An illustration of a woman looking perfectly content, while being buried in a ton of letters.
An illustration of a woman looking perfectly content, while being buried in a ton of letters.
Illustration: Andrea Chronopoulos

You vs. Your Inbox

It’s Fine to Have 77,000 Unread Emails

II first realized my inbox was becoming a problem when I missed an acceptance from an editor I’d never worked with before. It was pretty embarrassing to send a groveling apology six weeks after the fact, explaining that her message had gotten lost amid thousands of other unread emails.

Not for the first time, I considered declaring email bankruptcy: mass-deleting all the newsletters, marketing promos, Google news alerts, and notes from friends, family, and work contacts that accumulated over the years. I’d give myself a blank slate, one that allowed me to actually notice the professional opportunities that came my way.

Yet I couldn’t bring myself to nuke my inbox entirely. What if I wanted to reread a note my late grandmother had written to me? Or look up which Black Friday promos a company offered in 2016 to better inform my shopping this year?

In search of a better strategy, I started asking around and found that I was far from alone in my email hoarding. Some felt daunted by their huge numbers of unread messages and told me about missing important emails, such as party invitations, because of sheer volume. Some had tried to get things under control; others had adopted an attitude of defeat.

Melissa Cuerdon, a health policy analyst, told me her frustration with her inbox has been growing gradually. “I remember feeling overwhelmed at least five years ago, once every store, website, charity, and neighborhood association started requiring email addresses, and I couldn’t keep up,” she said. “I tried organizing with folders, which worked pretty well—until it didn’t. Gmail updated and redesigned one too many times, and I stopped bothering.” I also talked to people who had pretty much given up on email in favor of texting or Facebook Messenger.

For Michelle Legro, the features editor at GEN, the 2,500 emails she had in her Gmail account became the digital equivalent of white noise. “I got very used to looking at a set of unread emails much in the same way you get used to looking at clutter in your house,” she said. “You forget at some point that it should be answered or has been answered and you don’t really need it anymore.”

What’s more, managing email can seem like a productive way to spend your time, but it’s really not. “It’s important to remember that email itself isn’t work,” says Avery Swartz, founder of Camp Tech and author of the forthcoming book See You on the Internet: Building Your Small Business With Digital Marketing. “Spending hours a day organizing your inbox can feel like an accomplishment, but it rarely gets you closer to achieving your goals. Sometimes it’s more important to step away from your messy inbox or just learn to live with it.” For instance, while writing her book, Swartz was laser-focused on that project and let email slide. Now, she says, “I’m prouder to have a book exist in the world than I am of achieving inbox zero.”

For me, everything changed when I discovered productivity coach Cathy Sexton’s system. According to Sexton, we don’t have to get to zero. She says the number of emails you have doesn’t actually matter at all; what matters is how you manage them. Here’s how to go from inbox overwhelm to having an email system that makes your life less stressful.

Know that a big inbox is totally okay

What really matters is what’s in your main inbox. Sexton notes that your main inbox ought to be “just the things you need to work on”: unpaid bills, projects on your to-do list, invitations you still have to respond to. Don’t be afraid of the total number, whether it’s a few emails or a few hundred. The important thing is making sure nothing urgent falls by the wayside.

Start with a clean slate

Often, trying to tackle a cluttered inbox, like trying to tackle a cluttered room, feels impossible — and because of that feeling, we give up before we even start. Sexton has her new clients put all their email in a folder called “old email” so they can feel like they’re starting fresh but without the risk of deleting everything only to realize, “Wait, I needed that contract.”

Set up folders and sort your emails

Sorting is the key to Sexton’s clean inbox method. First, you need five to seven folders. They can be labeled in whatever way makes sense for your life and business. Sexton suggests one for clients, one for admin, one for programs or services, one for things you’re producing (such as projects), a teams folder (for groups you’re part of), and a personal folder. Then you can make subfolders, such as family or health under personal. The idea is that by sticking to a limited number of folders, you can easily drag and drop email into that folder, whether on your phone or desktop.

Once your folders are finalized, you’ll need to make up to five decisions for each new email as it comes in. Ask yourself:

  1. Can you delete it? If so, get rid of it right away.
  2. If it can’t be deleted, can you delegate or forward it? This puts the onus on someone else and gets it out of your inbox and your mind.
  3. Will it take two minutes or less? If so, reply now and put it in the relevant folder.
  4. Can it be filed? This applies to receipts, paperwork, or anything similar. If so, drag and drop it into the appropriate folder.
  5. Does it need action that will take longer than two minutes? In this case, keep it in your inbox until you have time to properly handle it.

Set aside time to check your email

The day I spoke with Sexton, I’d spent two hours at the dentist’s office, checking email in the waiting room. The risk of doing so, she explained to me, is that if I was in the middle of reading or responding to an email and got called into my cleaning, it would be easy for me to forget about the email entirely, since it was no longer in bold, demanding my attention.

To avoid situations like that one, Sexton recommends setting aside three or four set times per day, even adding them to your calendar, to check email for a half-hour or hour (or longer, depending on your job and your needs). “Leave it until then, unless you’re looking for something really important,” she says. When you limit your email checking to a dedicated time block, she says, “It becomes part of your daily routine, and it’s much easier to deal with.”

Save the important emails, just not in your inbox

When I asked Sexton whether the $9.99 per month I pay for extra email storage is worth it, she said yes, but added that keeping email just to keep it isn’t serving me in the long run. “You have to ask yourself: ‘How often have I ever had to go back and look at that?’ More than likely never, or maybe once,” she said.

Sexton noted that corporate accounts often limit storage, so you literally can’t save everything. “If it’s something you really need to save, you don’t save it in your email,” she said. “You save it in your hard drive.” People who work from home can do this on their own machines as well. Getting all the truly important things out of your inbox has double benefits: It frees up space and keeps those things safe in one place, preventing accidental deletion.

Target the low-hanging fruit

A few months ago, Legro manually unsubscribed from nearly all her newsletters. “It used to be a weight that I carried around with me all the time.” she said. Now, instead of getting 200 emails a day, she gets closer to 40 and can more easily process them. Make things easier on yourself by cutting off the flow of junk at the source — unsubscribing from sale alerts for stores you don’t shop at, removing yourself from Listservs that aren’t useful. After all, the less email you get, the less you’ll have to manage, and the closer you’ll be to, if not inbox zero, at least inbox Zen.

Writer on books, culture, and sex. Editor of Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series. Written for New York Times, Salon, CNN and more.

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