Drastic inboxes call for drastic measures

I receive so much email it’s astounding. Don’t we all? I have been thinking of 2010 as The Year of the Inbox.

Gmail is kind enough to snare 1000 or more pieces of spam a day from the likes of “Tirone Elanda” and “Mr George Van Persie” in its delightful little teeth, but my inbox itself is the entry point for quite literally hundreds of pieces of correspondence a day: PR pitches, newsletters, flash sale alerts, hi’s from friends, family photos, bills, cards, linkedin notifications, party invitations, listserve updates, school business, bad jokes from inlaws, political petitions, work correspondence, and yeah, the occasional bit of spam that slips through the cracks.

It’s exhausting me.

I’ve gotten better at scanning the subjects and hitting delete en masse, but I’ve always wondered what I might be missing; which little gem would escape me in my haste to keep up.

This week I received some spammy looking thing that seems to come every month or so. The subject is something like ZzuuzuuKittiezzz wants to share photos with you.


But wait…

was that…?

I scurried back into my trash folder and took another look at the familiar figures in the preview photo.

I was face to face my daughter’s preschool friends.

Every single month, I have, without a moment of hesitation, deleted every album of class photos snapped with love by Thalia’s preschool teacher and sent out to the parents.

Every month. All year long.

The look on some of the other parents’ face when I told them was priceless. You’d have thought I deleted my actual daughter.

I have been thinking long and hard lately about Tina Roth Eisenberg from Swiss Miss, who recently–and quite bravely, I should say–declared email bankruptcy. She deleted her inbox whole, with a brief apology, and the hopes of a fresh, more productive start.

It led to some interesting debate in her comments, from those who found it rude, disrespectful, and selfish, to kindred spirits, like me, who supported her completely. I even found myself a bit envious.

I really think that as women and mothers in particular, we often put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own. Our children, our partners, our work colleagues, our friends, and yes, even strangers who touch our lives electronically through our inboxes. I can quite literally spend the entire day managing emails, responding with polite no thank you‘s to irrelevant pitches, following up on this/that/the other thing, later realizing I have accomplished little else in the day.

And since working again full time (Oh, have I mentioned I’ve been working full time since November? Hello!) I simply don’t have the time to do it all.

But worse, I may be missing the important things spending my life when I’m enslaved to email management. Not just the photos of my daughter’s face when she sees a caterpillar in a netted box become a butterfly for the first time, but the important things that happen when my computer is closed. I don’t want to spend each increasingly rare free hour I have thinking, “Oh good. Maybe I can get through at least 50 of those old emails.” I’d rather write a post. Or read another chapter of Peter Pan to my kids. Or work on my book proposal. Or take on Nate’s pile of clothing that is now stacked so high off the bedroom floor, the kids have turned it into a slide.

I currently have 1649 emails in my gmail account, 222 of them unread.

That is just one of three accounts I manage.

I’m getting quite ready to select all-delete (though not without tremendous guilt or I’d have done it sooner) and call it a day.

How many emails are in your inbox? How do you manage it all? Would you take the email bankruptcy plunge?


This post is also syndicated at BlogHer.com
And thanks to Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project who gave it a shout-out too.


58 thoughts on “Drastic inboxes call for drastic measures”

  1. I have to be brutal. I did set up my gmail to accept my hotmail & blog gmail accounts so now at least, it's contained all within one big mess and I don't have to keep switching logins.

    For me, I take anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour in the morning to go through it all and then check it a couple times throughout the day to keep up with anything urgent.

    I also went through and unsubscribed from any place I hadn't ordered from, newsletters I didn't read on a regular basis, or the 8 million political ads that I somehow got signed up for during the presidential election. It has made things much more manageable for me.

    Good LUCK! I say, go for it with the delete en masse. Start with a clean slate!

  2. Of my three accounts I have 135 unread and I don't even want to check how many I have total. I'll just continue not know for now. I have trepidation on deleting all, bc when I got gutsy and threw away a stack of cards and papers I'd been saving for a *long* time, I realized a week later that it had my daughter's sonogram pictures in it. I still get sick to my stomach abt that one. I do a a vhs(!) of it, but how long is that gonna last…

  3. E-mail is a constant problem for me. Like you, I wear a few different professional hats and the flow from the various streams is relentless.

