Cleaning Up Your Inbox

One of the most popular inquiries I get is "How can I clean-up my Inbox?  I've got THOUSANDS of messages and no idea where to start!  It seems so overwhelming!"

So, I thought I'd write a quick article that explains how I approach mailbox clean-up when a client calls for help.

The Low-Hanging Fruit

There are two tricks I use that will generally help a client quickly clean up anywhere from 50% to 80% of the messages in their Inbox in just a very short time.

The first thing I have a client do when it's time to clean-up their Inbox is change the view of their Inbox.  Rather than slogging through messages one by one, let's start by looking at whom the messages were sent FROM.  In recent versions of Microsoft Outlook you can do that by right-clicking the "Arranged By" and choosing "From" to rearrange your mailbox by whom the message was from. 

How does this help?  Because in a busy Inbox you probably have a lot of messages sent from particular senders that you can deal with all at once.  A good example - one of my clients was getting the "Coffee of the Day" newsletter every day.  But he had gotten sloppy about deleting old issues of it and, in fact, had over 80 past newsletters from them in his Inbox.  He didn't need them so he was able to delete all 80 of them in one move.

You may have big blocks of messages sent from mailing lists or people whom you can either delete or file away en masse (delete the messages, not the people).  I find that many users can, very quickly, cut 50% of more of the messages from their Inbox just by arranging by "From" and dealing with the messages that way.

Start from A and work your way to Z.

Second...once you've done all you can with the From arrangement now it's time to change the arrangement to "By Subject".  Just as with From you'll undoubtedly find you have a lot of messages in conversations that are old or irrelevent now.  You still work with the people who sent the messages and you have other messages from those users that you need to keep...but messages in this particular subject can be deleted or filed away in one swift move.

Work right down the list, deleting or filing messages or threads as you go.

Flip the Inbox

Now that we got the easy stuff, we need to deal with what's left.  Most people sort their Inbox by date, with the newest items at the top. That's how I like to do it too. Some people sort by date with the newest items at the bottom.  Whichever you are, I want you to flip your Inbox - just temporarily - to continue the cleaning.  By that I mean arrange your Inbox by Date, the way you probably had it all along, then click the "Newest on Top" or "Oldest on Top" header to flip that arrangement upside down.  Whichever way you're most comfortable working (top-down or bottom-up) you can now start to address the oldest messages in your Inbox.

There are two reasons I recommend this:

  1. Chances are those older messages are more likely to be outdated and unnecessary now.  You can probably just delete or file away quite a few of them on the spot.
  2. If a message has been stagnating in your Inbox that long, and it's something you DO need to deal with, it's more likely to need some IMMEDIATE attention.  If it's an action item it's most likely to be overdue or in imminent danger of running into the deadline, so it's best that you get on top of those items right away.

Now What?

Once you've done all this you should have cut your Inbox down to a far more managable level.  Now you can go back to the same view and arrangement you're comfortable with and just settle into the much more managable task of dealing with the messages you have left.

Once you've got it clean, you'll need to keep it clean though.  And that'll be the subject of an upcoming article.