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From 10000 to 0 Emails in an Inbox in 24 Hours

Over the weekend I decided to get serious about my email situation. I’d been sitting on an inbox with close to 10,000 items in it for months and was feeling more and more stressed by the day.

I posted on Twitter that I needed to do something about it and then decided to take action. Within 24 hours I had an inbox with no items in it (well momentarily) and have been able to maintain that ever since (OK, so it’s only three days, but it’s been a very busy three days).

A number of people asked me to give an update on what I did – here’s a very quick summary (by the way – thanks to the many Twitter followers who offered advice):

I moved all my email activity to Gmail

To do this I forwarded all of my previous email addresses and contact forms so that they now arrive in my Gmail inbox. Previously I’d use Mail.app (mac) to fetch email from 5 different email addresses and synced it with Mac.com using IMAP so I could retrieve it from two computers. Now I’m using Gmail online rather than a client to sort them all. It does mean I can only access email while online – but I think this in itself will be helpful as it decreases the time I am using email.

Merciless Unsubscribing

Email 101 lessons always say that you should unsubscribe to as many newsletters as you can. I was getting about 50 a week, most of which I didn’t EVER read. The first thing I did on Sunday was to unsubscribe from most of them and delete the majority of past ones that I’d put in my ‘read one day’ folder.

I’m using Gmail’s ‘filtering’ and ‘labels heavily

I’d heard for some time now how good Gmail was at filtering but until the weekend I’d not investigated it. I so wish someone had sat me down earlier and forced me to do it. On Sunday I sat down for an hour and went through every email that I’d received for the last week. I didn’t do this to catch up on email but to get a filtering system in place.

The problem that I faced previously is that I get close to 1000 emails a day. Some of them are comments from my blogs, some are social media friend requests, some are reader questions, some are metrics reports, some of them are newsletters, some are from b5 colleagues…. the list goes on. The issue I had was that there’s so much clutter that I was spending an hour or so each day just filtering through them all. I did have Mail.app filter out some of them but only had about 6 ‘rules’ set up.

Now I have over 50 ‘filters’ in my Gmail account (and I continue to add more as more emails come in). I’m using filters in two ways:

1. Stopping myself from ever seeing unnecessary email – so much of the email that I get is just not important at all – or at the least it’s email that I might want to keep but don’t need to read immediately (if at all). For example, so much of the social media site email that I get from ‘friends’ is superfluous. While I’d like to occasionally check friend requests on facebook I don’t need to see them as they come in. I could switch off notifications altogether but as I do like to quickly scan them each day I now filter any with a command to ‘skip my inbox’ (so they are archived but never seen in my inbox) and ‘labled’ as ‘social media’. This means that I can quickly scan them all (along with hundreds of less important other social media requests and messages) quickly once or twice a week.

I do the same now with notifications from Aweber when someone subscribes to a newsletter, notifications from the DPS forum which tell me when a new thread is started and the same with blog comments (although I scan this more regularly.

In this way I still have an record of each of these emails archived so that I can access them – but they never hit my inbox.

2. Labeling other Semi Important Email for Quick Archiving – not all email can be archived quite so quickly. There are other types of emails that I like to see, even though I don’t need to respond to them. What I’ve done with this is to filter them differently. I still label them automatically as they come in – but let them hit my inbox. The advantage of this is that they’re already labeled so that once I’ve read them all I have to do is quickly read them when they arrive and then do a one click on ‘archive’ to have them put in the right label area so that I can access them quickly later. When I get a notification that someone has put a new ad on my Job Board (an email that I never have to respond to but like to know about) I get the notification but can have it archived within half a second rather than having to manually label it. It only saves a second or two but when you do it hundreds of times a day it counts!

Identify the Important Stuff

I have some emails that I consider extra specially important. Email from my wife, boss (at b5), email from my contact forms on my blogs, any email with the words ‘I hate you’….. You know the kind.