    I heard Elisa talk at BlogHer last year about email bankruptcy and I don't quite have the courage to do that. I actually have a post from ages ago, partially drafted, about how I “email triage” — maybe I'll try to dig that up to share my strategies. 🙂

  4. A gauge I use that helps me weigh a decision is “If the situation were reversed, would the other person be jumping through the same hoops for me? Would that person give whatever it is second thought?” Putting the situation to this test gives me an added perspective that is slightly more objective. Stepping outside of myself, and my own emotions, usually does the trick. It's damn liberating to realize,”Nope, that person wouldn't obsess over this, so why the hell am I obsessing?”

    I also have all my accounts coming into GMail, and while this was overwhelming at first, once I spent some time creating labels and sorting everything felt much more manageable. Taking the time to organize it all was a pain in the ass, but once it was done, it was done and now my email is under control.

    Do what you need to do, the way you need to do it. Everyone else's life will go on regardless, so feeling guilty about deleting only makes you feel like crap. There is such a thing as productive guilt, but lady, this ain't it!

  5. I have the same problem. It got so bad that for awhile I stopped opening email. I always used to tell people, f you REALLY need to tell me something, don't call – send me an email. Now, if they can't physically tell me in person, there's just no way to get a message in. (Unless I start answering the phone again, but I think email bankruptcy is easier.)

  6. I have wonderful avoidance issues that keep me in denial about my inbox. I respond to the important stuff when I can, and I figure the others will email again (or even call!) if it's super important. I know many people that declare email bankruptcy a lot.

    I try to manage mine via my iPhone when I'm nursing Ivy or have some time to sit down. And most often it's just delete delete delete or I shove everything in folders that I will never check again. But at least it makes me feel better about how many are sitting in my inbox.

    I caught up a few weeks ago and was quite embarrassed that I still needed to respond to kind of important emails from November 09. Thankfully most people understand. 🙂

    Usually just thinking about it makes me sleepy.


  7. I was you once! I remember the day that I threw away a phone message from my daughter's school telling me that she was sick, because I didn't recognize the name of the nurse on the message & thought it was a salesman or something. That was in the day before massive emails, when those pink phone message slips piled up on my desk! My best to you in guilt and goodwill! molly

  8. Filters and labels are the alternative to email bankruptcy! I wear a few different professional hats as well, this totally helps me manage my time effectively.
    First, have all alternate accounts bounce to your main account where the mail is labelled and filtered appropriately. Gmail has this functionality for both other webmail accounts and POP accounts like Outlook. This is somewhat of a pain to establish, but keep using the 'filter messages like these' at the top of the email that you're reading and it'll be over before you know it.
    Save the inbox of your primary account for super-important issues and real people that send you personal messages. Manage this by directing most of the by-rote mailings (ie fliers, ads, notifications of new posts going up, listserve mailings) to be automatically labelled and archived. In Gmail you set this up using filters, and then, in the Labels area, mark all labels as 'hide'. That way they'll only show when there is unread mail.
    When you have five minutes, you look over to your labels down the left side, see what's unread and are able process at faster speed.
    Everything that comes into your inbox should be labelled (at first, tedious, but then as more and more appropriate filters are created, this process will be mostly automated) and then, when you're done reading, either click archive or delete to keep your email inbox to one page.
    Good luck!

  9. I get about 150-200 emails a day and those are just the ones that don't go to spam or into my personal Applemail junk filter. I scan everything and trash stuff based on the subject line alone SO…the moral of the story is, uh, use better subject lines? As for managing it all? I mostly only respond to things that require a response and I send a lot of one line replies 🙂

  10. My email box is a disaster as well. I periodically cull and try to file stuff, but it's usually just one big mess.

    When I do get ambitious about deleting stuff, I start with all the Listservs and email subscriptions. Anything from stores. If I really never read it or shop there, I unsubscribe. Otherwise, delete delete.

    Another thought, if you are serious, is to take one group a day and work through it — friends, family, listservs etc. Rather than attack it all at once.

