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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. Jeremy, I think the correct response would have been “Wow, I didn’t know filtering was retrospective.” Then you could have created a new filter, done a test search and ticked the box “Apply filter to below conversations”.

  2. Welcome to the world of Gmail. I think t’s the best out there. I also channel several email messages into one and i can answer from different email address in one screen instead of loggig in and out of my different accounts. This allows for organised viewing and you can manage everything from one place!!!

  3. @kristarella –

    re: ads on “hotmail”
    I don’t disagree on that. Remember, gmail is a distant 3rd in popularity. Don’t think for a second that the “do no evil” company will throw “contextually significant” ads into your emails as soon as they can.

    They already have started putting youtube content first on searches having nothing to do with youtube or video.

    re: threads
    Thunderbird has a thread view. However, if you are practicing an inbox zero sort of strategy, this shouldn’t matter. You shouldn’t have those message in your INBOX.

    Like I said, I don’t think gmail “sucks”, I just think that there are other mail services that are as good or better – and don’t put too much power in the hands of one company.

  4. @Mike

    re: + symbol trick

    Most other services can handle the “+” trick for sorting within your single mailbox. We do it. I’m sure just about everyone else does too. http://greenbaynet.com/plustrick

  5. Thanks for your reply Elliot. I don’t really want to get into a good/evil discussion on Google. I know someone who insists (strongly) that they don’t influence searches like that. Perhaps people are linking to those videos with those keywords… I dunno. I don’t really care that much. Although I will care if they insert ads into their emails and would argue that they should start offering a paid service to opt out of ads, were that to become the case.

    That’s sort of what I meant by unobtrusive threads. You can archive them, but when a new related email comes in it brings the archived thread back to the inbox so you can see the whole conversation. It’s pretty nifty. Way better than the threads I have in Mail.app.

  6. OH MY, I went through and email crisis a few weeks back and still cant recover…. I have 1000 plus in my personal and about the same in my work account and I can never get under 100 unread … and they are alll Important… Forget about Newsletters… I have a separate account for those and I cant even get time to read those…

    Is it rude to just delete all?

  7. Paul Wilkins says: 04/17/2008 at 12:19 pm

    Here’s a tip that will help, from the Getting Started Guide.

    Starred shows you only messages you’ve marked with a star (use stars to mean whatever you’d like).

    Many people find that sarring emails is a useful way to indicate “todo” items, or emails that you plan to come back to.

  8. ACDM – it seems silly to delete them all if they really are important. It is rude to delete emails that require a response, but I guess if they’re weeks old they’re probably not important anymore… the sender would have followed up with another email by now, if it is important they’ll probably do that.

  9. The filter and the thread. I love those features. Labeling is awesome.
    However, I am not so sure of “learning” method of spam in Gmail.

  10. Congrats, Darren! I know attacking 10K e-mails in a day is a huge win.

  11. I’ve used the same solution: all my mail accounts forwarded on GMail, and now everything works better. Well done.

  12. I get over 100 mails a day and I use Mail.app

    All the maillist mail is automaticly filtered into folders and I visit it when I have the time.

    I have bunch of folders for manual sorting too. Mail that I want to keep but I want to know it has arrived.

    I use Mail Act-On to label mails I have to act on.

    And lastly I have a few Smart Folders to keep track of
    1. Labeled mail
    2. Mail I know will arrive and be trown away right after reading
    3. Mail I want to keep an eye on for some reason or another.

    Every month I move everything out of the Inbox into quarterly folders, Q1.2008 etc and do sorting by name and prune once more. Smart folders still work on mails that still have been labeled.

    Works like a charm.

  13. My next post will be
    “How to go from 1 email to 0 in 24 hours…..”
    haha just kidding but at the moment that is all I get in my inbox per week for my blog (it’s developing) but I know this will increase

  14. hmmm. This gets me to thinking that it may be possible to reclaim my inbox!

  15. I am going to have to put this into action! I am getting over 5,000 e-mails a day and going insane!

  16. Excellent post. You’re making me salivate over Gmail.

  17. Unsubscribing to newsletters works only like 50% of the time. I have one newsletter I cannot get unsubscribed to. I just have it in my filter to get deleted on arrival.

  18. Nice work!

    You did in a few days, what it took me 3 months to figure out!

  19. Great stuff.. I moved from hotmail to gmail few months ago and never looked back.

    What I learnt from the experience was something similar to yours. The amount of mails I was getting reached upto a few thousand mostly being from fans of the radio crazefm.com and my other sites where I give advice etc on various issues people have. But funnily I was having issues myself with taking out time to filter out as you did.

    I am very satisfied with gmail like many of other kind souls here, and would obviously advice others who want to use those precious moments for something else than going manually through their “spam”..

    If you still not using gmail, atleast try it like Darren and others suggested.. and Good luck :)

  20. I have sought in the last year to overcome clutter and I find that there is just as much of it in my computer as in the physical world. Just because it skips the inbox doesn’t mean that clutter can’t suck time in other ways. You really shouldn’t have to wade through five pages of freecycle offers or laughing squid event lists to find that email your sister sent you a week ago, that’s a sure sign one is keeping stuff they should delete.
    If I do a google search of my gmail and find that there it is hard to find what I am looking for because it is mixed in with 200 emails from some overbearing list-serve, I take that as a sign to delete all the old messages in that folder. Then I do the first search again and it is much easier and faster to find what I am looking for. Of course, having these things automatically filtered keeps you from accidentally deleting stuff that might be important.

  21. I think the Inbox Zero concept is amazing once you get it. I wrote a post here

    I’ve been doing this for about 2 months now and have been reading about it for several months, posts such as yours and lifehacker, zen habits etc…

  22. Spending countless amounts of time on e-mail is something we all have a habit of doing. Just look at a typical day at an office. People spend most of the time in Outlook messing around with e-mails.

    These tips are very useful to cut back on time we spend. I just read Tim Ferriss’ book and he also agrees that we spend way to much time with e-mail.

    Great tips!

  23. What a great post! I can’t wait to do this! As always, thanks so much for a great idea =)

    James H.
    Service is the Action Form of Love

  24. What I have done regards managing my email is that I held more than 4 email account, one email account what I gave to anyone or any website online. I would have one that I only give to people I know like friends, family and business associate. So if a friend sent me an email, I would get it right away and I wouldn’t have to sift through news letter and junk mail…

  25. Darren – I have to thank you for this article, and for putting it in your “Best Of” post. Using your technique I also reduced my 10,000 e-mail inbox to ZERO.

    I was using Gmail’s filters, but not enough. That’s fixed now. I also archived a huge amount of older mail without applying labels. At least they’re searchable.

    So this gets me off to a good start with one of my New Year’s resolutions: To keep my inbox small.

  26. I have ruthlessly stopped a lot of my email subscriptions. I totally agree with you. I have a ton of folders and file emails as necessary and delete the rest. Every Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 I go through the files and dump 99.9% of the crap I saved.

    My largest email time suck is scrolling through, reading and telling myself I’ll go back and do something with it. When I don’t and it is still hanging there in a week, I dump that with a huge click of the delete button.

    While I am better, I am not perfect. I happen to use Yahoo Premium mail. So far, very happy with it though I have a Gmail account.

    Yep, the delete button is my friend!


  27. And I am cribbing about around 500 emails in my inbox, lol.

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