With this type of email I again use filtering but instead of hiding it I highlight it. So any email coming from my wife’s email address, or with certain words in it, or a certain subject line (eg my contact form’s) I can set up with a label like ‘important’. I could also assign it with a ‘star’ (like a flag in many email clients). Even more ‘attention grabbing’ is the ability to assign labels with colors. So for example I’ve assigned the label ‘ProBlogger Email’ (all email from my contact form) as having a bright ORANGE label to catch my attention so that I can quickly see them in my inbox when i wake up in the morning.

Aggressive ‘Archiving’

I mentioned earlier that my inbox had 10,000 items in it. How was I going to get that number down? Well the cool thing about filtering is that it can be retrospective. I was able to get the numbers in my inbox down by well over half by just applying all my filters for non important items to all my old emails too.

I also was able to identify the important ones and clear a lot of them. This left a few thousand…. which…. well…. I ‘archived’. Yep, it’s cheating a little but here’s the thing. Those emails went back for a year. If I hadn’t dealt with an email from someone that’s a year old then it’s too late. I did keep them all in case I need to do a search – but sometimes a guy needs to draw a line in the sand and my line was on Sunday evening at 11pm!

If you sent me an email prior to that and you have not got a reply to it – my sincere apologies but it got caught in the great email culling of 2008 and I’d invite you to try again – it’s much more likely to be read now… I promise… at least for the next few days.

Other Stuff I love about Gmail:

  • One click ‘report spam’ that actually learns
  • Threaded viewing of related emails (conversations) – Mail.app has it but Gmails is so intuitive and useable
  • Search that works… fast
  • Chat – I’ve only used it once but it was handy. First impressions of it are that it’s useful but that it’ll need further refinement
  • Shortcuts – I’m learning one a day – I figure in a month I’ll know most of them off by heart

I’ve got a long way to go with Gmail but after a few days of using it it’s saving me hours each day. I’m also not completely satisfied with the way I’m managing my email and think I’ll probably add some new labels to help me manage emails that I still need to deal with less urgently (perhaps a ‘ToDo’ label) – but one step at a time!

Feel free to add your own email tips in comments below – teach me friends!

PS: also check out Leo’s post with 12 rules for getting a grip on massive email.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. I suggested to my team at work (40-45 people) that they use in box zero as an approach. One of the people on my team has 42,000 emails in his inbox.

  2. Thanks for updating us bro! Great stuff and I’m dreading getting to my inbox!

  3. I don’t want to sound like the bluebird of happiness here, but it’s incredibly dangerous to leave your mail on a server on the internet.

    1. Servers crash. I don’t care if they’re related to google or not, they do crash. Imagine you have years of archived email on gmail and it crashes one day. Oopsie! Someone forgot to backup! (free service – highly doubful they back up)

    2. Servers get hacked.

    I know what it’s like to get tons of mail – I get thousands for one email address alone. I went from netscape mail to thunderbird mail, all my mail and newsreaders are in one spot. I also back it up – I have email backed up to 1993. Or maybe it’s 96 – I would have to look. But still – I have it here locally.

    I keep my inbox to 200 or less (I aim to keep it below 100 but that’s rare) – everything gets filtered into folders and it’s all good.

    Don’t leave your mail on anyone’s server.

  4. kc govens says:

    I am glad that I ran across your blog, because i presently
    have over 30,000 emails in my account and have been wandering how i am going to get rid of the not important
    ones and keep the one i need. The hint about using gmail
    filtering i will use it to help solve my problem. Aloha and
    thanks from Hawaii.

  5. Robin says:

    Some notes from a Gmail user:
    1. The Add Account feature is so cool. Users can use 1 account as a ‘remote control’ for all of his Gmail accounts.
    2. Google Apps for domains.
    3. Gmail skin firefox extension. Can opt to horizontal layout, makes gmail even easier to navigate.
    4. Labnol.org has a great number of posts related to make the most of Gmail.

  6. William says:

    Don’t read this. Just let it sit around forever. It will do you some good to look at it from time to time, take a deep breath, relax and say: “Nothing to do here; no response required.” Just feel the calm building up.