    Maybe I will do that someday 🙂

  11. I've always been obsessive about e-mail management and always have been. When I had a full time job, the people I used to work with would marvel at how clean my e-mail stayed. My method…read everything right away then make the decision…read now or delete. If I “read now” I either file it if it needs to be kept or I read it and reply or delete it if it doesn't need a response. If it's obvious junk, it gets deleted right away. I don't spend my entire day at my desk reading e-mail. I do it about half a dozen times per day for about 15 minutes or so. I rarely have more than 10-15 e-mail in my in box. When I was on vacation for a week and didn't check my e-mail, I amassed about 300 e-mails. When I got home, I spent an hour clearing it out.

    I say, pick one day, devote an hour to it and clear your box out. Read what you think you need to and THEN deleted the rest and start fresh. I'd hate to think of you deleting something you might later regret.

  12. The funniest thing? I wrote you a long email yesterday regarding your last post and then thought, “WTF? I'm a STRANGER. She doesn't have time for this.” And hit delete.

    I hope in some small, small way that helped…

    PS: I'm obsessed with emptying my inbox. It's a religion. And no, I'm no better off.

  13. 2529. that's how many emails i have in my hotmail account. this account has become like the junk drawer in my kitchen. i know it should be gone through, and i know that most of it is, well, junk, but. i. just. don't. feel. like. doing. it.

  14. I treat my inbox much the same way I treat crap lying around my house.

    That said, I have a ridiculous number of Gmail folders, and I rarely actually *delete* anything that is addressed specifically to me. Archive is a lifesaver function.

  15. You are all amazing, thank you SO much for the great thoughts and advice.

    And Julie? The one thing I never want to lose are emails from readers! You're not a stranger to me.

  16. About a month ago I resolved to spend a couple of days dedicated to email. I responded to everything I was going to and then deleted the rest.

    My rule since then is to respond or get rid of anything that takes up more than one screen (50 emails) because there's something that drives me crazy about seeing that damn “older” or “oldest” button in my gmail account.. it taunts me.

  17. I only have 2 email accounts – one personal and one for work. And I keep both very well organized. I thousands of work emails but at the moment? Only 8 are un-read, the rest have all been filed or just left in the inbox because I've already answered them.

    And as far as my personal email account – I did what Michelle (first commenter) did and unsubscribed to any emails that I was tired of getting over and over and never reading (shopping websites, etc.) I also have Internet on my blackberry so I'm able to delete emails immediately if I know it's something I don't need or don't need to respond to.

    Email can take up a-freaking-lot of time, so it's best not to get overwhelmed by it. I *do* have to agree with one of the commenters over on swiss-miss because well, someone *did* take the time to write you an email and you're going to announce that you're deleting it and to please send it again? I don't know – I just don't think I'd have the guts to say that. Well, to say it outloud, anyways.

    *If* you're going to delete and start fresh (which would probably feel reallllllllly good), I'd probably just do it and not tell anyone. Like someone mentioned, if it's REALLY important, the person will call you or send it again.

  18. Delete them! I'm on board. I send lot of emails but try not to make them massive….and I'm shortening my responses and….look, I'm still not doing great so please delete YOURS so you can take the first step and be my idol.

    Found you through Mom in a Million

  19. yes, yes, yes, these are all wonderful suggestions in dealing with overwhelming email inboxes. My question though is, why the hell doesn't Thalia's teacher have an email address that is decipherable? If you'd seen her name, or Thalia's school's name or something remotely resembling anything child or school related, those photos wouldn't have been deleted. People are such idiots. I would have deleted them too.

  20. I've read Michael Hyatt's “Yes you can stay on top of email” post about 15 times. I'm not at the point where I can say I've GOT IT!!, but I'm getting close. Here's the link if you haven't read it before. http://michaelhyatt.com/2008/06/yes-you-can-stay-on-top-of-email.html

    At my worst I had 1500 emails in my inbox. Using my iPhone while watching tv, I was able to whittle it down to around 200 within a few hours. It's amazing how many emails I had already read, just not deleted. Right now – I have 29 emails in my Outlook inbox, 25 in Gmail (most of which I could delete), and 12 in Yahoo.

    I also did what Michelle described – unsubscribed to all emails/newsletters etc that I wasn't reading anymore.

