How to Declare Email Bankruptcy


Email overload - it may be time to declare bankruptcy. Source: DALL-E

I've been adhering to a zero-inbox policy for years, a practice born out of necessity while working in a company with limited email space. This approach demanded ruthless efficiency in minimizing my storage footprint.

What this means is that my inbox contains only items needing my immediate attention. It's effectively a succinct to-do list. Anything lingering for more than a day gets shifted to my actual to-do list.

Beyond managing data overload, a zero-inbox also eased my cognitive load. There's something inherently overwhelming about an email icon flaunting a red badge with a number in the hundreds. Scanning through a massive list of emails meant making countless micro-decisions: Is the sender significant? Does the subject hint at something urgent? Is there a time-sensitive issue within?

So, how do you tackle this challenge? Declaring email bankruptcy often involves deleting everything in your inbox and informing everyone, "Sorry, I had to declare email bankruptcy. Please resend anything important."

If this approach seems pretentious to you, as it does to me, a more nuanced method is needed. Here's my solution, which requires a couple of hours of focused effort.

If your inbox is overflowing with hundreds, or worse, thousands of emails, create a new folder and transfer all the emails there. Name it "Emails up until [today's date]". For Gmail users, create a label with this name, apply it to everything in your inbox, then archive them.

Next, address this new folder (or label in Gmail). Start with unread emails. If they number in the hundreds or thousands, I suggest focusing on recent emails from the past few weeks. Use this pattern to triage:

  1. Important, requiring immediate attention: Move back to the inbox.
  2. Useful for future reference: Leave in the folder.
  3. Unimportant: Delete.

Aim to spend no more than an hour on these unread messages. Afterward, mark everything else in that folder as read.

This process allows you to swiftly handle the most critical items, refocusing your attention on the inbox. You'll likely have new emails that demand your attention. Here are some strategies for managing ongoing inbox activity:

Unsubscribe: From newsletters to marketing emails, if they contribute to inbox overload and you rarely read them, unsubscribe. The same applies to trivial automated updates in organizations.

Use Rules: Both Outlook and Gmail offer robust rule settings to organize incoming messages. These rules can filter, move, or delete messages based on specific criteria.

Organize with Folders or Labels: Creating folders or labels provides context and helps avoid missing important emails in broad searches. Some useful ones include nested folders for clients/customers, a receipts folder (especially valuable during tax season), and a travel folder for consolidating travel plans.

While setting up folders or labels may initially seem labor-intensive, they're invaluable for maintaining a clear inbox and efficient email management.

Email doesn't have to be a source of stress. The key is overcoming the initial hurdle of clearing out the inbox. Once that's accomplished, maintaining it becomes much more manageable.


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