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The email ‘hack’ that will change your relationship with your inbox

Until you make a personal decision to go off the grid, email going to be a part of your life. Might as well make it a functional and painless part.

The email ‘hack’ that will change your relationship with your inbox
[Photo: PM Images/Getty Images]

I just reset my email. Took my unread count down to zero. Archived or deleted everything that was sitting in my inbox. And everything feels different now.

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More than any other possible binary the world presents us, I believe there are precisely two types of people in this world: those whose unread email count sits at or well above 1,000, and those who have their life somewhat in order.

I remember when we all first started to get iPhones, and we all were kind of looking over each shoulders to see how different people arranged their apps, and consequently, their burgeoning digital lives. The only apps that were truly constant for everyone that I ever saw were Messages, their music player, and email. (By the way: Imagine being the type of person who moves their “Phone” app off of their home page? But hey, I saw them and they exist.)

We all use email. And your approach to email says a lot about you.

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There are people out there who still use Yahoo Mail. There are also people who still use AOL Mail. There are even people who have managed to keep their devices around a certain generation of technology where to this very day, in 2022, that classic little computer voice will still say “You’ve got mail!”

None of these methods are incorrect. We all experience email in different ways. For some of us, it’s integral to our work. For others, communication has largely moved to all sorts of other chat apps and communication portals of choice. Yet, email has a staying power. It’s not just another communication app. It’s official, and permanent, and has that “the government uses it to contact you” kind of feeling. So, until further notice, or until you make a personal decision to go off the grid, it’s going to be a part of your life. Might as well make it a functional and painless part.

And the first step towards making that functional and painless possibility a reality is cleaning out the inbox you have right now. Here are a couple options for how to do that.

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If you want, just cheat and hit “reset”

You may not know that there’s a “Mark 10,000 Emails As Read” button hidden in Gmail.

To find it, you have to hit the “select all” button in the top left of Gmail to select all the emails on that initial page. Then, in the middle of the top bar, an option will pop up that says “Select all X conversations in ‘Inbox.'” Hit that, and select “mark as read,” or “archive,” or “delete,” if you’re truly a wild one.

It’s highly likely there’s an equivalent feature in whatever client you use in your day-to-day.

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It’s very satisfying to hit that button. I used to think it was a cheap way out, and that it was more honorable, or something, to work my way out of this situation I found myself in. (Honorable to who? Myself?)

The thing that used to trip me up was looking at my overflowing mailbox as if it was some twisted version of a to-do list. Because technically, I guess, each of these emails wound up in and stayed in the inbox for one legitimate reason or another.

And it’s true–there are perfectly reasonable and healthy ways to use your inbox like a to-do list. But when that number reaches heights physically inconceivable, it’s time to look at it as just another stack of clutter to deal with.

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So, if this is the first or one of the first times you’ve resolved to change your ways, and you want to crawl out from under the weight of these years of emails, join me in picking up the proverbial digital flamethrower.

And also, don’t worry: we’re not pressing “delete.” We’re pressing “archive.” Everything is still there, just a search away. So it’s not as if anything drastic is actually even happening. But there’s a wonderful forward-looking feeling of just putting it all…somewhere else. Somewhere less loud. Where they’re not yelling at you in bright red bold font.

If you insist, go through them all

But maybe you’re a convicted completionist. Or your pile is somewhat more manageable, or made up of actually exclusively super important emails.

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If you’re serious about getting your email life sorted out, you have to go through them all. And depending on the size of the task, that might take some creative planning.

First things first, unless you’re a masochist with unlimited time, break it up into batches. Do a test run and determine how many emails you can get through before your eyes glaze over. Reduce that number by 3 or 5, and call that your baseline. Do it once or twice a day? A halfway mentally-stimulating warmup before work in the morning? Or maybe a cool-down to end the day in the same low key way. Just chip away at it.

And in this process, with its concentrated manner, you might get a clearer glimpse at the breakdown of your emails and the percentage of them that are truly as important as they purport to be. You might be able to pick up on certain red herrings or repeat offenders that you can look out for in the future.

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Ensure it doesn’t happen again

Now, you’re staring at a blank inbox. Congratulations. It’s a serious achievement, even if you cheated. And you deserve the feeling of lightness and peace that might come with it. Savor it!

But now is the time to change our behavior and introduce safeguards so we’re not put in this position again.

My Achilles heel was always newsletter emails. Especially when they’re loaded with information or news or emails, and they’re all interesting or well-written. My instinct was always to put them aside to read later. But we all know how rarely “later” actually comes. I had to get real brutal with myself and be honest about how many of these things I was actually reading, and actually ever got around to once I put it aside. By the end of my self-aware purge, I had worked down from about nine daily round-ups and intelligencers down to two or three. That was fine.

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But everything else? Receipts, old business or correspondence, and of course, spam, have to be dealt with, immediately and unsentimentally.

I also always had a habit of keeping something in my inbox when it had an important attachment or detail associated with it. But that’s not how you have to go about it. We’re not deleting anything. Everything is still just a search away. If it’s not vitally important in this moment? You don’t need to keep it around on the surface like that. All those “just in cases” only add up to clutter.

Ideally, all that should be left is actionable and important business that you intend to get to soon but can’t quite get to just yet. Should be a shallow pile.

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Change your relationship to email

Finally, relish that new fresh light feeling. Enjoy all the pretty pictures and words of encouragement that apps and email clients display for you when you have no emails.

(If you use the Gmail mobile app, when you archive or delete your last message, you actually are greeted with a nice little picture of a woman reading a book in a grassy field. A little message says, “You’re all done!” There are people who go their whole lives not knowing that exists. And yes, of course, it’s a small thing. But it’s not nothing.)

Your mission moving forward: Have email be a resource you parse through in the morning, and check periodically but not obsessively. Now that we’re starting at zero, you can allow yourself to get addicted to that feeling of returning back to an empty bin. If you’re really feeling like an enthusiast, you can get into folders and different filing and archiving systems. But at the very least, get attached to that instinct to jettison emails away from yourself and your inbox, and you’ll go far.

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Good luck. Here’s to many more inbox zero mornings in your future.


This article originally appeared on RescueTime and is reprinted with permission.


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