How I went from 22,508 new messages to Inbox Zero in 36 hours without losing anything important

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My email inbox was an embarrassing mess. It’s the story of how I cleaned everything up – quickly, efficiently, for free, and without losing anything important.

It’s also about how you can do the same if you ever find yourself in this terribly disorganized situation.

(I won’t judge. But if you find this useful, I hope you download my free ebook as well: 12 simple tips that will probably make your life a little better.)

To set the stage: there were 22,508 unread messages in my Gmail account. Additionally, there were thousands of other posts that I had apparently clicked in some way or another to make them believe they had been read, but had not deleted.

So after procrastinating for a while, I finally decided to do something about it. I started on a Tuesday night and had Inbox Zero on Thursday morning.

Really, if I can do it, surely almost anyone else can, and I will explain the steps below. But quickly, let me share three initial points:

  • First, there was no big secret. Once I figured out how to untangle my email, the process was straightforward. Allowed, execute this process took a lot of effort, but it was mostly the kind of thing I could do while sitting on the couch and watching postseason baseball on TV.
  • Second, I was adamant that I would do it myself: no browser extensions, no password to a wizard. This was partly for privacy, but mostly because doing it myself meant that afterwards I would know exactly what had been done.
  • Third, my system worked, but I’m not going to tell you that this is the most effective method. In fact, I learned some things for the next time. (This email account was one of three primary accounts I use; the other two unfortunately still need aggressive cleanups. I’ll cover them next, and maybe share some other lessons learned later.)

I’m really glad I took the time to do it. I am amazed at the physical and literal feeling of stress reduction I experienced while mastering this account. Plus, I found three pure diamonds in terms of emails that I would have otherwise missed. (I’ll talk about these at the end.)

First of all, let I walk you through what I have learned. Here’s how I went from email chaos to Inbox Zero in less than a day and a half.

1. This mainly concerns the management of shippers.

Of my 22,508 unread messages, maybe 1,000 were things I actually wanted to read or record. As I delved deeper, I realized that about 90 percent of these valuable messages were sent by about 100 different senders.

However, desirable messages were drowned in an endless barrage of more things. Simply spending three seconds in each of the 22,508 emails to figure out what they contained would have taken 12.5 hours without a break. Obviously, this was not going to happen.

The key was to rearrange everything by sender, rather than date, at least for cleaning purposes. However, if you use Gmail like me, it can be difficult. At least in the web interface I can’t find any way to organize them that way. So I had to find my own techniques.

2. Choose your email program.

The easiest way I found to sort by sender was to use a separate email program. Reading my Gmail through the Mail program that came on my MacBook Pro did the trick; you can sort by date, size, subject and sender.

I started by culling the herd and archiving every email that I could quickly identify as a marketing message or newsletter. How did I find them? Searching for words like “special offer” or “unsubscribe” or “time is running out”, or even copyright notices; things you would only expect to find in commercial messages.

Archiving so many of them hurt me both because I used to write the Inc. this morning newsletter, and I’m writing now a much appreciated daily newsletter called Naturally.com. I hated imagining someone doing this at my job! But, it was necessary.

3. Spreadsheets are your friends.

It was important to use the Mail program to sort by sender, and you could probably only trust it, but I found another method. For reasons I will briefly explain, I didn’t want to just sort; I wanted a single list of all the addresses that had ever emailed me.

I’m not a programmer, but I was able to connect my Gmail to a Google Sheet and then copy a script I found on Stack Overflow to extract all the sending email addresses. I’m not going to link to the one I used here, as it’s a bit risky to use someone else’s (freely shared) work like this, but you should be able to find something similar.

The usefulness for me to identify these senders like this was that I could create filters in Gmail to immediately archive all old messages from them, while also creating rules so that all new incoming emails from these senders ignore the inbox. More on that below.

4. Separate domains from addresses.

It was something I hadn’t thought of. Once I authorized a marketing manager or newsletter to send me messages, they often ended up sending emails from multiple addresses on the same domain: for example: “[email protected]” and “[email protected]”, and “[email protected]

Getting rid of a lot of them quickly was much easier after extracting domains from email addresses. I did this in Google Sheets just using the SPLIT function.

For example, if an email address was in cell A1, you would enter the following formula in cell B1: “SPLIT (A1,” @ “).” (Do not include opening and closing quotes or period.)

This places the far left of the “@” sign in a cell, and everything after it – which in most cases was the domain itself – in the next cell.

Using these domain lists, I was able to create filters in Gmail that would wipe out entire swathes of emails that I would never have had time to read in a million years. It was much faster than just using the Mail program.

5. Filter rule.

This is going to be Gmail specific, but I’ve alluded to filters a few times, and I should explain a bit more.

A reasonable person might ask, why not just unsubscribe from all the random non-personal emails?

The reason is that unsubscribing takes several steps: (a) open the email, (b) scroll down, (c) find the unsubscribe link, (d) click on it, (e) wait for ‘a new page loads, and either (f) verify that you have been automatically unsubscribed, or (g) find out how to do it from this page.

We’re only talking about seconds, but these are my seconds. So by searching Gmail for senders with specific domains and clicking the little “create filter” link at the bottom of that search page, I was able to archive hundreds of messages at a time, label them, and make sure that incoming emails from these domains would skip the inbox.

6. The archive is your other friend.

Another Gmail specific point here, but in my experience with managing email newsletters, I’ve found that about half of all email addresses used are from Gmail anyway.

In short, if you are naturally disorganized like me, one of the things that might keep you from simply deleting all emails that are over a month old, for example, is the fear of losing something important. Although I was methodical, I also found it comforting to archive many emails rather than deleting them.

I sometimes go back and look for things I’ve read, and archiving just means they’re moved out of the inbox where they can overwhelm other things. But they’re still there, and if you all need them, you can easily find them.

7. Who is sending this stuff?

I want to point out that almost none of the emails that clogged my inbox were spam; at least if you define spam as marketing (or phishing, etc.) emails that you never consented to receive.

In my case, I had signed up for a lot of things that looked interesting at the time, but never had time to read – as well as things that came from approved senders that I didn’t have. not really needed. Think UPS.com notifications, real estate alerts, or millions of Google Analytics emails, or a notification every time someone signs up for my newsletter.

I hate to admit it too, but one of the biggest users of space in my inbox was the thousands and thousands of press releases people sent me. I understand and respect that it’s people’s job to do this, but the vast majority are now in my filters, unread.

Not for the first time, I thought: there must be a better way.

Rough diamonds

In the end, I also came across quite a few emails that I had missed or that I didn’t know I had, but that I really wanted to read and save. For the most part, these had been hiding in plain sight among the thousands of others. There were dozens of them, but three in particular stood out:

  • A financial notification that could now be worth a few thousand dollars, and that I had completely missed a few months ago.
  • An email from a friend who has since passed away. I had read at the time but was very happy to find it.
  • Another email from a friend that I hadn’t heard from in over a decade. This overgrown email address was the one he had for me, and when he unexpectedly thought about trying to reconnect, it was the one he naturally used.

Overall it was a learning experience, and nowhere near as difficult as I had feared. But, even if finding those three messages had been the only benefit, it would have been worth it.

The opinions expressed here by the columnists of Inc.com are theirs and not those of Inc.com.


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