do it.

So if you’re not the right person to answer an email, assign it to a specific person. If you can help it, don’t CC or forward a group of people an email—actually assign it to an individual so there’s no doubt that they’re responsible for responding.

Send short replies to emails you need to take further action on later

Now that you’ve replied to the most urgent and important emails in your Gmail account, it’s time to give a little love to some lower priority tasks. These are things you need to do, but not yet.

Add a Gmail label to these emails too, such as “Complete by Friday” or “General To-Do.”

Today’s best practice is to respond to emails in an hour or less (or up to a day when merited). For these other emails, reply back to all relevant emails with a quick “I have it and will get back to you as soon as I can in more detail.”

Even better? Set up a few quick templates for this so you don’t have to re-type the same response over and over again—less time typing, more time sending. Just don’t archive those emails until you’ve dealt with them.

Hit snooze

Just like whacking your alarm in the morning, Gmail’s “snooze” function is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Not every email needs your attention right this second. So snooze them. Either from the inbox or inside the message, select snooze, then pick a time and date for the email to return to your inbox so you can deal with it properly.

Unsubscribe without mercy, pity, or FOMO

Your inbox is no place for FOMO. When it comes to email, FOMO—”fear of missing out”—just leads to GND, or “getting nothing done.”

Mercilessly unsubscribe from mailing lists.

That list you think you have to be on? Those email notifications from the social networks that ding your phone with the exact same thing they just emailed you about? The endless coupons and sale notifications from places you never shop at?

All that junk can go.

Either go into the email and unsubscribe or try newer email management tools such as Unroll.Me to help you get your subscriptions under control.

For your social networks, turn off email notifications (or at least see if you can tone that stuff down to just the things you really truly need an email for).

Be on lists that provide you value. Unsubscribe from the rest. Don’t look back.

Archive or delete

Your inbox is not your email’s home. Your inbox is just a stop along the way.

Ultimately, every email you receive has only two possible destinations: archived in All Mail, or trashed and deleted to who-cares-where.

Your job is just to send them on their way.

Delete unneeded emails. Archive anything that requires no further action on your part, but you need or want to keep it around.

And no, you don’t need a million folders labels to help you with this. Gmail’s robust search box is your friend, with simple-to-use search functions, or operators, that help you search for everything from a specific sender, to messages sent within a specified timeframe.

(One gracenote: If you really aren’t sure about deleting a message, fine. Archive it. Either way, you’re probably never going to look at it again, but you’ll feel better about knowing that you could if you wanted to.)

Label and filter—but don’t overdo it

Labels have long been the not-so-secret secret weapon of Gmail. Anyone email can have as many labels as you want, helping you organize and label emails for streamlined, categorized reference that fits your work and preferences.

The key is to not overdo it. You don’t need to set up labels for specific senders, years, or anything like that—Gmail’s search can help you find emails based on those and lots of other parameters.

Use labels to group emails related to a project or event, particular internal correspondence, news, swipe file, ideas, hashtags, or other big or small buckets related to your specific tasks.

Labels are only half the fun, though.

Gmail’s powerful filters can keep emails from ever getting to your inbox, automatically apply filters, make sure specified emails never go to spam, or are always marked important.

In your inbox, select an email you’d like to add a filter to. Hit the three dots menu (technically, the “vertical ellipsis”), and select “Filter messages like these.” From here, you can set up what Gmail needs to look for in an email (anything from sender to attachment size), and what to do with the message (such as skip inbox/archive it, apply a label, autoreply with a canned response, categorize it, always/never mark it important). The options are powerful—and can save you serious time beyond today’s hour inbox purge.

When setting up your filter, make sure to select the “Also apply filter to X matching conversation.” Especially in the case of emails that need to be archived, this one checkbox can do a lot of heavy lifting for you.

Labels and filters work really well together. If you’re setting up a label, add a filter too—it’ll save you steps and time, and help you keep your inbox cleaner on an ongoing basis.

Pay special attention to that “Skip the inbox” option. Some emails are best labeled, filtered straight to the archive, and reviewed when it’s convenient for you. That way, your inbox becomes populated primarily by the messages that truly need your attention now.

Set your clean inbox goal

When it’s all said and done, you’ll have a leaner, cleaner, decluttered inbox.

Of course, it’s only going to last but for so long.

Whether it’s inbox zero, a max number of messages, always see the bottom of the inbox, a time-based or day-based clear-out goal (such as Fridays by 3 p.m.), set your ongoing goal for what you consider to be a clean, manageable inbox.

No matter what your goal is, set a realistic one and stick it. That will help you keep your Gmail inbox clean day to day (or at least week to week).

What do you do after your big one-hour inbox clean?

Over time you’ll evolve your email system. You’ll also continue to have times where you need to clean up your inbox.  Choose your process, stick to it, and adapt as you learn and as your work needs evolve. Make time throughout your day and week to stay on top of your inbox.

No matter what though, there may be times when your email becomes a mess again. And that’s okay. You can come right back here, take that hour, and whip your email back into shape again.

Take the #HourInboxChallenge!

Ready to get your inbox into shape? Take the #HourInboxChallenge! Share your before and after inbox message counts or screenshots. Hit us up on Twitter @OutpostTeam, and include the #HourInboxChallenge hashtag.

Posted in Email

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at anthonystclair.com.
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