  7. Felex Tan says:

    Incredible,how you make it.I have 1000 mails in my inbox ,have not deleted yet.

  8. Lisman says:

    Hi Darren,

    Please advice me how to make or modificate the web template from wordpress to be like this (problogger.net).

    Thanks for advice

    Lisman

  9. David Airey says:

    I’m a big GMail advocate, although be wary of the security limitations. Using GMail led to the theft of my domain name.

    I still use the service, but am much more wary than I was before.

  10. I too have discovered the joy of setting up a rule for dealing with incoming mail, having joined a mailing list of bloggers… it really helps to be able to read/deal with all those emails in one batch, and I don’t even have to see them now unless I open the group’s folder.

    I wish I’d got to grips with email rules years ago!

    Still need to sort out all the newsletters, facebook notifications, etc, mind…

    Ali

  11. Anne says:

    Darren…….I LOVE G-mail! I used to use Outlook email and it was a nightmare. G-mail is especially good at getting rid of spam and very rarely grabs something that isn’t spam.

  12. Dave Leake says:

    Thanks, Darren. I’ve learned more about Gmail from this post than in my three months of fiddling with it. One simple thing still escapes me . . . how to forward email to several people in my Gmail address book. I’ve found a cumbersome solution, but I’m sure there’s a simple one I’ve just overlooked. Help, anyone?

    Note to elizabeth ramer: storing email on your hard drive doesn’t mean you won’t lose it. I overtaxed my Juno storage with thousands of emails in dozens of folders. My computer froze and, when I restored it, Presto! No email. Not even Juno tech support could help me get it back.

    Also, elizabeth, if you think Google and Gmail are on a single server, think again. Think banks of servers, backed up by other banks of servers in other locations. Besides, in the near future, you won’t want a hard drive. Computing in the cloud will be better for us all.

  13. Hey that’s great. I made the move to Gmail about 3 months ago because I found Apple Mail getting a little bit too cluttered. First of all, it was almost impossible to find what I wanted, and secondly, I really needed a good webmail system. Stuff like squirrel and Horde have really driven me crazy.

    I managed to find some material online pointing to using Grease Monkey in order to achieve HTML Gmail signatures and even use your labels as folders. I’ve written an article on that anyway on my website – http://www.shoutlabs.com/lang/en/blog/gmail-labels-as-folders/

    I’ve pretty much gone crazy with the use of these two features, with over 200 folders. Funny thing is I don’t find it cluttered. And Gmail’s search capability is just so awesome. Comes in very handy when you’re trying to find those emails that contain passwords to some social network you signed up for.

    Gmail ROCKS!!!!!

  14. Really glad that you were able to get to the elusive 0. You hit on a lot of great tips in your posts–especially about even labeling the things you’re going to archive very shortly (DMs on Twitter are an easy application of that).

    As another reader mentioned earlier, IMAP is always an option for when you’re traveling. You might want to consider setting up IMAP to only sync your IMPORTANT and INBOX folders–this way you could respond to all your message on a plane, etc.

    Good luck maintaining the empty box!

  15. Mark Cuda says:

    Actually, Gmail has a feature where you can set it to notify you on your Mac when you get a new email :D

  16. Robin says:

    Oddly enough I found that it was only when I was trying to use Gmail exclusively that I got myself genuinely behind in emails. Even with the use of filtering and labelling I found myself well behind. So I switched to a much more intense configuration of Outlook 07 and lots of rule filters and now i find myself well on top of the 7-800 mails a day I receive.

    One of the biggest advantages of this I’ve found is the ability it gives me to clear away large chunks of email in downtimes when I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access the internet (e.g. when flying). Rather than knowing that when I could get web access again I’d have double the number of mails, instead I know that I’ll have a clear inbox with a large number of replies ready to send as soon as I log on again. I think the greater ability to work offline is one of the bigger advantages that Outlook (or indeed any other mail client) has over the likes of Gmail.

    Not that this is an argument to say “you’re wrong”, but I find it interesting that to effectively solve the same problem we’ve gone in entirely different directions in relation to Gmail.

