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7 tips to help clean up your email backlog

Are you trying to start off January by cleaning out your inbox, but feeling a bit overwhelmed and demotivated and overwhelmed?

Yeah, me too.

This past weekend, I finally cleared out the backlog of emails in multiple email accounts. (Side note— I feel like I wear way too many hats. I wish that I didn’t have multiple email accounts to stay on top of… and yet it also makes sense that I do. Just my season of life right now. And maybe yours too.)

I’d been putting off clearing out my inbox(es) and had honestly built it up into a real mountain of a task. When I got down to it, it wasn’t so bad. These are a few of the strategies I used to finally empty my inbox— see if a few of them might be helpful for you, too.

Tip 1: Set aside a dedicated block of time in your calendar

I keep thinking that I can stay on top of my emails in little slivers of time in my day. I keep being incorrect in this Pollyanna-ish assumption. Sure, when my inbox is already tidy and orderly, I can use little slivers of my day to quickly process a handful of emails when they come in. But when I’m already dealing with an intimidating backlog? A few minutes here and there between meetings just doesn’t cut it.

I ended up setting aside two full pomodoro blocks (2 x 50 minutes) to clear through my email backlog, and that was the magic solution. Knowing that I was solely focused on this task (instead of trying to do it on my phone, in little spurts of attention) made it go much more smoothly. It ended up going more quickly than I thought (I’d thought it would take me a full day to clear out my email backlog, at least!). It even felt (slightly) enjoyable. Depending on your own email backlog, might need more or less… maybe start with one pomodoro block and see how far it gets you?

Tip 2: Process on your computer, not your phone

This ties into a future tip (spoiler: it’s about keyboard shortcuts)… I had a much easier time processing through emails on my laptop rather than trying to clear the backlog on my phone. My phone is an excellent tool for reading and processing a handful of emails on the fly when I’m waiting for the bus. But it’s a terrible tool for reading and processing through an overflowing inbox with emails from far too long ago.

Tip 3: Sort your inbox from oldest to newest

This was really a gamechanger for me. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner. You can either literally use the chronological reverse sort function (available for sure on Apple Mail, Thunderbird, and Outlook, probably on some other programs) if you like, or just scroll to the bottom of your inbox and work your way up, if your email program doesn’t offer a chronological reverse sort option.

How to sort mail reverse chronologically in Apple Mail

Go to View -> Sort By -> tick “Date” and tick “Oldest Messages on Top

How to sort mail reverse chronologically in Thunderbird

Go to View -> Sort By -> tick “Date” and tick “Ascending

How to sort mail reverse chronologically in Outlook

Go to View -> Sort By -> tick “Date” and tick “Oldest on Top

How to sort mail reverse chronologically in Gmail

While in your inbox, hover over the number of emails listed above your inbox -> click “Oldest

Seeing my oldest emails first made the whole process feel so much less intimidating. It was easier to see stuff I definitely didn’t need anymore, and could happily delete, or reference materials related to established projects that I could simply move to the project folder. I realized that I had a bunch of older emails that I was keeping in my inbox as a reference… for projects that were long completed. Being able to happily get rid of those in short order made my inbox feel immediately less intimidating.

Tip 4: Update your folder setup

I use this simple four-folder setup across all of my email accounts and files. I call it the PR2 setup (Projects x2, Reference x2):

  1. Active Projects
  2. Current Reference
  3. Completed Projects
  4. Archived Reference (Cold Storage)

As I started to go through my emails, I realized that I had a bunch of email folders that were out of date— for example, some that were in 01. current projects really should be moved to 03. Completed Projects. And a few Current Projects didn’t even have a dedicated folder yet. Especially at the start of a new year, updating your folders is an easy way to make sure your inbox feels organized and current.

Tip 5: Memorize a few high-yield keyboard shortcuts

I have basically given up on using any email software that doesn’t offer keyboard shortcuts. I use a few different email programs, for work, personal, and business, and my only annoyance is that they all use slightly different keyboard shortcuts for filing emails into folders (100% a first-world problem!). Keyboard shortcuts don’t really feel necessary when you’re moving a handful of emails to folders, but they’re lifesaver when you’re processing through a big backlog of emails, and really do cut down on the time needed.

In case you happen to use any of these email programs, here are my favourite keybaord shortcuts:

Keyboard shortcut to move email in Apple Mail

  1. Type CMD+? (aka CMD+Shift+/) as a keyboard shortcut to access the Help -> Search menu.
  2. Type the name of the folder you want to move your email to.
  3. Hit the down arrow once to choose “Move to” folder, then hit return.

