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From 10000 to 0 Emails in an Inbox in 24 Hours

Posted By Darren Rowse 10th of April 2008 Miscellaneous Blog Tips 0 Comments

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 and LinkedIn.
  1. I know how you feel, I really need to work on my emails but I only have about 3,000 sitting around. Should not take to long to fix up!

  2. I hardly every get that many emails. I usually loook forward to getting emails since I really don’t get that many.. just a lot of spam. I don’t hardly get any email pertaining to blogging or strictly to my blog. Hopefully I will get something.

  3. good news, gmail has imap support, so you can sync to mail.app or .mac to work offline. labels are folders.

  4. non-idiot says: 04/10/2008 at 6:31 am

    don’t be a n00b and signup to mailing lists……..select all items(emails) and click DELETE, DONE!!!!

  5. I wrote a tutorial on filtering your emails into different folders. It’s not near as extreme as you have gone to “clean” things up but it’s a start!

    I’ve never used GMAIL, I’ve always used Yahoo (paid) and that has worked great for me. I hate switching mail programs.

    I bet it took some time for you to get completely organized! Congrats on an early start to spring cleaning:)

  6. Don’t forget to check your spam folder regularly. Yes, the “Report Spam” button learns, but there will always be false positives, and you need to “Not Spam” them, so the filter can learn what isn’t spam as well.

    One trick I’ve been doing for a while is to setup an alternate gmail account that I use for newsletters. Then I go and check it once a week or so, cuts down on the clutter in my inbox, and I don’t worry if the person I’m giving my email address to is less than scrupulous. If I end up getting spam, I abandon that account and move on to a new one.

  7. I’m glad you found the bliss of Gmail! Filters and labels are a must, and so is archiving. Although I’m not nearly as innundated with email as you.

    Check out my Gmail tips for bacn, spam, and steak.

  8. My computer crashed last year and for a while I used Gmail exclusively. I noticed that I didn’t fiddle with email as much, but that I still got everything done with much more piece of mind because my Inbox wasn’t a morass of unknown things to do.

    What I didn’t like about it was some of my email indicated that it was sent via Gmail and people responded to my Gmail address, which caused havoc to my system because I used filters based off of where the email came from. This could probably be fixed, but my computer came back and I went to my old routine.

    I may give Gmail a try again, though. Thanks for sharing, Darren.

  9. Welcome aboard! timely move.

  10. Very goot tips, organizing your mailing is very important with gmail its so much easier also in gmail i dont get any spam so its really great

  11. Great article, managing and organizing in your business can be very important as always great tips!

  12. One other way to get a good start on keeping the inbox as empty as possible is to stop and consider whether any particular email really needs to be saved. Make good use of the delete button!

    I have MailWasher Pro pick up all my email from all my POP/IMAP enabled accounts (including Gmail). That allows me to delete spam and unwanted emails right away. I then use Eudora to download the remainder–and I have plenty of filters and appropriate mailboxes to route things to. One mailbox is strictly for newsletters, and I only look at that every couple days or so.

    Gmail’s spam filter is the best I’ve seen, but it still gets the occasional false positive so I check the spam inbox once or twice a week to make sure I haven’t missed something. Then I click on “delete all spam messages now.” It feels good, like taking out the trash. :)

  13. The “Delete” button usually works for me the best :)

  14. Welcome to the club! :-) Gmail has so much to offer especially along with google reader, documents, etc. that it keeps a large amount of my day to day very organized and timely.

    Google has awesome services and they all work together well, anywhere that internet is available. Which is everywhere these days. :-)

  15. When I signed up with Gmail I setup my filters immediately. I didn’t want to have hundreds of e-mails in my Inbox unorganized.

    I now have many filters and labels in place to help keep my e-mail organized.

  16. I’m in the process to moving all of my computing to the clouds.

    My next project is moving all of my Outlook e-mail to Gmail. There seems to be no easy way to do this. The best solution I could find was this tech heavy solution.

  17. I made the move to gmail recently too and while I am having a little difficulty with the conversations concept, I think it will make life easier. I recently wrote a tutorial on how to move email out of Outlook and into Gmail, so you can completely abandon your old Outlook client.

  18. I find myself in the same situation every day. I receive about 500 daily messages. Unfortunately most of those are business correspondense. Many emails (20 – 30) come from people who ask for advice, want to advertise or want to exchange ideas. Add regular correspondence (50 – 80) messages/day and here they are… 3 hours dealing with inbox only. Unfortunately spam is growing so I still need to deal with others.