  21. I unsubscribed from all of the catalog/retail emails, even if I liked the merchant. I do not need emails from Pottery Barn. When their catalog comes to the house I may read it and it may go into the recycle bin, but I don't need 4 emails a week just because I once bought some freaking crib bedding. In the morning I make myself open all of “those” types, scroll to the bottom and hit unsubscribe. It's drastically cut down on the junk email.

    For the real stuff? I was once up to 3000 messages in my inbox. It took two hours of creating labels and filters and hitting “Apply this action to 432 messages in inbox” or whatever it was, but it was TOTALLY worth it.

  22. i love all the tips but at the end of the day i vote for deleting them all. do you really want to spend an hour or a day going through your inbox when you could be with your kids or doing something for yourself? if someone really needs you, they can call or email again. and the pictures from your daughter's teacher, maybe a friend can just send you a link. Good luck!

  23. I keep up with my Woulda and personal mail pretty well, but I am approaching 8k unread emails on my Want Not account. EIGHT THOUSAND. I don't know what to do. Terrified I'll delete something I need, so I do nothing.


  24. I clear my email inbox to zero at least once a day (I usually send & receive about 75-100 emails a day). I think a lot of the reason that people can't clear their inboxes is because so many emails are items that should actually be on your to-do list, and they're keeping it in their inbox to remind them. So when I see something that needs longer than five or so minutes, I just archive it and add it to my to-do list. That's why gmail allows you to search!

    I also have all of my emails going into my gmail account (Work, Blog, Second Job, Personal) and each has it's own label.

    Finally, I'm ruthless on unsubcribing from whatever weird lists I get on or no longer want. It takes some extra time, but is worth it in the long run.

    Hope that helps!

  25. If you have a large volume of email you need to manage it like you would any other significant task, with order and organization. Have an email account for truly personal items, for family and close friends, your kids school information etc. Have one for your blog. And another separate one for each and every other significant aspect of your life. Make sure you have good spam guards and once something is identified as spam it never appears in your in-box again, then decide what is going to be important to you and read and delete everything else. Sounds simple? It is if you make it so

  26. i'm enjoying these tips as well. i run a law firm, financial counseling firm, a household, serve in the air force reserves, and have 3 blogs.

    the email volume is awful. i fwd a bunch to a virtual assistant and let her deal with the issue. most i skim and delete. when they really pile up, i go off somewhere by myself away from the office and the phone (often a coffeehouse) and plow through them at once.

  27. A week ago, I deleted 458 emails. Sweetney tweeted that she'd done it and I decided to do the same thing. The guilt of all of those sitting there was making me crazy. It was also making it where I was avoiding my email altogether.

    Most of them were unread. I was never, ever, ever going to get to them. Mostly comments. Some ecards from my birthday. Random Facebook emails. Some junk. And more mails that all say, I read your post, are you okay, then I'd like to admit too. Which yes, is wrong and horrible to delete…but there's only so much I can do, ya know?

    So I hit delete. I started over fresh this week. It's made it easy to stay on top of. Till next month or something. I figure if it was really important, someone will send it again.

    Don't let the guilt get you. Just do it. In a way it's freeing. Oh but word to the wise? Go into your trash and delete them there too. Or you'll be tempted to look at it.

  28. Okay and one more thing? (Sorry, am wordy today.) Set up a filter for say, your best friends email addresses to go into. Then you'll never accidentally loose those. Maybe one for the girls school too.

  29. I have three – a work, a personal and one attached to my blog. I'm usually pretty good about keeping up, but lately I have found myself being a bit more of a slacker. I'm not bombarded with quite as much stuff, but I can definitely understand the longing to just hit delete!

  30. Holy cow….that's a lot of e-mails!! I too have a three different accounts and try to manage everything directly into folders. Anything spam or junk I delete immediately and figure if I miss something they'll get back to me. Unsubscribing is also a good way to delete some crap!! Alternatively I think maybe you need to hire an assistant 😉

  31. Yeah, inbox madness is at a peak. I have 4 email accounts but that doesn't help. I just get 4 times as much mail. It used to be that when somebody asked what the best way was to reach me, I'd say, unequivocally, “e-mail!!” Now, I don't know what to say. And it's true that in the spirit of quality time with the family, I'm often tempted to just say: don't bother.