Keyboard shortcut to move email in Thunderbird

  1. Install the Quick Folder Move add-on for Thunderbird.
  2. Hit Control+Shift+M (on Mac) or Ctrl+Shift+N (on Windows or Linux) to access the folder popup.
  3. Start typing the name of your folder.
  4. Use the up and down arrow keys, then hit return to select your folder and move your message.

Keyboard shortcut to move email in Gmail

  1. Turn on keyboard shortcuts by going to Settings -> See All Settings -> Scroll down to the “keyboard shortcuts” section in the General tab -> Select Keyboard Shortcuts On -> Hit the Save Changes button at the bottom of the page.
  2. Select the email you want to move, hit V, then type the folder you want to move it to.

After you’ve used these a few times, I guarantee that your muscle memory will take over and you’ll be able to effortlessly punch these keyboard shortcut combinations in. Until then, write down your favourites on a Post-It and stick it on your desk/next to your monitor for reference.

Tip 6: Use the unsubscribe button liberally (yet strategically)

Sure, some of the emails clogging up my inbox were individual messages from real people about events or projects. But way too many were from mailing lists and newsletters. Interesting and delightful ones, in some cases! And also ones that might have been useful in the past, but were no longer a good fit. The ones that didn’t fit my life right now were easy enough to deal with. Scroll down, unsubscribe, done. It’s a favour to my inbox, and a favour to the newsletter creator– they don’t need to have me on their list if I’m not reading their work and just deleting their messages. But what about the email newsletters I still enjoyed?

Even for the good ones, I realized that it’s a big stress to have a fun, whimsical, interesting, or inspiring newsletter sitting cheeky-by-jowl with a boring yet essential email about renewing my professional membership. Looking at my inbox felt like getting content whiplash. These were too many types of competing content, all in one spot. When I was checking details for my kid’s school event, I didn’t want to see marketing newsletters— even if I’d be delighted to read those another time. So I started using the unsubscribe button liberally, but in a specific way. Which leads us to the next point…

Tip 7: Create a shiny new email account for your newsletters and subscriptions

I’ve tried a boatload of different apps and software to organize and read my email newsletters. Especially since I’ve been on a social media break (which at this point seems to be stretching out pretty indefinitely… it might start to qualify as quitting social media altogether?), I especially enjoy subscribing to newsletters and RSS feeds as a way to keep on top of the latest posts from the writers and creators I admire.

Most recently, I’ve been trying out Readwise Reader (which is a powerful, beautiful app, and might be the right fit for you!). Previously, I’ve used NewsletteRSS, Reeder, and BazQux Reader.

But starting in 2024, I decided to simplify my newsletter subscription setup in kind of an old school way. I decided to just create a new email account solely dedicated to email subscriptions. No filters, no complicated syncing, no read it later list. This is my new, simpler workflow:

  • I sign up with my favourite creators with my new email address.
  • As I worked through cleaning out my inbox backlogs, some of the newsletters had an “edit your subscription” or “update your email address” option in the footer.
  • For those that didn’t have that option, I would hit unsubscribe on my old email account but then click through to their website to immediately sign up with my new account.
  • When a new email comes into my inbox in my new dedicated account, I read it when I want. When I’m done, I file it in a folder by creator’s name.
  • I can search through my email account (I decided to use Gmail to maximize searchability) to find the original email if I want. If there’s a particular quote I enjoy and want to memorialize, I highlight it and share it to/copy and paste it into my personal knowledge management system.

Basically, I’m treating my new email account as its own type of reader. There is no urgency to check that account, no more than there’s any urgency to check my RSS reader. But if I want something interesting or entertaining to read, I can open up that email account and have a curated list of content created by writers I enjoy, ready to read whenever I want.

Final thoughts

Cleaning up our email inboxes is not a glamorous task. I put mine off, and I imagine you do too. We don’t have to worry about being inbox zero people— there’s no prize or moral superiority in having a completely empty inbox. (Besides, it will just fill up again in the blink of an eye.)

But there’s no need to struggle through finding important emails in an inbox bulging at the seams. You deserve to have an email inbox that doesn’t give you heart palpitations or a sinking feeling in your stomach every time you open it. Processing your email inbox might even feel like a selfish or non-strategic way to spend your time, if you have a bunch of other things competing for your time and attention. But investing a bit of time in this now— maybe on a quiet afternoon— will help you feel freer, more organized, more relaxed, and more on top of all of your commitments heading into the new year.

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