7 Ways to Declutter Your Inbox and Keep It That Way

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Staying on top of email clutter helps you to be more productive.

The decluttering craze has hit physical belongings hard, but it has made fewer inroads into the digital sphere. I suspect, however, that we could all use some help when it comes to clearing out email inboxes, where it's all too easy to store superfluous messages for years.

I challenge you to take a new approach to email. Get on the offensive, rather than the defensive, and it will make your entire workday feel more productive. Here are some tips for purging that inbox and preventing it from building up again.

1. Delete every day.

Dedicate 5 or 10 minutes to deleting emails, or put on a favorite song and delete for as long as it plays. Make sure you're deleting more than you typically receive in a day so that, over time, you'll get ahead.

2. Unsubscribe constantly.

Be religious about taking 15 seconds to unsubscribe whenever you get a newsletter or promotional email that you don't want. You can search for the word 'unsubscribe' in your inbox to tackle them all together.

3. Delete all.

I did this once after reading Daniel Levitin's book The Organized Mindand it was immensely satisfying – selecting all and trashing the entire contents of my inbox. Of course this depends on one's circumstances, but it's not as impossible as you might think. You can also delete everything that's older than 7 years, or move previous years of emails into a separate folder to keep them out of your inbox.

4. Use the 'touch once' rule.

The idea is that, to maximize efficiency, you only touch an email once. In other words, you make a decision about it immediately, whether to delete, archive, forward, or respond. Don't postpone what can be dealt with right away. That being said...

5. Check email on a schedule.

Late morning and/or late afternoon are recommended, as it gives you time to be productive before losing yourself in a chain of emails. Set a time limit. Turn off notifications so you're not distracted by incoming messages.

6. Don't use email on your phone.

It may give you a sense of super-efficiency to be able to check email anytime, anywhere, but smartphones aren't all that practical for dealing with email. The screen is small, prone to typos, and it's hard to move messages between folders. Leave that task for a regular workstation computer.

7. Can you call instead?

So many people are inundated with emails these days, it might be a better idea simply to call someone directly when you have a simple question or request. Then neither of you has an additional email needing to get deleted at some point.