    If only communications about school and our kids' lives weren't now all on via e-mail…

  32. Not counting the mountains of spam, I don't get much mail, especially since unsubscribing from a particular mailing list to which I was addicted, but in which I had no great interest any more. However I did so very nearly delete a mail offering me work recently. The name was in lower case and without a surname, the subject was “hello” and the first line was an effusive greeting, just like all those mails that try to give you a deceased person's millions. I was just about to hit delete when I happened to spy an old friend's name at the bottom and realised he wasn't after my bank account, but rather my skills!

  33. I just looked at my inbox.

    I have 10,220 unopened emails in my gmail (but, Google tells me that I'm only using 6% of my available storage!) I am the worst kind of electronic packrat. I hate to delete email. It's a sickness…I fear chucking that one email that I'll “need”.

    But seriously, over 10k? And that's just “unread”. I need an intervention.

  34. I'm assuming you've seen this already?


    He has tons of great advice.

    I *try* to only read email once. Then I either delete, add to my to do list, or respond. If I need time to respond to someone, I shoot back a short “give me some time to find out for you” and add whatever it is to my to do list.

    I first worried that it was rude to do that, but then I put myself in the sender's shoes and realized that not getting a response is worse than an “I'm working on it.”

  35. In my Gmail account (caveat: for work, for an IT company) I have 18,245 email. 110 currently in the Spam folder. 300 unread (mostly b/c they didn't apply to me or I didn't need to be cc'ed on them).

  36. I hate getting behind on email. Yes, I still do it, but hate, hate. Each one is a message from a person, y'know? (I got off all kinds of lists long ago.)

    I can't (and would never want to) declare bankruptcy from people!

  37. This week I completely deleted an entire email account of mine (it wasn't work or personal emails, it was things like WebMD and Nine West).

    It was very liberating. I highly recommend it.

  38. This is embarrassing. I have 8284 emails in my inbox, with 2886 unread. I shit you not.

    but the funny thing is, once the unread emails move off my front page…I actually forget about them. I have to admit I hadn't even considered just deleting them all and starting fresh…what a concept!

    hmmm…now you've got me thinking….


  39. This is a bit random, but I wanted to say THANK YOU for commenting on one of my blog posts awhile back. After reading this entry, I can't imagine how you manage to juggle everything plus support all the other bloggers out there. It means a lot.

    Also, I was thinking of setting up a new email this week just for my son's school and teacher to use. I'm worried too that I might delete something.

  40. Twice in my 14 years online I've lost my Filing Cabinet, where I keep all important can't live without emails for my future as a hoarder.

    Twice. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails.

    After agonizing over losing all the copyright emails re my blog name, emails from my now deceased father and all past booking and comedy contacts I discovered something amazing.

    I didn't miss them because I never read the saved ones. (And I have hundreds of letters from my dad lest I be branded an unfeeling cretin, which I often am but for other reasons.)

    As to my current inbox? I read them all because? I HAVE NO JOB.

    Also? I used *lest* in a comment.

  41. I am changing jobs and as a result am cleaning out an office of 15 years of Really Important Files. I'm an English professor which translates to “collector of pieces of paper.” But in my desire NOT to bring all that stuff with me (starting over, clean slate etc etc), I have compressed five file drawers into one file box. Feels sooo good. What have I learned? That I can also delete the 8000 (69unread. Seriously) emails in my inbox. Don't need 'em, ain't gonna read 'em again, and anything that really matters will surface again.
    DELETE ALL and set yourself free. For that matter (to be really brutal): how many preschool pictures do you really, really need? Yeah, you're right. All of 'em.

  42. Oh boy….my inbox is a MESS! Most of it is junk, too, or at least stuff that isn't all that important once the number gets that high. I regularly go through and delete all.

  43. I have 24 email addresses, but only 8 of them are “active.” Five are business related so I have to file through them on a regular basis.

    The others are personal and tied to blogging or family. It is actually not as chaotic as it sounds.

    I do something similar with the phone. There is a direct line for those who need to reach me and then there is the other that is given to those who don't receive the same priority.

    Sometimes I miss being the 23 year old kid out of college. No cellphone, no email, no computer. If I was in the car or away from home I was truly free.

