How to Simplify Your Inbox

In my experience, there are two kinds of people in this world — the people who have a little red bubble with a crazy number attached to the email app on their phone...and the people who want to scratch their eyeballs out every time they see a red bubble like that.

I am firmly in the latter camp. Clutter in general stresses me out (hence the whole minimalism thing), but there is something about inbox clutter that makes me twitchy and ridiculously uncomfortable.

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I simply cannot handle a messy or out of control inbox. Few things stress me out as quickly, so having a system for keeping my inbox simple and organized has always been a must for me.

INCREASE OR DECREASE

The first step to simplifying your inbox is going to depend entirely on your personality.

For some people simplicity in their inbox means having everything in one place. If this is you, then consider how many inboxes you have in comparison to how many you actually need and decrease as necessary. You probably only need two, three at most — one for work, one for personal, and (an optional, but recommended) one for subscriptions/junk mail.

For others, having multiple inboxes with a designated purpose helps keep things simple because it's sort of like the digital version of "everything with a place and everything in its place" mentality. If this is you, think about the different things you use your email for, what categories fit naturally together, and where having a separate inbox may benefit more than hinder.

I'm of the latter category and, as a result, have five different inboxes — one for personal use, one for my small business, one for this blog, one for writing and other freelance projects, and one that functions as a digital junk drawer. (I'll explain soon.)

DELETE, DELETE, AND DELETE SOME MORE

One of the biggest problems with the cheap cost of digital space is it tricks us into thinking we don't need to get rid of anything. Well, here's a little secret: if you don't need it, it's still clutter, even if you have the space. 

Think of your inbox(es) as the table in your foyer or entry way — stuff arrives in the house there, but it's not supposed to stay. I make it a personal goal to clear out my inboxes every single week because it ensures that things never pile up and get out of control.

Just like you would with physical paper like mail and bills, handle what you're able to immediately, file other stuff for action later, and when you've dealt with the item, get rid of it. Yes, this means delete the message. 

If you have Gmail, you might be tempted to use the Archive button because it feels like deleting, but it's not the same. Archiving an email is akin to filing it away for later use, so the Archive button should be reserved for the emails that are important enough to keep for later reference. The delete button isn't something to be afraid of but rather a tool to help you maintain sanity and identify the important stuff that actually deserves to stay in your inbox.

UTILIZE FOLDERS + RULES

Once you've gone through and deleted the emails that don't deserve a spot in your inbox, it's time to create a folder system.

Think of the folder system like the initial organization combined with maintenance mode. You've done the hard work of decluttering all the unnecessary junk from your inbox and now you need to organize the important stuff that's left.

The folders you create and the organizational system you use are going to depend on how you best process information, so I always recommend mirroring your digital organization system with your physical organization system.

For something like an inbox, where it's easy for things to get lost, I've found it best to use a combination of main folders and action folders, which help keep information you've already handled but need to hang onto and information you still need to handle all readily accessible.

My small business email account has five main folders — Administrative, Clients, Conversations, Events, and Resources — and four action folders — Answer, Hold, Keep, and To do. All main folders folders have subfolders to make it easier for me to find information quickly when I need it and action folders are designed to help me better process what needs to be handled when.

Main subfolders include things like Dubsado (my client management system) and Quickbooks, along with Leads, Active Clients, and Former Clients, with each client having their own folder. This is where you can file messages you've already handled but need to hang onto for future reference.

Action folders keep messages you still need to take action on at your fingertips whenever you need them. If you use Gmail, the Priority Inbox allows you to create a digital filing system. Mine is set up so unread messages and anything tagged with Answer or To Do stays in the inbox. This is sort of like keeping a paper on your desk so you don't forget to handle it.

Hold items are those things you need to hang onto temporarily, but can Archive or delete after a period of time. The most common items that wind up in the Hold folder are things like order and shipping confirmations or travel reservations and itineraries. 

Once you've got your organization system set up, you can also designate rules to make the filing automatic and keep fewer items coming through your inbox. This is great if you get things like newsletters or regular emails regarding a particular topic that you don't need to read right away. It keeps them from clogging up the inbox and allows you to handle them at your leisure, which is pretty darn fantastic.

CREATE A DIGITAL JUNK DRAWER

Beyond creating different inboxes for the major areas of my life, by far the best decision I ever made for simplifying my inbox was creating a digital junk drawer.

To do this, create a new email address or use an old one you no longer use and designate that as the email address for anything that you would classify as junk mail if it came in physical form. I use mine for subscriptions and promotional newsletters, order confirmations, digital receipts, shipping notifications, or anything similar.

The advantage of creating an entirely separate inbox for these kinds of items is it makes keeping your other inboxes organized — whether you have one or five — infinitely simpler. Instead of being inundated with newsletters you can't even remember subscribing to every time you open up your inbox, you have one designated place for those items to go where you can handle them as you have time.

Even if you archive everything instead of deleting it and don't have a single folder or category in your inbox, creating a digital junk drawer will make simplifying the rest of your inbox so much easier and less stressful.


I hope these tips help make your inbox less overwhelming and far easier to deal with. Do you have any inbox organization tips? I'd love to hear them in the comments!