It’s Time to Clean Up Your Email Inbox

For the sake of your mental health, mostly

Photo by Tim Gouw

I have noticed that people, especially young people, tend to have really messy inboxes. Back when I was in primary school — which was about 12 years ago now — email was the shit. You were only cool if you had one. My classmates and I would sign up to a lot of different email subscription services and then boast how many unread emails we had sitting in our inbox. I guess there was a linear correlation between unread notifications and our projected social status, which made us feel somewhat more important. Fast forward a decade, and there I was sitting in front of my laptop — and a Mail icon that showed about 10k unread emails. I never for a second bothered opening the app.

Looking back, there were a multitude of reasons why my email inbox clogged up. On one end, there were social media platforms, launching continuous attacks on my inbox with new friend notifications, like notifications, and their god-knows-what-other-junk notifications. On the other side, there were companies that bombarded me with their endless arsenal of marketing pitches, hoping that maybe I would click their CTA button if they had sent me one more email, or yet another one. How the hell did they get my email anyway?

Oh marketers are cunning. Only when I started browsing more mindfully did I realise their sneaky tactics. Notice how when you visit a new website, a very annoying pop up light-box almost always decides to hack your view? They look something like this:

  • Sign up to our newsletter and get a FREE 24-page e-Book worth $199
  • Get FREE exclusive tips every week by signing up to our email newsletter
  • Enter your email below and get 10% off your first order

These promotions are not just intrusive, they were created with the sole intent of obtaining your email address. They also make it seem like the world is going to end if you decide not to enter your email. The ‘close’ buttons are usually riddled with phrases like “No, I don’t want to get more likes on Instagram” or “No, I don’t want to live healthier”. Besides the fact that they are mostly misleading, it’s just pure evil to force people to click on such buttons.

Don’t get me wrong, email can be a truly powerful tool. They’re free, they’re quick, and they’re (mostly) simple to use. They’re accessible from pretty much anywhere, and allows instant access to unlimited information and files. These features make email an indispensable constituent of most modern businesses and industries. Email is also a great source of high quality information, especially with the ever-increasing prevalence of cloud computing services which makes storing and sharing data easier than ever.

However, due to its relative ease of use, its features are often exploited by a lot of figures in business. Email is one of the biggest contributors to information overload. With more and more messages stockpiling your inbox by the day, some messages will eventually be left unread or simply dismissed — especially if someone decides that it’s no longer sensible to go through their overflowing inbox.

At my lowest (or rather highest) point, I had about sixteen thousand unread emails. You may have more, or you may have less. The point is, your inbox is probably already unmanageable if you have not taken control of it already. You just don’t sort out 16k messages, unless maybe you’re an private investigator, or a psychopath.

Then one day, after watching one of Kraig Adam’s YouTube video about digital minimalism and the benefits on online simplification, I decided it was time. Here’s a short breakdown of what I did:

1) Deleted every single email in my inbox

This was both a process of physical and mental decluttering for me. It was liberating to see that 10k red circle above my Mail icon disappear — and I instantly felt a huge weight lifted off my back. It was rather cathartic.

It wasn’t a completely flawless transition though, as I did accidentally delete all my notes, which were apparently synced via Gmail, and that was quite annoying at the time. Other note-keeping systems could utilise the same technical scheme, so make sure you back up important files and documents before you go out deleting your entire inbox and the trash folder.

2) Utilised email subscription management services

I’ve been using Unroll Me ever since I ventured into email declutter-land. Essentially their service scans through your email database and then list down all the platforms that you are subscribed to. Then they give you the liberty to unsubscribe with the click of a button. They’re free, hassle-free, and very straightforward — they do exactly what they were built to do, and they do them well. I think I went through 3 pages of website lists and about 200 services the first time I unrolled.

3) Avoided signing up for unnecessary shit

Don’t fall into the trap of cunning marketing ploys. If you see something you like, then sign up, download that ‘free thing they promised you’, and then unsubscribe immediately. This is especially true if you were never interested in buying in the first place. Plus, if you do not already know, it would save the company some marketing bucks as well.

Now, whenever I see a light-box pop up, my immediate instinct is to look for the close button. Marketers should thank me later.

4) Made it a daily habit to actively clean and sort my inbox

This was a vital part of the process, as my ability to maintain a clean inbox eventually determined its longevity. I did this along with practicing timed restrictions for my daily email use, which I suggest you also do, and that’s another productivity tip that deserves an article on its own.

Delete email that you’ve read or taken action for. Remove unwanted emails. Archive or flag the ones you think are important. Keep a close eye for spam and hit ‘unsubscribe’ if you happen to see promotion mails that do slip through your system. If you don’t know where it’s located, the ‘unsubscribe’ button is always at the bottom of the email you received.

The whole thing is a process that requires consistency and dedication, but I guarantee the effort will be worth it.

I certainly did optimise my utilisation of emails, and thus improved not only my productive output — by subscribing to actually useful and high-quality newsletters that I intend to read and interact with in my day-to-day — but also nourished my mental sanity — not just from from the joy of seeing and maintaining a clean inbox, but also from better and healthier information consumption.

Written by

Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵

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