  44. I have been trying to deal with my massive email problems lately. I don't think I could ever go so far as to go for the email bankruptcy, but the thought is certainly tempting…

    I have no advice, no tips, just sympathy… and yes, there are always a million other things that sound better than email.

  45. I dedicate one night a week to catching up. I stay up til 2 am and then just delete the rest that didn't get my attention–it's the only way. On average 200 emails a day. Ugh.

  46. There's been so much happening in my off-line life these last weeks that I've had to set my on-line life aside – I feel terribly unplugged and yet at the same time a bit relieved not to be hostage to those emails. Now a bunch are lurking there and I'm wondering whether the big delete is a possible response. Very intriguing idea…

  47. Drastic inboxes call for drastic measures, indeed. I hate to have to say it, but I don't think gmail is the thing to use for drastic inboxes. You need an email program on your computer that can automatically filter your incoming mail into different folders, and can be controlled from the keyboard. Using a mouse on a drastic inbox just wastes time. After almost two decades of email I'm still using Pegasus mail, that can do all this for me.

  48. I currently have 14,462 unread emails in my hotmail account and 1949 emails in my mac account. This is a sickness. I do not even know where to begin. I wish I was exaggerating.

  49. i have a mac … and in my mail section, it opens all my email accounts for me … so no log in issues … they are all always ready…i have three different email addresses, one vital, one usual, and one that has things like ebay and quite unessentials …. depending on importance, i know which box i can ignore, and what is a must read …. if you respond to this, it will go to the usual box …. (o:

  50. Hello, and thanks for your thoughts here!(I found you via Gretchen Rubin's mention of this post.)

    Your story of finding your child's school pictures before deleting them reminded me one of Robert Fulghum's essays in “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarden”.
    I found it excerpted here: http://www.uushenandoah.org/sermons/031005.htm

    “One year,” writes Fulghum, “I didn’t receive many Christmas cards…but I didn’t say anything about it. I can take it. I am tough. I won’t complain when my cheap friends don’t even care enough to send me a stupid Christmas card. I can do without love.”

    The following August, Fulghum was rummaging about in his attic, trying to make sense of the chaos, and he found stacked in with the other holiday decorations a box of unopened greeting cards from the previous Christmas.

    He writes, “I had tossed them into the box to open at leisure, and then I ran out of leisure in the shambles of the usual Christmas panic, so the box got caught up in the usual bale-it-up and-stuff-it-in-the-attic-and-we’ll straighten-it-out-next-year-syndrome.

    I hauled the box down, and on a hot summer day, middle of August, mind you, in my bathing suit, sitting in a lawn chair on my deck, with sunglasses, cocoa butter, a quart of iced-tea, and a puzzled frame of mind, I began to open my Christmas cards. Just to help I had put a tape of Christmas carols on the portable stereo and cranked up the volume.

    Here it all was. Angels, snow, Wise Men, candles and pine boughs, horses and sleighs, the Holy family, elves and Santa. Heavy messages about love and joy and peace and goodwill. If that wasn’t enough there were all those handwritten messages of affection from my cheap friends, who had, in fact, come through for the holidays.”

    Fulghum concludes, “I cried. Seldom have I felt so bad and so good at the same time…what can I say? I guess wonder and awe and joy are always there in the attic of one’s mind somewhere, and it doesn’t take a lot to set it off.”

    I just LOVE this story. 🙂

  51. Forgive me if this seems a blatant pitch, but I tackle email situations like yours with brief posts on my own blog, TechnoZen. If you're OK with it, I'll post specific urls.

    If anything, my suggestions should help people gain a sense of control over their email inboxes.

  52. I have been getting a hard time from my family because I don't respond very quickly to e-mail or text. Mostly because I'm fighting off the e-mail from my two accounts. I get hundreds a day, too, and I try to send a response in a timely (read: within a week) manner, but it is so freaking hard. I want to be present, but that often means neglecting my e-mail. This really resonated for me.

  53. Since client emails are important (to say the least), I alphabetize, then scan the long list in my (single) inbox for them. I think it's vital to be quickly responsive. Then, I delete anything that's not of top interest. If I have a little time (ha!), I do some Unsubscribes. But it's a losing battle. The key is to read and either delete or file electronically – quick decision. *sigh*

Comments are closed.