How to Dominate (and Destroy) Your Email Inbox with Extreme Prejudice

I don’t like a full email inbox. It feels messy. Unclean. Like a giant “to-do” list that won’t go away until you slay the dragon once again.

But it’s not just a matter of feeling. Too much email also ruins your:

  • Productivity: The average person wastes about 28% of their productive day on email.
  • Focus: It takes about 64 seconds for you to recover the attention you lost from a fresh email.
  • General peace of mind: Researchers found that “limiting email access dramatically reduces stress levels.”

Since I’m a man who likes things simple, I prefer as simple a process as I can handle. I think I’ve put together as efficient an email management system as possible.

(Think you got me beat? Have a look at my flow chart below and tell me if you’ve got a simpler one. I’m listening.)

Discovering the KonMari Method of Tidying Up

My email management is similar to the KonMari method, made famous by Marie Kundo. It’s designed for keeping a simple, clean lifestyle around your house—but you can imagine the impact it will have on the way you handle email.

The basic steps are as follows:

  • Look at clutter.
  • Ask yourself if clutter makes you happy.
  • If it does, store clutter.
  • If it does not, destroy clutter WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe I’m butchering the entire process. But you have to admit it’s simple: an object either improves the quality of your life (computer) or doesn’t (stack of Dorito’s bags next to the computer). You proceed forthwith.

The Email Flow

After some years and several million emails—I’m not sure if that’s an exaggeration or not—I think I’ve got this email handling thing down to a science.

It looks like this:

Good Flowchart.png

Here’s an explanation of each step:

  1. Is this email actionable? Open the most recent email. Ask yourself if the email is actionable—do you have to respond or create a calendar item? If so, great. Do so. Save any relevant information you need, then delete it. If not, proceed to step 2.
  2. Respond, turn into calendar item, or de-prioritize. The way I see it, an email in your inbox has one of three outcomes: it either (1) requires response (2) requires action and/or (3) doesn’t require either. If (3), delete immediately. If (1) or (2), take the required action, save information you need, and move forward to step three.
  3. Delete.
  4. If, by some miracle of procrastination in which you were unable to delete the entire inbox after all of this, it might be a problem of “letting go.” Which means it may be time for you to go nuclear.
  5. DESTROY INBOX WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE. Warning: only do this if you’re sure you won’t lose vital information, in which case you should return to step 1. But if you’re mainly worried that you’ll miss out on Jim Bob’s vacation videos, it’s time to click “select all” and move it all to the trash.

Congratulations. You’re the proud new owner of a clean inbox.

But Wait! Shouldn’t I Organize Emails into a Million Folders? Isn’t that Easier?

I, too, have gone the email folder route. And while it’s better to organize your emails by subject than not at all, I’ve found that it’s better to delete old emails and save only the relevant information as you go.

Tools for Further Email Inbox Domination

You don’t have to scan 1,000 separate emails to tackle this flowchart all on your own. There are email tools that you can (and should) use to maintain your sanity:

  • Unroll.me unsubscribes you from all of those…things you’ve signed up for trying to get the free download of the “10 Ways to Unclutter Your Email Inbox” eBook. Oh, the irony…
  • IFTTT: The app for making much of the above process automatic. Be careful with this one. If you’re a minimalist you may find it sometimes makes you want to add more than you really need, if only to automate it.
  • SaneBox email cleaner. You have to pay for this one, and I don’t recommend doing that when a good, old-fashioned email nuking will solve your problems. But if you’re working with insane levels of email volume, then you might need the extra dose of sanity.

The Key Insight

Probably the most important part of this post? Aside from the fancy infographic I made in about five minutes?

The key insight that if you were to suddenly delete every single email you have in your inbox, your life won’t fall apart.

I know what you’re thinking: if you delete every email you have, you’ll lose touch of those glorious golden opportunities that otherwise would have swung your way. Friends will abandon you. That email from the state lottery telling you that you won a million dollars will get missed.

But none of that really happens.

If you lose something, you can always ask for it again. If you forget something, you can ask for a reminder. The most important part of this post is to realize that the ultimate goal of work is to get back to zero. Just as your goal when cleaning is to get back to zero, the same should apply with your digital life. Even if that sometimes requires extreme prejudice.

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