    Unfortunately using GMail or Yahoo doesn’t work for me. So Shift + Del ;)

  19. I know what you feel like Darren. I use Gmail and Mail, and I have close to 100 rules and labels between the two of them.

    But welcome to the wonderful world of Gmail.

  20. Hope you filtered my name by it self. You know I email bomb you all the time lol. But I very much appreciate the answers I know how it is to be busy and especially getting emails.

    Glad you switch to big G :)

  21. Be careful with Gmail’s spam system Darren. It’s good but not perfect, it even marks Google Alerts as spam!

    I just did some spring cleaning myself over the weekend to my email. I had about 5,000 or so emails sitting in my inbox and tons of them were from facebook or some other social media site. I’m down to a much more respectable 99 right now and s

    hould be able to clear those out soon too. I had the urge to do a mass archive of emails but knew it’d cause me to worry if I missed something important.

    Congrats on getting rid of your email clutter.

  22. I used to really struggle with email. Then I realized that I was fighting myself. I now try to segregate my mail from the start. All of my newsletters go to the same Yahoo! mail account and all of my personal mail goes to my Gmail account. Business/blog mail goes to one of two other accounts. And I keep an account for signing up for things that I suspect will lead to spam. I’ve found organizing at the front end helps tremendously (as does being able to read very fast! ;) ).

  23. Hi Darren,

    I recently had a post titled “Declaration of email independence” that takes it a step further – the idea is not just to filter email, but ruthlessly reduce the amount you receive. Do take a look.

  24. I dont know what I would do without email filters. I know everyone hates outlook, but considering I have to use it for my “real” job plus various blogs, the tons of email all go to their correct places and subfolders. Makes life pretty easy :)

  25. OMG….If I keep 20 emails around I start freaking. I guess I make quick decisions concerning email.

  26. I had 6000 emails the other day. Even though there were important emails in there I decided to delete it all.

    A clean inbox is just less stressful.

  27. Wow! How perfect I found this! I just lost my Macbook Pro to a faulty video card. This in turn has shut me out of my email application: Thunderbird. Multiple email archives unreachable.

    I was in the middle of moving my emails to gmail last week and never backed up the archived stuff on Thunderbird. You’ve encouraged the last push to get me to through every email of mine into Gmail and LEARN the filtering and labeling options to maximize my efficiency as well as minimize my stress levels!

    Nuno XEI

  28. I use many of the same techniques. I have something like 20 tags to organize emails I get (from netflix, to my masters project, to amazon emails, to the general “saved” category). The sending emails to certain addresses directly to another folder (or the trash) is a good idea, though.

    I also have several addresses forwarded to my gmail, including email from a domain I still own but don’t use it for email anymore – but I still get email at those addresses which get caught in the “catch all” account which very soon starts eating away at my web space. So I just forward that to gmail, most of which goes straight to spam, but I should write a script so that all of it goes straight to spam or trash.

    As for the spam – maybe I don’t get enough email a day (probably 20 to 30 a day land in my inbox, and who knows how many more in my spam box). I’ll sometimes take a look in my spam box, and I almost never see legit mail in there (actually, the problem is usually when the spammers figure out something new, spam starts making it’s way into my inbox again and I have to mark it).

  29. I learned the trials and tribulations of email clutter very early on in my career. I recieve about as much email as you do, and it’s so stresseful to open a program like Outlook and see it fill up for about 4 minutes after the program initially opens.

    I also use gmail for most of my business-related emails. It’s got a wonderful spam filter. Better than any that I’ve ever seen.

  30. Once you go GMail, you never go back!

    If you are a GTD aficionado, there are loads of great posts on lifehacker et al about keeping your inbox low and your time free. I personally get great results from the GTDInbox Firefox plugin (http://www.gtdinbox.com) but it all depends on how you roll.

    Congrats on sorting out the inbox – keep it clean!

  31. Darren,
    I did exactly the same thing with my Gmail account a couple months back. Even down to unsubscribe from newsletters and email “mini-courses”.

    One additional thing I did with that, however, is I added a label called “Crap I unsubbed from” which catches all emails from lists and newsletters I’ve unsubscribed from.

    So far, it actually caught 2 different email lists that didn’t actually unsubscribe me. I have since contacted the owners of those 2 lists and got it resolved.

    Funny, I was thinking about posting about what I did as a “productivity” post to my blog. But I talked myself out of it saying “nobody would be interested in knowing that”.


  32. Darren,
    I forgot to mention, I was at 9,700 emails or something myself when I did my purge. It took me 2 days, because I had to take a break during it to go to work.

