How I Processed a Backlog of 1,061 Emails to Reclaim My Inbox
Stay on top of your inbox -- without devoting your whole day to email -- with these tips.
A few weeks ago on a Monday morning, I opened my inbox with a tense tightening in my stomach. My inbox a few weeks prior was around 20 emails. This Monday, however, it had ballooned to 1,061 emails.
Within 90 minutes, I had it down to 100 emails. So, how did I process so many emails so fast? Read on.
If you've read my other post, 3 Rules I Use to Stay Productive and Not Overwhelmed, you might think I have it all together.
Well the fact is, life is hard, and things ebb and flow. I feel directionally correct, but we all fall off the proverbial bike. So, it's time to get back on. Here's how I get things back in order and manage the overwhelm.
There are four strategies for managing an overwhelming inbox:
- Process it all (who has that many hours free?).
- Continually pick at it and ignore most of it (e.g., let it constantly nag and overwhelm you as it compounds with time).
- Delete it all (hey, the nuclear option sometimes is a good option).
- Process in segments.
My preferred method to manage an inbox is to process it in segments. What follows is my general strategy for getting an out of control inbox back under control. It's also an excellent strategy for keeping it tidy each day and week too.
Why I process email in segments
The challenge with any inbox is anyone can put something into it. The more emails you send, the more emails you get. It's a never-ending battle. It's why managing your inbox is so hard.
To counteract this, I recommend creating segments, or chunks, of your email to process. These chunks are finite in size and can go to 0 much quicker than a single inbox.
Processing emails in segments gives a sense of accomplishment as you process email -- the number of emails is shrinking versus growing!
Rules to process in chunks
Two basic rules to follow to make this work.
If the email is actionable:
- If an email can be taken care of in less than two minutes, process it right away.
- If this email will take longer than two minutes to process, add it to your to-do list. My favorite app is Things, but Todoist, Nozbe, Asana or any task manager will do.
If the email is non-actionable:
- Read and delete.
- Read and archive.
How to segment your email inbox
The rules below apply to any email inbox but are tailored to those that use Gmail. For other email tools like Outlook or Yahoo, please consult the help docs for how to filter your email the same way.
So, my total inbox right now is 1,061.
Type "in:inbox newer_than:2d older_than:1d" into Gmail's search bar to see all emails from yesterday. I first discovered this technique from Tony Hsieh's post, Yesterbox. This is one of my go-to filters for maintaining my inbox.
When I applied this filter to my inbox of 1,061, only two emails appeared. It's low because it was Monday and I get very few emails over the weekend. It took one minute to get this segment of email back to 0!
Type "in:inbox newer_than:1d" into Gmail's search bar to see all emails in the past 24 hours.
I process this one next since it's the next smallest list. While it'd be great to respond to old emails, that list is a lot longer. I'm working to build up momentum clearing my inbox, not just maintaining it.
While I applied to this my inbox of 1,061, only 21 emails appeared. It took 22 minutes to get this segment of email back to 0.
This past week
Type "in:inbox newer_than:7d older_than:1d" into Gmail's search bar to see all emails from the last seven days.
With today and yesterday's emails processed, this list is only 87 emails deep. A bit longer but still much more manageable than 1,061 emails. I like to start at the bottom of this list (oldest to newest) and work backward. This segment took me 75 minutes to process.
Older than 30 days
Type "in:inbox older_than:30d" into Gmail's search bar to see all emails older than 30 days.
This is for those emails that are lingering for a response or action (even if deleted). When applied to my inbox of 847, only 29 emails appeared here. It took another quick 20 minutes to process these.
Leftovers in inbox
After processing the above segments, I had 101 emails left in my inbox. You could create additional filters or handle all at once. Since it is around 100 emails, I decided to process this all together.
For this bucket, I usually set a Pomodoro of 25 minutes and get through as many emails as I can in that time. I repeat this one or two more times to get through the inbox. Pomodoro is a useful technique to break down work into time intervals, usually 25 minutes. It makes a dizzying list of emails to respond to more approachable.
What if something is urgent in there? Don't worry. I'm sure that sender will ping you to bring it to the top of your inbox. Otherwise, it's probably not time-sensitive.
Automatic filtering with Sanebox
Those above date filters are great for quickly responding to important emails. However, if you add them up, you'll notice a gap.
2 (yesterday) + 21 (today) + 87 (this week) + 29 (older than 30 days) + 101 (leftovers) = 240
That's not 1,061.
Where are the rest of my emails?
In my @Sanelater folder, powered by Sanebox. Sanebox is one of my favorite tools. It works with any email client out there. It essentially puts all unimportant emails into a folder to process later. It works through a combination of artificial intelligence through training, social media profiles and more.
My @Sanelater folder had 806 emails in here, mostly newsletters, notifications and emails from people I have never communicated with nor are connected to on social networking sites.
Eight minutes later, I went from 806 emails to 48. Those were mostly ones I'd like to read more of when I have free time.
I try to process this folder once a week on Fridays. While it sounds like a lot, it's super fast. I usually end up deleting 99 percent of the emails, I read a handful and a couple I move to my Inbox since they are important emails I need to respond to (this is how you train Sanebox).
Two hours to process 912 emails
In a little under two hours, I went from 1,061 emails to 149. Of those 149, only 101 were in my inbox. Forty-eight were a low priority, interesting ones to read if I had time. Quickly segmenting my inbox made it much easier to process a large backlog of email.
Segmenting emails works because it creates momentum and each segment goes to 0 much faster than the overall inbox (which could take hours or days). And that unruly inbox? Well, it doesn't feel so bad anymore.
Maintaining inbox zero
So, what do once your inbox is back under control?
Keep using those segments daily. For me, that means at least three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) I will look at the "this week" filter to get to emails this past week. Sometimes daily for 20 minutes, I'll check my "today filter" and get that to 0. If I have other emails in my inbox, I get them via scheduled time on my calendar.
Bonus tip: Bookmark those filters in your browser for fast segmenting.