  17. suresh says:

    Nice to hear about this as many bloggers valuable time is consumed in reading unwanted mails.

    In my case i won’t subscribe for any news letter and when i feel like important i used to book mark that page and visit back when time permits.

    Any way good post and a big thank you as usual.

  18. Luis Gross says:

    This is very useful, as I see my inbox grow more and more every week I will be needing to filter my e-mails as well. I also have Gmail never checked out the features, now I will thanks for the tip Darren.

  19. Aggressive ‘Archiving’ – LOL

    Inspiring stuff – my turn next – say goodbye to Friday!!

  20. Thinkjayant says:

    Good move. Its better to move to gmail for all its advantages. But i wonder how can you manage 50 filters. Over time its gonna give you more pain than good, with important mails getting missed. Rather use the OR and AND operators and combine few filters into one. Remember the few filters to manage, the better. Same goes with labels. Use broad categories, but not too broad.

    I use thunderbird and gmail IMAP combination to keep track for all my emails. Although it consist of more of group mails, subscriptions and that from friends rather than web related activities. Counts at around 200 mails per day. Was planning to write a general tutorial on how to manage email. You kinda beat me into it. Difficulties of a weekend blogger ;-(

  21. Josh says:

    One thing I like about Gmail is when you click the checkbox next to several emails and you click into a particular email to see it then return to the inbox, all the emails that you checked off are still checked. This is not so with Hotmail. Yea Gmail.

  22. Kishor says:

    So you are now giving away all your data to google.

  23. Bill Perry says:

    Josh> Yes, I really love that about Gmail too. It’s one of the reasons I originally moved away from fulltime hotmail and yahoo usage.

    Yay Gmail
    Boo Hotmail
    Boo Yahoo
    Boo Outlook
    :-)

  24. kristarella says:

    Nice work!
    I finally got my act together after watching Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero presentation (video at bottom of the page). Your filtering system is a bit more extensive than mine, but I get far fewer emails.
    I still have two of my email addresses going into mail.app, but they seem to be picking up traffic, so I might need to sort them out a bit better too.

    Umm, not sure about some of elizabeth’s reasoning right there.

    free service – highly doubful they back up

    All I can say is, yes – they do.

    Servers get hacked

    Your mail has to hit a server at some point. I guess if you’re worried about past sensitive material then that could be an issue, but even if you don’t keep your mail on a server, a hacker could copy/intercept future emails. I’m no expert, you can prove me wrong, but I’m pretty sure they could do that.

  25. Keiron says:

    Inbox Zero, and GTD for that matter have changed myself and a few colleagues lives – I’m gradually getting my inbox under control but I don’t think I could integrate it all into one place that meant I had to be online…

    I use Thunderbird to bring it all down and then use it’s auto-filtering and rules to sort it all out for me. Now if I could just tidy up my Google Reader RSS feeds as much as my inbox I’m sure everything would be fine!

  26. Adam says:

    I’m doing exactly this just now. 21000 unread messages going back 4 years. I’m doing it so I can get Outlook to run smoothly through IMAP to collect my Gmail. Good on you for getting it done in a day.

  27. Note to Dave Leake:

    > Note to elizabeth ramer: storing email on your hard drive > > doesn’t mean you won’t lose it.

    I’ve never lost a huge amount of email to a harddrive crash or any other event. Yes, I’ve lost a couple of emails in this kind of event. But it was only a couple of emails- because I make backups. I backup my email to a second harddrive, then that gets backed up to cds/dvds. That’s why I have mail from 93 or 96. I learned early on in the game how to backup.

    I’m in the tech industry and email is my lifeline – I use my email program as a database, and rarely is it under 500 megs – I’m not about to trust something like this to a free service.If I do lose my harddrive, the first thing that is put back and used is my email – just a matter of copying the folder from one drive or cd to the c drive.

    Which brings me to another point: your computer can lockup – so can theirs. Backups can easily be overwritten, become corrupted, deleted – the list is endless.

