When I think of spring cleaning, I think of my closet—and how much I really, really need to go through it: to clear out the stuff I haven’t worn all season, find a good, out-of-the-way spot for things I don’t wear very often, and organize all the rest into some system that makes sense.
But I’ll be honest: If I want to tackle the area of my life that’s the biggest mess, I should really spring clean my email.
Sound familiar? I’m guessing so. So, this year, I’ve come up with a few tips for clearing out your closet—and how to apply them your inbox.
1. Clear Out What's in the Back
When it comes to emails, the newer ones always get the attention. So, if you're going to spring clean, the best place to start is with your oldest messages. Even if you only answer the three oldest emails, you'll feel like you’ve made some headway, because those are the ones that have been gathering dust (and really do need to be either replied to or archived).
If you use Gmail, you can click on the number of emails in the top right corner, and sort by "Oldest" to focus your attention on the emails you haven’t thought about in months.
2. Declutter, and Throw Some Things Out
Just like with your closet, you'll be happier with your inbox if it only holds what you need. In fact, studies show that decreasing the amount of daily email you get will have a real impact on your time management and stress levels.
So, take these first weeks of spring as an excuse to clear out what you no longer need. Newsletters you never actually read, notifications from social media sites you don't even look at, mailing lists that aren't helpful to you anymore—all of these are fair game.
Not sure how to start identifying these inbox-clutterers? Try this:
As you go through each step, unsubscribe from everything you don’t actually read or need.
3. Not Needed Daily? Put it Elsewhere
Once you’ve decided which newsletters and panlists you definitely want to stay on, consider creating specific folders (or, what I call "themed inboxes") where non-essential emails go automatically—instead of showing up in your inbox. By filtering those emails by type and making them easily accessible without being in front of you at all times, you take control back: You’ll look at deals on Fab.com and new styles at Banana Republic when you choose to, not when they decide to pop into your inbox. You’ll check out new Twitter followers when you decide it's time for your social media break. You get the idea.
Before getting started with filters, decide on your themes. When looking at my inbox for time-wasting offenders, I decided the big three were: panlists, social media, and newsletters. Create new labels for each of these.
Pro tip: Start the label with an asterisk to bring it to the top of your labels, ensuring you don't forget to check them (e.g., "* Social media" instead of "Social Media").
Then, set up your filters to have relevant emails skip straight to your "themed inboxes." Gmail's steps for setting up filters are:
Now, all of those emails from firstname.lastname@example.org go straight to my "*Newsletter" themed inbox to check when I'm in online shopping mode. I recommend setting your themed inbox label settings to "Show if Unread" to really benefit from this "out of sight, out of mind" strategy. And while the above instructions apply specifically to Gmail, many other email systems offer similar labeling and sorting functionality.
Overhauling your inbox takes some time, but I promise, it’s totally worth it. Just like a clean closet helps you find the things you’re actually looking for, an organized inbox will make sure you’re spending time and energy on the emails you really need to read. Happy Spring Cleaning!
Read more on Spring Cleaning Your Career!
Photo of woman on email courtesy of Shutterstock.
Alex is the President & Founder of The Muse, where she focuses on the growth and operations of the fast-growing business and pursuing constant innovation. Her book The New Rules of Work, written with her co-founder Kathryn, came out in April 2017. Outside the office, Alex can be found on her road bike or deep in a book. She also loves productivity hacks more than candy.More from this Author