15 Minutes Of Ruthless Purging (Shift415)

A lot of people talk about “inbox zero” – that semi-mythical point where all of your inboxes are empty, your priorities and tasks are all listed somewhere in what David Allen would call a “trusted system”.

At that point, your life is organized….right?

Sure, until…well…five minutes from now. In the next five minutes you’ll get a hundred messages on your Twitter stream, a few dozen Facebook updates from friends, a text message, and half a dozen emails (mostly spam).

Assuming that you have some internal commitment to keep reasonably up-to-date on these things, this creates a backlog. Clearing backlog may give you a good feeling, but it’s generally not useful work.

With that in mind, I figure we should learn to do it as efficiently as possible. More than that, however, we should look at the things that create the backlog in the first place, and see if we can get them under control.

Today we’re going to take a look at email.

Grab An Inbox, And….

I don’t know about you, but I get hundreds of emails per day. Most of them are spam, but there are also several from clients, friends, and other bloggers. I also get payment notifications and other information via email.

For every message, I have to make a decision about what to do with it.

Spam It

If I’ve never asked to receive the message, and it’s from somebody I don’t know (and don’t want to hear from), I hit the “mark as spam” button in Gmail.

I do not, under any circumstances, use this on communications I’ve asked to receive, or newsletters I’ve subscribed to. “Mark as spam” is not a shortcut for “unsubscribe”, and it’s socially irresponsible to use it as such.

Marking messages as spam helps Gmail learn how to keep spam out of my inbox – which is one of my goals.

Unsubscribe From It

If I get an automated mailing, and I almost never read messages from that company, I try to get off their list.

The “unsubscribe” button is usually right at the top of the message, or all the way at the bottom. I unsubscribe, then try to find any other messages from that list and remove them too.

Filter It

I’m on a couple of email discussion lists. I filter those into another folder, so I can read them when (and if) I get time. They don’t have the same priority as, say, an email from a close friend.

The thing about filters is they create the potential for huge, unchecked folders full of unread messages. Filters are like storage containers in your house – occasionally useful, but heavily overused.

Every month or two I go through and purge the messages in my filter folders, to prevent them from becoming too large and unwieldy.

When it’s a toss up between filtering and unsubscribing, unsubscribing is usually the better option.

Archive It

Archiving doesn’t prevent the mail from coming in, but it does get it out of my inbox.

Sometimes it makes sense to keep a copy of a message, but there’s no sense in keeping it in my inbox. I keep copies of most business-related messages, so I can reference them later if necessary. Payment notifications also get archived.

I know people who see archiving as “the next step after reading”. That’s a crazy way to think! I don’t archive something because I’ve read it – I archive it because I believe I may need to reference it in the future.

For example, a notification of a sale at my favorite store may be appreciated when it shows up in my inbox. After the sale is over though, will I ever look at that message again? Really?

If not…

Delete It

The delete button is probably the most underused function in every email program. The things that don’t need to be kept should be tossed, for the exact same reason that unneeded items in your house should be purged.

That’s a no-brainer, right?

Oh, And I Scan My Spam

Occasionally a message I want to receive lands in my spam folder. I go through my spam folder once every day or two, and scan quickly. I look for names or subject lines that jump out at me, and if the spam filter caught something it shouldn’t have I mark them as “not spam”.

Getting Control Again

It sounds like a lot of work, and it can be – at least at first. But I can tell you from my experience that even the largest inboxes can be tamed if you take an extra fifteen minutes a day to plow through them.

I can also tell you that “under control” is a great feeling to have when it comes to your email.

What about you? Do you feel like your email is “under control”? Tell me about your email-related challenges (and successes!) in the comments!

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14 Responses - Add Your Input!

Posted February 1, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

Great process Robert – many thanks. Once you are faced with such overflow of your inbox that the only thing to do is to embrace the delete key, then there is no turning back. I delete as much as I possibly can. The only reason I use it less now is that I like, as you suggest, to make sure I mark things as spam or unsubscribe where I need to – as an investment in future time-saving.

