A guide to cleaning up your email inbox

Email causes serious problems for our productivity, and for our psyche. An overflowing inbox weighs heavy on the mind. Returning to it over and over again creates more "work about work," as the saying goes, which is highly inefficient and rarely central to the real work we need to do. If this sounds like your life, it's time to clean up that inbox.

My method for maintaining a healthy relationship with email relies on very small and concrete actions that I carry out every day – check out my 11 tips on keeping email organised. In other words, maintaining my inbox is not a one-time clean-up job. But what can you do if your inbox is so awful and cluttered that you can't see beyond that huge and immediate hurdle of dealing with it first? In that case, it's time to sit down and overhaul the inbox.

Here's how to do just that…

Step 1: Sweep your inbox

Forget about processing every message in your inbox. It isn't going to happen, and there won't be any big payoff. Doing a sweep is better.

"Sweeping" means moving a whole bunch of clutter en masse to another folder.

Set up a few new folders in your email program and name them by year, quarter, or month (excluding the current year, quarter or month; so, for example, do not create a "2013" folder just yet), depending on the state of your inbox and how you tend to think about time.

For example, you might create these folders:

2010

2011

2012

Or you might have:

2012_Q4

2013_Q1

2013_Q2

The reason you won't create a folder for the current year, quarter, or month is because your inbox will be the "current" folder for now.

Next, sort or perform a search, depending on which email program you use, to isolate all the messages from a particular period of time and move them en masse to the corresponding folder.

Whatever is left in your inbox – those are the messages you can actually worry about processing, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, but more likely, it'll be little by little over the next couple of days. You don't want to take on too much at once.

All your old messages are still present – they're just out of the way. Maybe you will one day deal with them, but I bet you won't. That's one of the worst problems of email. We think we are going to get around to reading, replying, or otherwise reacting to so many messages, but we never do. Sweeping lets you get them out of the way without actually getting rid of them. So you can go on believing that you may one day process all the 2012 emails (even though you probably won't).

See the video below for instructions on how to sweep in Gmail.

Step 2: Compartmentalise

The "sweep" takes care of messages you already have, but it doesn't do anything for the messages that will be rolling in any second now. So once you have an inbox that doesn't feel suffocating, you need to create some filters or other ways of compartmentalising automatically going forward.

One way to do this is to use different email accounts for different purposes, rather than one for everything. I actually have four different email accounts that I use regularly: One for business, one for personal communication, one for online shopping (where I keep receipts, track packages, get banking and electronic tax filing alerts), and one for what I call "junk."

My junk account isn't actually for junk in the strictest sense. It's an address that I use to sign up for newsletters or new online services I want to try but which are ultimately not important. Another name for this kind of content is greymail. It's not quite spam, because you requested it and sort of want it. Nothing that is mission critical ever goes into this junk account, so if I don't check it for several days, it's no big deal. I also rarely open the junk account or the shopping account while I'm at work, so it's never even within eyesight to tempt me.

A second way to get the same effect is through folders and automated sorting. This is an especially helpful way to manage newsletters and daily deals. Outlook.com is pretty sophisticated in this regard, and Gmail is pretty good at it, too.

Whether you set up filters and folders or start pushing newsletters and shopping receipts to a different email address, this step takes some time. You'll probably need 30 minutes to an hour to set up a basic compartmentalisation method.

Step 3: Delete

Hopefully, what's left in your inbox is just a fraction of what was there before. The next thing I would do is try to delete anything that is simply not important. This step can take a while, but I wouldn't waste too much time on it.

Scan the messages in your inbox, and when you land on one that you're going to delete, try sorting the inbox by sender and see if there are other messages from this same person worth deleting. Often, I get multiple follow-up emails from one person that say the same thing, and they should all be on the chopping block.

Delete as much as you can without getting caught up in the content of any one message. If you're not sure about a message, just leave it alone for now.

Deleting is important to me because it represents letting go. If a message is not important and doesn't contain critical information, deleting it is a sign that I don't ever have to think about it again. It mentally frees me from the obligation that the email represents.

You might also want to create a folder called "Later" where you file messages that aren't really important but that you still have some psychological attachment to. These are messages you intend to deal with "later." In my experience, "later" messages are usually trash that I wasn't ready to let go of yet.

A fantastic service called SaneBox (costing £4 per month) will actually scan your inbox and push unimportant emails into a new folder called "@SaneLater" automatically for you. When I reviewed SaneBox this summer, I found it did an incredible job of identifying what was important in my email.

Step 4: Develop a system

With a manageable inbox and basic structure in place for filing email, you now need a system for how you will file your email, beyond the basic rule of "emails related to June 2013 articles go into the 1306_JUN folder." For example, you need to ask yourself: When will you put them there? How often will you look through them? What will you do with the messages prior to filing them?

This step is the hardest one because it asks you to create rules and develop habits for following them in the long term. The rules you create should be explicit. You should be able to articulate them – but they don't have to be perfect or absolute. It's okay if you stray from them from time to time. You want a system that is forgiving of a bad day here and there, one that lets you bounce back easily if you slip up.

To give you an idea of how rules play out, here are some of my rules for processing email…

Delete quickly. If an email doesn't require action, including re-reading or archiving for reference, I throw it away immediately. I cultivate deleting messages quickly into a habit by deleting messages in bulk first thing every morning. When I arrive at my desk, I delete as many messages as I see fit in one fell swoop. It's usually about 60 per cent of my new unread messages.

Respond to critical messages immediately, or keep them in the inbox. If an email is critical – meaning it requires imminent action or deep re-reading and possibly a reply – I act on it immediately or it stays in the inbox until I act upon it, usually within a day or two. It can stay in the inbox for up to a month. After a month, I must act on it. That's the deadline.

File by end of day. If a message contains information I need, but does not require immediate action, it should be moved to a corresponding folder (or saved locally to my desktop) by the end of the day – or the end of the week if I'm really busy.

Clean out the inbox Friday afternoon. Friday afternoon, I give myself 10 to 20 minutes to sort through whatever is in the inbox and perhaps act on the items that don't require a lengthy response. By the time I leave the office, I should be able to see an inch or two of white space at the bottom (room to fill up again over the weekend).

See the bottom of the inbox. Day to day, this rule is the one I live by at the most fundamental level: Always see the bottom of the inbox. Unlike Inbox Zero, I aim to have no more inbox messages than I can see on the screen. It's simple. It's forgiving. It's flexible. It's a reasonable and attainable goal. And it doesn't take much to follow this rule consistently. It plays out as a habit in that once I started aiming to see the bottom of my inbox, it became a subconscious goal.

A long-term solution to managing email

All organisation really boils down to rules, and the lynchpin that holds rules together is habits. Habits are how you carry out the rules. If the rule is empty the email trash at the end of the day, the habit is always right clicking to dump the trash before you quit the email program (or setting up your email program to automatically delete the trash upon quitting). If the rule is to always answer an email from your boss by the end of the day, the habit might be to automatically sort messages from your boss into a special folder, and then check that folder every day at 16:00.

Managing email efficiently is all about the system you use, not the software you use. Apps, features, and plug-ins may help solve specific problems you have with email, but if you fail to develop a more comprehensive system of rules or a method for ingraining habits, these extras won't come with a long-term payoff.

For more advice on managing email, see our articles on how to deal with unwanted emails, how to make good use of email forwarding, and how to organise and manage your email contacts.