Cleaning your Inbox

Messages may get lost in the post. But you can at least stop them getting lost in your email.

Cleaning your Inbox

Messages may get lost in the post. But you can at least stop them getting lost in your email.

Some people are always on their inbox. Send them an email, and you’ll get a reply within minutes. For those people, emails are the most reliable way of keeping in touch.

Then, there are the exact opposite. They never check email at all.

Well, they do check their email. But they do it so rarely and are so flooded with emails that, chances are, they’ll skip right by your email and never read it.

And it’s not really their fault. After all, if your inbox had a thousand unread emails, you wouldn’t know where to begin, either.

Most of those would probably be marketing messages or social media updates which you wouldn’t want to read. The problem is, you won’t get to read the emails you really wanted to.

Which is a pity. Emails are one of the most reliable ways of getting through to someone. Not everyone has Kontalk or Facebook or WeChat — but everyone’s bound to have email.

My inbox was once filled up, too, but I eventually got it cleared up. It doesn’t take much effort once you get going. But how do you do it? And what techniques do you use? Here are the ones I found to be most useful.

It’s time to clean your inbox.

Stopping the flow

Emails have been around for a long time. They began with the practice of pasting a message inside a folder where the other person was likely to notice it. That evolved into a system of connected servers and ‘@’ symbols. Larger than messaging apps and older than the Internet, the email network is still one of the most widespread networks today. People use it a lot.

Too much, in fact.

Every time someone likes your post, or comments, or messages you, Facebook sends you an email. So does LinkedIn. And Twitter. And Google Plus. Amazon and Flipkart don’t forget to send you deals and offers, Great Indian Sales and Big Billion Days. Neither does SnapDeal. Or Infibeam.

If that’s not enough to keep you occupied, there are all those daily updates and special announcements for newsletters you didn’t even know you had signed up for. If only you could stop them coming.

Well, you can stop them coming. Most of those emails have an “unsubscribe” link somewhere in the small print at the bottom. Click on that to change your preferences, or to stop getting those emails altogether. You’ll need to do it for each and every service. It’ll take a bit of time. But once you’re done, the flood of emails would have been reduced to a tiny trickle

Now, you can work on bailing out the water you already have inside.

Sorting things out

If your email provider is Gmail, you can take advantage of its ‘tabs’ feature. Gmail can sort out your emails into different categories such as ‘Updates’ and ‘Promotions’, so that only the other, more relevant, stuff stays in your main inbox.

When you first start using tabs, you might think it doesn’t work very well. Actually, that’s because Gmail hasn’t yet learned which kinds of email you’d like where. You have to spend a bit of time teaching it.

It’s actually quite simple: if an email comes into your main inbox, just drag and drop in onto the appropriate tab — such as ‘Social’ for follower updates or ‘Promos’ for Independence Day Super Sales. Once you do it for a while, Gmail will get the idea and begin automatically sorting the emails as they come in.

Even if you don’t use Gmail, you can use the ‘Folders’ and ‘Filters’ features that most email providers — Gmail included — have. Folders (called ‘labels’ in Gmail) are just that: folders where you can move your emails to keep them nicely sorted. Filters are things that are automatically run when an email comes in. You can have a filter that takes, for example, all emails from notifications@medium.com that contain the word ‘private note’, and adds them to the ‘Medium Private Notes’ folder.

Finding your stuff

Many people, I’ve noticed, have taken to treating their inbox like a Twitter feed. They scroll down, skimming through. The email subjects are usually 140 characters or less. When people find something important or interesting, they click to read the full email. They send a quick reply, if it’s urgent, or a long reply, if they remember it later. When they get tired of it, they close the tab and move on to something else.

People have gotten so used to social media ‘streams’ that they treat email the same way. That’s why they can ‘lose’ emails and not be able to find them again. They only search the way you search for a Facebook post: scroll down and hope you spot it.

I know even Gmail users who ask me to resend emails that they’ve ‘lost’. Which is a bit strange. The same people who search out a page from the entire Internet have trouble finding an email in their own inbox?

Most email providers have a Google-like search-box on top of the page — with a difference. Instead of searching the Internet, it just searches the emails you have.

You can use special search-filters like from:notifications@medium.com to narrow down your search. You can even do advanced things like not(from:notifications@medium.com) to get all non-Medium emails (but why would you want to do that?).

But if that’s too complicated, you don’t have to do it. Just type what you want. Use it like Google. It’s easy.

Deleting the junk

Are you done with an email? Never going to read it again? Then don’t hesitate — just delete it!