My inbox will never be at zero, but at work it is usually at 10-20 by the end of the day, and my personal inbox is almost always below 10. This seems acceptable to me.
ErgoOrgo recently posted..Multitasker Monday: Ice cube trays

Posted February 2, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

Robert…great breakdown. I do similar purging but find that information (unless it is very intrusive, verbose or abusive) can be useful when the mood is right. There are “seasons” for me. Seasons to create and seasons to digest. When it’s time to create, I purge the input, so I have a fresh mind with original, uncluttered thought. When it’s time to hibernate and the energy is low, I digest the food.

Certainly needs to be done frequently but having a system is well worth it…having an application to manage all your social, comments, etc can be useful too (for example, I use Hootsuite and functionality is forever growing – gmail, rss feeds, comments, bookmarks can all be managed from one app…soon).
simply stephen recently posted..little by little does the trick – a lesson from aesop

Posted February 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

Lord help me then. I guess Ill be seeing you all in about a month as Ive got over 24,000 emails in my bt internet mail. Oh heck why did they ever allow that much to stay in my mail? (See how easy it is to blame someone else). There was a time when your inbox was full and you couldnt recieve any more mail until you got it sorted LOL :-)
Karen @ Pledging for Change recently posted..Directory

    Posted February 13, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I worked at an ISP for a long time, and it was always amazing how many customers would call in and complain that they weren’t getting any new mail. A bit of looking revealed that they’d never deleted anything they’d received. Ever.

    Of course back then mailboxes were ten or twenty megabytes. I’ve seen email accounts where the totals run into the gigabytes now – and they’re no less upset when it fills up and new stuff starts getting tossed!

    I’m sure you’ll be able to get your email under control – just take it a little bit at a time!

Posted February 8, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

You’ve inspired me. Just went and cleared and organized my email boxes. Feels good. Thank you!

    Posted February 13, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Awesome! Did it take less time than you thought it would?

Posted February 12, 2012 at 5:55 am | Permalink

On my Hotmail account that I’ve had for ten years and to which most of my mail goes I just give it a quick scan several times a day. I feel I get to much spam to actively try to squash it. The increasing storage sizes of services such as Hotmail and Gmail have meant my inbox never gets full, so I just leave every message in my inbox, read the ones I need to and scan the junk folder occasionaly. I also use the search function to pull up important stuff.

I think your strategy for dealing with email is better thought out, I should start practicing what you do as I’m sure one day my inbox will become permanently full!
Bethany recently posted..How to Get Him Back After Pushing Him Away

    Posted February 13, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    The key thing to remember about archiving is that most of that stuff never gets looked at again – let alone gone through to see if it’s still needed. That’s not the place you want spam to go. :)

    Even if I archive everything else, I don’t let spam go without being deleted. That stuff will eat you alive!

Posted February 14, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

I wish there was a button I could hit that would just clear all of my inboxes. One click, problem solved. sigh

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Well, thanks to this post I spent about 45 minutes this morning purging my e-mail inbox. I’m down to 7 unread messages and a handful of e-mails that contain pictures that I need to save before they can be deleted. Sown from about 1300, mostly unread, messages…Man, this feel great! Thanks for the inspiration.

      Posted February 23, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      AWESOME! That’s great news Heidi; thanks for sharing your success!

Posted February 15, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

Avoiding being spammed is near impossible these days. Even if you enter your email on a reputable website… chances are it will be sold on and then that person will sell it on… etc, eventually your email ends up in the hands of hundreds of different spammers. I have over 7200 emails in my inbox atm :( Some date back too 2006 though :D
Victoria R recently posted..best penny auction sites

    Posted February 23, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    We must be defining “reputable” in two drastically different ways.

    If you enter your email into a reputable website, it won’t get sold once, let alone over and over again. That’s a critical part of the definition of “a reputable website”, IMHO.

    My mailing list of blog subscribers, for example, isn’t for sale. To anybody. That’s what “reputable” means to me. If somebody sold my email address to somebody else, they would cease being a reputable site in my eyes.

    Just my $0.02. Thanks for commenting!

Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

After much experimentation with different email addresses for different purposes ie: work,shopping and ‘everything else ‘ I’ve discovered that the spam comes from some sellers on eBay .perhaps selling addresses? Who knows but it’s that address that gets hammered….

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