Conquer Your Overflowing Inbox

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Last night, Megan, the blogger behind A Fiercer Life, left a comment on yesterday’s Twosday post.


Wow, you spent 6+ hours organizing your email, amazing!  I have been putting this off for SO long and someday I need to do it.  Any tips for breaking the task up into small and more manageable pieces?  I find just the thought of it to be very daunting!

When I saw her question, I started writing a super lengthy [and, of course, rambly] response in the comments section.  But then I thought that someone else with a similar overflowth of electronic correspondence may benefit from my crazy need to have a plan, and decided to share it here, instead. 

So here we go.  Yes, I do have some tips. Or perhaps just a sharing of my own experience.


Here’s what I did.

I made a list of what to do, then worked my way through it.  Do you use Gmail multiple inboxes? I do.  At this point in time I should stop and tell you about Gmail multiple inboxes, but honestly, Kath does such a great job of explaining it that I’m just going to have to point you to her video about it.  Go ahead. I’ll wait here.

Nerd Kerf Gmail 1

Welcome back! So, with my multiple inboxes, I use five colors of bangs/stars, for five categories.  My categories are Follow Up ASAP, Follow Up Soonish, To Do Eventually [mostly emails from myself when inspiration strikes but I don’t have time to fully form an idea or begin a task], Information at the Ready, and Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy! [emails to reread when I need a cheer up!]. 

For this email clean out, I didn’t need to dip into the last three categories, only the Follow Up Soonish and Follow Up ASAP folders.  Also, my general inbox was full of unorganized messages from weeks before Christmas! 

I work best on a task-fueled to-do list. So, I made a list, which looked like this:

  • go through red stars
  • go through yellow stars
  • go through inbox
  • start timing self to deal with emails for real

Then I started doing those tasks.  I set some rules for each of the sections I was going through. 

I planned to reorganize and reprioritize my Follow Up emails.  I read each and every email that was in each inbox, and if I could respond in 3 minutes or less, or I felt compelled to write a lengthy response at that moment, I did so, removed the star, and filed it in the correct file [I have TONS of folders and subfolders in my Gmail]. 

While I sorted through each inbox, it was easy to notice I had several emails that could be filed or deleted without a response.  Deadlines passed, content irrelevant, things you replied to but then just never did anything with.  It’s all in there ready for you to deal with it in just one click of a mouse.

For the emails that I wanted to spend more time on, or didn’t have the energy to respond to right in the moment, I made a quick decision on whether to file it as a “Follow Up ASAP” [red star] or “Follow Up Soonish.” [yellow star]  I made a rule before I started reprioritizing the emails that I would respond to all of the red stars within one week, and the yellow stars within 3 weeks. 

I tried to be quick with each decision, and once I got the ball rolling with the email sorting and responding, it really wasn’t hard to pick and choose which ones needed more time and which were ready [or extremely overdue] for a little bit of my attention right in the moment.


One of my best ever productivity tools was a big help in this process, Online Stopwatch.  I use the countdown feature all the time in my office and at home, too.  I set the timer and tell myself I will take a break when the alarm rings.  It keeps me on task knowing that I have a little break for internet surfing, snack compiling, or a nap.  You can set the timer for any amount of time you’d like.  If you find yourself hating the email clean out process more than anything else [including vacuuming – yuck!], try setting the timer for 5 minutes at a time and work your way through.  Once you pick up momentum, you may find yourself motivated to try 10 minutes at a time until you’re finished. 

When all was said and done I had nine emails in my Follow Up ASAP inbox to take care of this week.  Have more emails come in since then? Of course! All those people I spent 6 hours replying to had something to say, for one.  But I’ve tried to keep my same principle with my email this week as I did when I was sorting it.  Star the ones that don’t have instant priority, respond to things that take 3 minutes or less, write on the subjects I’m feeling motivated to respond to, and at all possible costs, try to live by the “touch it once” rule. [which reminds me, Elise has a great post on email tips!]

I know it’s not going to be a perfect solution forever.  I know there will be emails that hang out in that red folder for far longer than a week.  But I feel like I’ve finally got control over something that has been dragging me down for MONTHS. [I replied to one email from JULY this past weekend. and several from August. I know, I’m ridiculous.]  If you’re feeling like your email is a tad past crazy, dive in.  You’ll feel so much better at the end of it all.

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7 thoughts on “Conquer Your Overflowing Inbox

  1. Sarah

    Thanks for Online Stop Watch. What a great tool, I plan to use it today!

    At work, I set a reminder to clean out e-mails (and sent mail) once a week. It really helps keep my inbox clean.
    Sarah recently posted..Financial Goals

  2. Megan

    FABULOUS! Thank you so much, and I’m so pleased that my little question spawned such a wonderfully detailed post. I had no idea about the google multiple inboxes, this will make my life much easier. Also, I love the stopwatch, I am going to start using it for getting through mundane tasks I tend to put off but still need to do. Great post!
    Megan recently posted..Sadness

  3. Miranda @ Biting Life

    Wow this is great! I definitely don’t have that much of a cluttered inbox right now, but I’m sure that this will be really helpful for me in the future. I never thought of using multiple inboxes for that. I love the idea of using the stopwatch for tasks — I’ll probably steal that and use it for other work-related things.
    Miranda @ Biting Life recently posted..What I Ate Wednesday 1/16/13

  4. Katie

    I did an email organization blog post (about why I have 5 email accounts) but I really like how you explain your red and yellow stars! Plus, the online stopwatch is genuis! I linked your post on my post, I hope that is alright!
    Katie recently posted..#HLS13

    1. Heather Post author

      Thanks, Katie!! I’m going to check out your post 🙂 and thank you so much for linking to me in your post – that’s awesome!! xo

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