  33. Kelvin>

    I don’t get nearly as many emails as I used to get. So now, the email I DO get is, for the most part, much anticipated.

    I can’t even begin to explain how much better it feels now that I’ve made the purge.

    Its cool because now even mail that still manages to hit the inbox is somewhat relevant, and if not, easily sent to spam

  34. Hmmm, I didn’t realize how powerful G-Mail could be. I think I may have to set up an account for myself. Thanks for the tip!

    – Dave

  35. Great tip on G-Mail, and inbox management as a whole. I agree with you on the newsletters, but I still won’t unsubscribe from the ProBlogger book newsletter I signed up for yesterday!

  36. Hi Darren,
    I’ve been very happy with G-Mail. Filters out most spam, and with the “rules” I track my business expenses with folders like “Bus:Books” etc.

    P.S. How’s the personal training coming?


  37. I like this, but I would really want to have my email available offline, so I’d be looking at some of the options that are available for combining it.
    I thougt Mail.app did quite a good job, but the rules in Gmail seem more powerful?

  38. Hugo: Gmail does allow access to your email via POP3 access. Just have to enable it under the “settints>pop3 access” menu option.

    I’ve occasionally had gmail set up with POP3 to allow access to my emails via Outlook 2003.

  39. Darren,

    Great to see you blogging your GMail experiences. Been a converted one for a couple of years now, and loving it.

    Once they do get it offline, FEAR GOOGLE. :)

  40. I think the ability of let go is important (funny, in my job I tell people to let go of their stuff and declutter, but I can’t seem to do that for my emails!). I subscribe to about 100 blogs and I never can just delete them all after accumulating them after a week when I am busy at work. I use yahoo still, which gets a lot of spam. But I love the folder options, it filters my emails so I can concentrate on purely business emails.


  41. Darren, I’ve been dealing with the very same problem and the same amount of clutter in my inbox for a few months now. Thanks for posting this, I thought I’d never be able to clean my inbox in my GMail account, but this has encouraged me to do the same thing as you did. I do use labels and filters, but I started using them effectively when it was already too late.

    Just like you, I’ve got very old emails that are just sitting there and I can’t find the time to go through them because I’m struggling as it is to keep up with new incoming emails. I’ve always felt bad about deleting them, but like you said, if you haven’t dealt with them in a year, it’s already too late.

    I think I’ll build up the courage and clean up my inbox this weekend…

    (btw, I did send you an email through the contact form and never got a reply. :p However, since I deal with more email than I can handle myself, it was perfectly understandable to me).

  42. I’m so glad you feel better.

    By the way, I just sent you an email.

    No — just kidding. :)

  43. Some more gmail tips:

    1 – Always apply an archive filter to emails you don’t want to hit your inbox (unless it’s spam, then spam it)
    2 – You can forward from Gmail to other email addresses – this makes it much better than say Yahoo or Hotmail because you can always switch email accounts down the line by setting up a simple autoforward
    3 – Gspace – An FTP thingy for your Gmail account, beautiful
    4 – Yup – you can juggle dozens of email accounts with Gmail, which makes it great.

  44. I’m already using Gmail but I could definetely do a better job of just removing items I don’t need.

    I’m sitting at about 4000 emails in my Gmail account and about 7000 emails in my Hotmail account lol…

  45. Ever since I got my iPhone I had to switch from hotmail to gmail because Apple doesn’t mesh well with Microsoft. For years I used hotmail and I am kicking myself now for not switching to gmail sooner. BTW I highly recommend gmail!

  46. I’ve moved all of my Thinkbytes domain email accounts to Gmail, and it’s been amazing the amount of spam they will catch.

    I love the filters, and labels, now my email is easy to sort though.

  47. Gmail is a must-have for power email users with multiple accounts. Even with my email addresses all over the net, I haven’t gotten spam in my inbox since the first few months of using Gmail.

    I have each of my accounts filter into separate labels and folders where mailing lists dump new posts that I can check all at once. Gmail is the best for reaching Inbox Zero.

    Also, the Google Talk enhanced sidebar to chat with contacts who are also online using Gmail is a handy way to cut down on quick replies.

    Enjoy it.

  48. It just has to be done. I too have moved to GMail and I would recommend it to anyone!

  49. Thanks for the tips. That was a gutsy thing to do, start afresh!

    I promise not to send you any emails ok. Heck, seeing you have a North Fitzroy address, (only a short tram ride for my place) I’d sooner drop in…lol…

  50. Another way is to hire someone like myself, a virtual assistant to take care of it for you. The average person spends 9 hours a week on their E-mail.

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