Email is one heck of a problem these days. I’ve read hundreds of productivity books, written hundreds of productivity articles, and spent three years as a productivity writer, and I have only just figured out a system that allows me to keep my email inbox under control.
You don’t have to read hundreds of productivity books and try out all kinds of productivity solutions. I’m sharing the system I developed over years of hard work with you in one article.
It took me years of tinkering, but it should only take you from an hour to one week (depending on if you have 100 or 100,000 unread emails) to set this system up for yourself. Once you do, you will be able to enjoy inbox zero on a regular basis.
Step 1: Prepare
Most people with out-of-control email have already tried one, two, or several email management systems only for them to collapse a week later. Their spam detection systems have overcompensated by labeling lots of emails as spam that are not technically spam.
To prepare, go to your spam box, select everything, and move it to your inbox.
Doing this allows you to start with a clean slate. It allows your email system to learn that from here on out, the only emails that are spam are actually spam.
If you have any email folders called “to sort later” or “process later,” move the contents of those folders to your inbox now and delete those folders because the time to sort them has come.
Step 2: Click Unsubscribe
When your email is out of control, the bulk of your emails are the result of being placed on newsletter lists. Coupon offerings from grocery stores and department stores, mailing lists from software companies, event updates from vendors, and all kinds of other routine emails are part of being on a mailing list.
If you’re like most people, you never look at these emails. You may tell yourself you will, but you don’t, which is why they’re cluttering up your email inbox right now.
To get to inbox zero, you need to be honest with yourself. Admit you’re never going to read these newsletters because you have more important things to do with your time (like work, exercise, or spend time with your family) and let them go.
Here’s how to stop those emails from coming:
- Pick one of these newsletters.
- Scroll to the bottom and click “unsubscribe.” Sometimes it will say “change your email preferences” instead.
(Do not use your email provider’s “unsubscribe for me” function. Actually scroll to the bottom and click the unsubscribe button yourself.)
- In the browser window that opens, do whatever you need to do in order to unsubscribe.
- Go back to the original email and find the sender of the email. Copy the sender’s email address.
- Put the sender’s email address in your email search box. This will bring up a list of all the emails you’ve ever received from that sender.
- Delete them all.
- Repeat with the next newsletter.
This process will get rid of all the newsletters and what I call “voluntary spam” — spam lists you were placed on that it is possible to unsubscribe from.
After doing this for a few hours, you should not have any more newsletters or voluntary spam in your email inbox. Your email should be whittled down anywhere from 40% to 90%. Good job!
If there are some newsletters you couldn’t bear to unsubscribe from, worry not. They will be sorted soon.
Step 3: Categorize Spam
You will have some spam left in your email inbox that you can’t unsubscribe from. Move this spam to your spam box so your email’s spam algorithm can learn what spam actually looks like.
The steps are similar to unsubscribing:
- Find a spam email
- Copy the sender’s address.
- Paste the sender’s address into your email’s search box.
- Highlight all the emails.
- Move them to spam.
If you want, you can delete them after you move them to spam, but make sure to move them to spam first so your email algorithm can learn what is actually spam.
Step 4: Set Up Email Filters
This is the step of this process that most people don’t bother to do because it can be time-consuming, but it’s the most powerful part of the process.
A lot of platforms send us emails we can’t unsubscribe from. For example…
- Lyft sends me weekly driver’s reports with my earnings and rider ratings from that month.
- My bank sends me monthly notifications that my statement is available online.
- eBay sends me a monthly notification that my monthly tax statement is available online.
- Amazon Kindle sends me monthly notifications that the Kindle Unlimited Fund is available for that month.
- Amazon Associates sends me notification emails several times every month with how my affiliate earnings are doing.
- Amazon sends me an email every single time I place an order, that order is shipped, and that order arrives. They also send me an email every time I cancel an order, request a refund, and process a refund.
I get around 50 emails on a weekly or monthly basis like this. I don’t need to see any of them. The vast majority of them contain no other information than “a routine monthly statement is available online.” If you’re like most of us, you don’t download and review these statements every month and you don’t need the notifications for them cluttering up your inbox.
This is where email filters come in.
Email filters are a feature most people don’t use. They allow you to set up a rule to automatically categorize emails based on things like subject line, sender’s email address, content, and more. This enables them to go straight where they need to go without wasting any of your time.
Some examples of email rules I use:
I don’t need to be alerted every time I purchase an app, buy something at a restaurant that uses Square, decide to return an Amazon purchase, or ICANN sends me a legally required domain name notice. These can all go to the trash without taking up my time.
As you can see above, filters can be used for more than sending emails to the trash. Substack subscriptions I pay for are starred in my email inbox when they arrive so I know to read them. I also have a filter that automatically sends all reader emails to my inbox so they never hit my spam folder. You can also use filters to send all newsletters to a folder called “Newsletters,” for instance, or all invoices to a folder called “Invoices,” which is what I do.
If you had any newsletters you couldn’t bear to unsubscribe from, use filters to organize them. For instance, if you want access to your Macy’s coupons, create a folder called “Coupons” and automatically filter all coupon emails to this folder.
Every email provider allows you to set up filters. Here are links on how to do so for the major email providers:
- Google Mail: Create rules to filter emails
- Outlook: Manage email messages by using rules
- Mail: Set up rules to filter email on icloud.com
The steps for setting up email filters are similar to those for unsubscribing:
- Select a recurring email
- Copy either a part of the subject line or the sender
- Navigate to your email provider’s filters settings
- Create a rule using the subject line or sender to automatically send this unnecessary email to Archive or Trash. All future emails that fit these criteria will go there.
- Go back and select all the emails in your inbox that fit these criteria. Send them to the Archive/Trash/where you want them to go.
This step will be the most time-consuming because you have to constantly switch back and forth between your email settings and your inbox, but it will pay off when your inbox never fills up again.
Step 5: Delete Old Emails
This is the last step. At this point, your inbox should only have emails from humans.
Chances are if it’s been more than three months since you’ve received the email, the human who sent it is no longer waiting for your response (or even remembers they sent you an email in the first place). It’s probably safe to delete these old emails without reading them.
If there are any rules you can use to categorize these emails from humans, do so. For instance, my grandfather loves to send me chain emails, so I set up a rule that any emails from his email address with “Fwd” in the subject line are automatically sent to a folder called “Grandpa’s chain emails.”
Once you’ve done that, you’ve reached the end! The only emails left in your inbox are the ones you want or need to see.
I’ve laid this out as a step-by-step process, but the reality is that you’re going to have to come back to this process from time to time.
As you sign up for new services online, you will automatically be subscribed to new newsletters and automatically receive new annoying notifications in your inbox. Every time you see one of these new junk emails, you will need to click the unsubscribe button or create a filter to categorize it before more flood your inbox.
This will be a little annoying at the time, but it will save you from an inbox of 100+ unread emails and save you untold tedious hours in managing your email.
Once it’s all said and done, enjoy inbox zero.