    Note to Dave Leake and Kristerella:

    > Also, elizabeth, if you think Google and Gmail are on a >single server, think again. Think banks of servers, backed >up by other banks of servers in other locations.

    I’m aware of how google is set up, in general. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna trust them (or anbody else but myself) with my email or other data. The question is: how do they back up for a free service? Is it incremental? Is it hourly? Is it daily? Is it monthly? Is it at all? It’s free, remember. They do state on their page at http://mail.google.com/mail/help/about_privacy.html:
    that they do keep mail on the server for “Some limited period of time.” Now that’s reassuring. It reassures me that I won’t keep my mail on their servers. (That’s the only mention I could find of backing up, btw)

    You might ask yourself this: If all of your gmail went away, all of your contacts, answered email were to simply go away right now, and you didn’t have it local, would it help or harm you?

    Note to Kristerella:

    >Your mail has to hit a server at some point.

    You are correct in that. It actually may hit several servers in bits and pieces before it hits my box. It also travels in plain text.

    And what’s my reasoning? I’ve been in the webhosting industry since 1997 and I’ve seen it happen. People have lost some valuable email because they thought we had a backup, and never saved their mail locally.
    We did have backups. Backups get corrupted. Things happen. I’ve seen webmail programs that lockup as well, you open your program and poof it’s gone. (Google cannot retrieve deleted email, either)

    My point is: just don’t use a free service as your primary mail handler. Keep it for backup, maybe, but just as you would your website, keep a backup locally. I use gmail (and other free services) for mail that I don’t
    care about. If it went away all of a sudden I wouldn’t bat an eye.

  28. kristarella says:

    To be honest, I’d be disappointed if I lost all my email addresses… so maybe I’ll go and use Gmail’s contacts export feature now, but it wouldn’t be a crisis if I lost my emails. I process them properly then a majority of them are dealt with and I don’t need them again.
    I’m sure we’re in very different situations, so if your system works for you, then cool. :)

  29. kristarella says:

    elizabeth, to be honest, I’d be disappointed if I lost all my email addresses… so maybe I’ll go and use Gmail’s contacts export feature now, but it wouldn’t be a crisis if I lost my emails. I process them properly then a majority of them are dealt with and I don’t need them again.
    I’m sure we’re in very different situations, so if your system works for you, then cool. :)

  30. GW says:

    So this might be a stupid question but I honestly have no idea. I’m thinking about setting up a Gmail account but I’m wondering if Gmail has a good virusscan or not…

  31. kristarella says:

    GW – Gmail does scan all attachments, I have no idea how effective it is, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never downloaded a virus.

  32. Michael says:

    Great post, it is always good to take some time and get some of those emails taken care of. All too often people who get a lot of emails just leave them in their inbox which ultimately ends with thousands of emails unattended to.

  33. Brandon Lee says:

    Yep, I had this same issue, and I did the same thing about 1 year ago. It made my email situation troubles go away. Heavy archiving, great filtering, if you run many websites like I do and get contact emails from each site, you can setup multiple emails in google and when you reply, it still comes from that specific email address. It’s great! I suggest this to people all the time.

  34. Joe says:

    Yah! Go Gmail!

    One function of Gmail I found really good is the “mark as read” ability. Saved me tons of time.

  35. Mike Inkster says:

    Thanks Darren and everyone here for a great post and answers. I have cleaned out and filed a lot of mail this weekend, from my 9 gmail accounts. Had close to 15000 E-mails.
    I use Gmail a lot, as I use several safelists for promoting, along with several traffic exchanges.
    As for viruses I have not received one in three years I haved used it.

  36. GW says:

    Thanks kristarella and Mike Inkster for the info. :-)

  37. Thanks Darren for your tip.

    I also did some email-merging this past weekend in order to increase my productivity and cut back on email log in.

    I still have to make decisions on 2 email accounts, but I’ve paired things down.

    Miss Gisele B.

  38. Fat Lotus says:

    I simply have a filter that automatically move all read emails and emails over a week old into the trash. I don’t get the several thousand emails you get, but it’s better to miss a few emails then spend several hours a day reading them.

