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Get to Inbox Zero, Even If You’re Terrible at Email

How to tame the most terrifyingly messy inbox

Image: Miss Tuni/Getty

I was never a neat person, a fact that’s been made abundantly clear to me by the half-dozen or so people who have shared a space with me over the years. But recently, some combination of moving into my first solo apartment and aspiring to be the kind of person who could invite a friend over for a glass of wine on a whim (without having to first ask them to wait on my stoop for five minutes while I threw things into my closet) has helped me get my once-slovenly ways in order. My bed is made most days. Clothes go in drawers at night. I freaking dust.

My email inbox, however, is still cobweb city. Despite my best efforts, nothing about my newer, cleaner lifestyle has ever translated to my online organizational habits — which means that as of this writing, I currently have 36,747 emails sitting unread in my personal Gmail. And this figure doesn’t even include the many more in my work email, or the (shudders) AOL account I’ve had since middle school. Knowing I had tried and failed in past attempts to get my email under control, I consulted two professionals — sociologist Anna Akbari, author of Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way to Happiness, and Harris Stratyner, a media psychologist who has meticulous email habits — to help guide me on the long journey to Inbox Zero. Here are the steps, based on their advice, that got me there.

“Taking a moment to do a comprehensive personal analysis of your habits and needs, will create some much-needed mental clarity.”

Go back in time

To start, Stratyner recommended I get my emails in shape by sorting them in reverse chronological order. “It’s probably safe to assume if you haven’t had any negative repercussions” to not answering those, “you can just delete,” he said. (On Gmail, you can do this by clicking where it says “1–50 of your ungodly number of emails” at the top of your inbox and selecting “oldest” from the drop-down menu.) My oldest unread emails are from March 2016, the last time I made an Inbox Zero attempt. I marked, as read, everything from 2016, 2017, and all 2018 dated before November 1. (Type your cutoff date in the format “before:2018/11/01” into the search bar at the top of your inbox.)

Archive and move on

I would bet you money I’ll never need most, likely any, of those emails I marked as read, but my anxious brain doesn’t really believe it. Stratyner told me to quell this by “deleting” my emails, but not permanently. “That way it’s not like you’re going be dead if somebody says, ‘You never got back to me from December 2017.’ You’ll be able to find it.” Gmail permanently deletes emails you trashed after 30 days, so I archived those tens of thousands of now-read emails and, to make things a little easier for future me, also added them to a folder labeled “All The Emails You Never Read from Before 11/01/18.” The rest of November’s emails I dealt with by hand, since there was a better chance they’d be important.

Know when to give up on a system

In previous Inbox Zero efforts, I tried to use the oft-lauded OHIO method, which is an acronym for “only handle it once.” But that just translated to never handling emails and avoiding them entirely to get out of the guilt of knowing I’d interacted with an email but hadn’t replied or deleted.

Akbari suggested I make sure that going forward, I only use email tactics that actually work for me. “Taking a moment to do a comprehensive personal analysis of your habits and needs, and to develop your own email protocol, will create some much-needed mental clarity and free up more time,” she said. My new strategy involves liberally using the starring tool, which puts those emails in a starred folder, and checking in on that folder once or twice a week. Right now I’ve got 30 emails in there, which feels manageable. Anything I don’t star gets marked as read and archived — or deleted, if it’s junk — at the end of the day.

Unsubscribe like your life depends on it

Part of keeping up with my newly cleaned inbox means staying on top of all the junk emails that come in every day. Gmail has a built-in feature at the top of automated emails that you can click to unsubscribe. This sounds like a pain — and it kind of is — but it helps to remember than every time I unsubscribe from something, I’m making my future inbox neater. Plus, eventually I should run out of things from which I need to unsubscribe in the first place.

Let your inbox do the work

Gmail’s latest redesign also has a feature called Nudge that I find handy. It does exactly what it sounds like: When you haven’t replied to an email Google’s A.I. thinks you meant to, you get a nudge. If you don’t already have this turned on, you can do so in the General Settings section of your inbox, which has two options: “suggest emails to reply to” and “suggest emails to follow up on.”

Cut yourself some slack

Getting good at email isn’t going to happen overnight. Slowly unsubscribing from the hundreds of places I’ve given my email to over the years is taking time. Retraining my brain to deal with those starred emails every few days requires effort. Getting more comfortable liberally deleting emails… is also work.

But it’s work that feels a little easier when you put things in perspective. Akbari describes the longing for Inbox Zero as “a combination of wanting the sense of accomplishment that reaching it would afford, while also alleviating the anxiety that many feel when unanswered emails stare back at them when they log on.” That last bit really sticks with me whenever I think about all the real, emotional work I do to alleviate my anxiety day-to-day. By comparison, deleting my emails seems like nothing. Which, coincidentally, is also what’s unread in my inbox right now.

Madison Malone Kircher is a staff writer at New York Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn. Twitter: @4evrmalone

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