Most providers store deleted emails in the Trash for 30 days before getting rid of them forever. So you still have a month to change your mind, or to un-delete the important email you got rid of by mistake.

Do you have a huge load of a certain kind of emails to delete? Sixteen newsletter updates? A couple of hundred Facebook notifications? A months’ worth of daily Duolinguo reminders? That’s where the search feature comes in handy. Type in the email address from whom those messages are coming — say, noreply@facebook.com — and then use the check-box on top of the list to ‘Select all’ messages and delete them.

Sometimes, those emails are repetitive. You might delete them once, but they’ll come back again, in a small, annoying trickle. If you leave your inbox alone for a few days, that trickle will develop into a puddle and then a flood. Most annoying are the ones that don’t come with an ‘unsubscribe’ link.

In that case, don’t just delete them. Mark them as Spam.

Don’t feel bad for the emails. They’re things that you don’t want, that you’re needing to delete again and again. That’s what spam is. And the future spam messages will automatically come to your spam box — where you can check them out if you want to, or let them evaporate on their own after 30 days.

Archiving the rest

It’s good to keep your inbox clean. Right now, I have a total — read and unread — of eighteen emails in my inbox. Often, I have zero.

Wait a minute. Eighteen? Zero? What about all the old ones? The records? The photos? The memories and conversations I might want to keep?

Don’t worry — they’re there all right. They’re just not in my inbox.

An inbox is not like a social media stream. It’s more like your own private pool, with a beginning and an end — even if, at the moment, that end is pretty far away.

An inbox is supposed to be an inbox — with everything that’s just come in and that you’re involved in right now. It’s the pile of letters on top of your desk that you still need to read and reply to.Once you’re done with the letter, you file it away neatly, in chronological order, so you can find it again when you need to.

Of course, not many people file their letters so neatly. But everyone can have their emails filed, with almost no effort. All it takes is a single click of the ‘Archive’ button.

Archiving emails removes them from your inbox. But they’ll still be in your email account, somewhere. You can go to ‘All Mail’ to look at them, or just use the search bar to find them. They won’t get deleted like spam, unless you choose to delete them. They’re safe. And they’re also safely away from your inbox, so that you don’t get distracted.

I normally archive emails after replying to them, or doing whatever I’m supposed to do. If someone replies, they’ll come back to my inbox. So, that way, my inbox is clean and also doubles up as a to-do list.

But your inbox is already so full-up! What are you going to do? I suggest you just ‘Select All’ and archive everything. Chances are, you wouldn’t have looked at the emails anyway. And it’ll give you a nice, clean slate to start with, so you at least won’t miss all the new important emails that come in.

Using the ‘Inbox’ app

I have a final suggestion for Gmail users — specially those who have smartphones. Install the Inbox app by Google. It has your same Gmail inbox, but with a brand-new interface.

Swipe emails to the right to mark them as Done (Inbox’s equivalent of ‘archive’). Swipe to the left to snooze them, which means they vanish into the ‘snoozed’ box to reappear at a specified time. Add reminders to your emails, or even create reminders that are not connected to any emails.

Let your messages be auto-sorted into categories. Let them be ‘bundled’ together in your inbox, and create new ‘bundles’ if you need them. Or just keep it simple. The choice is yours.

I like setting the right-swipe to ‘Delete’ instead of ‘Mark as Done’, and then swiping away the emails I don’t want. The promos and the updates and the advertisements. In fact, I’m quite happy to have a huge load to swipe away. It’s so satisfying, it’s actually fun.

And when you finally make it, and have no emails in your inbox, there’s a nice clear sky and a bright yellow sun waiting for you.


A clean inbox is a pleasure to use. It has no other distractions. No more notifications fighting for your attention. What once looked like a raging torrent will now be a clear mountain stream. You can even drink the water.

Instead of a Twitter torrent which you cannot handle — imagine if you had to respond to every single post in your feed‽—it’s more like Facebook notifications. A few notes and messages about the things that really matter.

Now that you’ve read this piece, are you going to clean your inbox? Let me know of your progress, or post any questions you have. Maybe I can help. Or, is your inbox already clean? What techniques do you use to keep it that way? Let me know in the comments.

Meanwhile, I’m looking at my social media notifications. It seems that, a lot of times, the services are making up pseudo-notifications when they aren’t any real ones to notify me about. One says that three people posted in a group I follow. Another informs me that the article I saved happens to be a popular one. Yet another reminds me of a photo I took on this day, several years ago. What’s more, these notifications seem to be getting more and more common.

It looks like we have another flood on our hands….


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