  39. Christian says:

    Love it. I have been putting this off for a long time. I started using gmail quite a while ago and find myself leaning towards it more and more. Great post. Thanks!

  40. Mau says:

    I love Gmail, and one tool that has also helped me a lot to filter email manually is a Blackberry and it’s Gmail’s app for it: I often archive, delete, or star emails with the click of a button and my inbox is kept lean. I know, you are often found being alerted, but it definitely has reduced my desk time for checking my emails.

  41. yiwei says:

    I love gmail! I’m logged on 24/7 and it’s more user-friendly than all my other emails – hotmail, yahoo, school email etc.

  42. EngLee says:

    I have a similar situation, and I’m working on it. It took 2 weeks to get it down to 200 from 3000. Will be able to finish it before the weekend.

    Maybe I’ll make a blog post when I’m finish.

  43. Luke says:

    I think using gmail as a conduit is really handy.. It checks my emails and then forwards them to me where I need them.. saves me having to be “online” in an environment that doesn’t like “webmail”… labelling also makes it easier to delete crap.

  44. KISS says:

    Let me help the author of this article and anyone in the same position

    1. Do not subscribe to newsletters – unless you know you will read it then don’t subscribe. This will save you having to unsubscribe. A little forethought goes a long way

    2. Do not check the box to receive updates from “friends” on social networks. If you keep reading my suggestions, what you will quickly get is that if you make good decisions upfront you wont have to “fix” things later. You don”t need e-mails from so -called “friends”. If they are really friends, you will be exchanging e-mails or phone calls, if they are just people who asked to be associated with you in a social network and you accept mail, you are getting spammed and you deserve it.

    The list continues like this for several pages with the theme being – don’t be stupid and you won’t have to figure a way out of the problems caused by your stupidity.

    The library of congress is full of books. If you wanted to read would you check out 30% of the books or 1 book? Limit your “automated” processes for “checking out books”. When you need information you will seek it out, Keeping you inbox clear means that important e-mails from real friends, real family, clients , etc will be able to get to you without weeding though a sea of self induced electronic spam.

    KISS – keep it simple stupid

    The author should be less proud of their “accomplishment” and more embarrassed at the bad decisions they made and continue to make.

  45. Elliot says:

    I’m not a gmail hater, but I just don’t see it being one bit better than any other real mail server. Are you all comparing it to Hotmail and Exchange? Any other mail system seems to work quite well.

  46. Balu says:

    One big issue for me is that I can not filter by any header (or did that change yet?).

    E.g. I’m sending mails from froms with special X-something headers, but gmail does not allow me to filter by those :-(

  47. Mike says:
  48. James Lamb says:

    Most Facebook notifications can be received by RSS feed. I’ve done this and turned off the emails. I get them all via the RSS feed and it’s easy to tap j j j j and jump through them in Google Reader.

    Another trick for text-based emails (Google Alerts, some newsletters) is to divert them directly to Remember the Milk. (I use a filter to forward them.)

    They show up as Notes in tasks. You can quickly read through the Notes and delete and they don’t get lost in a folder/label in Gmail and they’re all waiting and organized to quickly “C”omplete in RTM. (Again, the keyboard comes in very handy.)

  49. kristarella says:

    Elliot, Gmail is way better than hotmail (at least the hotmail I used to use). For one thing it doesn’t attach unsolicited advertisements to the ends of your emails. It’s pretty unproffesional to send people invites to “hotlava.com”.

    Also, it can thread comments in intelligent and unobtrusive ways. It has an excellent search tool. Then there’s the labelling etc, which I think is better than hotmail’s folders because you can apply multiple labels to things and some can be transient. For example, leading up to Christmas I label everything to do with Christmas and present ideas as “Christmas”. Makes planning a lot easier, but doesn’t stress me out with those emails sitting in my inbox.

    Can’t comment on Yahoo or any other services…

  50. Jeremy says:

    Filtering is not retrospective.