How to Clean Up Your Inbox in Under an Hour

Are you having difficulty navigating your inbox? Does the massive amount of newsletters, promotions, and solicitations make it a chore to find the emails you actually care about? And are even your business and internal emails so unorganized you actively avoid checking your email?

There’s no easy way to put this, 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

Can’t take an hour? Do what you can—a little goes a long way. Just be sure to block out some additional time to help you finish the job. 

In this guide, we’re going to give you simple, concrete tips to whip your Gmail, Office 365, Outpost, or other email inboxes into shape. And don’t worry if your inbox ends up becoming cluttered by a few dozen (or a few thousand) emails a few months from now. Cleaning your inbox is an activity you’ll need to do every so often, and you can always review our guide again to help you out.

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

Set your clean inbox goal

Before diving in, you’ll want to set up the end goal for your inbox. 

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).

Delete outdated emails

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 first thing you should do is clear out emails you never plan on reading or responding to. If the majority of your inbox is made up of unread emails that are 2 weeks, 1 month, or even 6 months or older, simply remove them. 

You may be telling yourself that you’ll eventually get to them, but the fact that you haven’t read them up to this point makes that very unlikely. Start your email clean up right by clearing out the clutter and then working to set up systems to avoid this moving forward.

Unsubscribe from mailing lists

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 or work collaboration tools, turn off email notifications (or opt-in for only necessary or limited emails).

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

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.

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.

Label and filter—but don’t overdo it

Labels are your best friend when organizing your inbox. 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 or Outpost’s search function 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.

But if you really want to get the most out of tags, you’ll also want to set inbound filters or routing rules.

These powerful filters can keep emails from ever getting to your inbox, automatically apply filters, make sure specified emails never go to spam, and even utilize your templates for automated responses.

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.

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.

Send short replies and follow-up

Now that you’ve replied to the most urgent and important emails, 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 label to these emails, 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? If you’re an Outpost user, you can 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.

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.

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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