How to Clean Out your Email In-Box - Christine Kane

On the one hand, I love email.

On the other hand, I see it as the great time-waster, the ultimate distraction. How many times have you blocked out an hour or two to start a big project, or to sit and write, or to do yoga, and you’re ready to begin, and you think, “Hmm. I should check my email first.” ??? (I’ve never done that, but I figure that maybe you have.)

Then there’s spam. When I first get to my office each afternoon, it takes me about 10 minutes just to delete all the spam emails. Mostly I can spot them quickly and delete them in bunches. But there’s always a few titled something like, “Question” that I have to open, even though the sender’s name is something like Tony Madrid, which should tell me right off that the message is not going to be a question at all, but rather, it’s going to be about All-Things-Erectile. Tony Madrid isn’t emailing a booking question to an Asheville songwriter. Tony Madrid is looking for some Viagra and a gal named Lola. In Vegas perhaps. Or Bransen.

The In-Box

Anyway, let’s talk about the ever filling-up email In-Box and how to clean yours out when it gets all crammed full. Email In-Boxes can get out of control for any number of reasons. My situation got bad after I let go of a full-time employee in my record label office. Along with the emotional strain of that situation, I quickly got overtaken by the daily emails I wasn’t answering. I kept telling myself I’d get a new full-time employee who would respond to all of these, even though I knew it wasn’t the right time to hire someone else. Emails just kept coming in, and I’d read them and tell myself that I’d get to them someday. After a while I couldn’t handle it anymore. Many months of emails had built up, and it was time to face the fact that I would have to be the one to read, respond to, and deal with them.

And I did it. I cleaned out my email in-box. It felt great. Here are some thoughts on the process.

Why bother?

First you have to answer this question. Myself, I am one of those Woo-Woo- New-Thought-Loving-Asheville-Freaks, so I believe that all things have energy. Email is no exception. If you are holding on to the weight of unanswered, maybe-someday emails, then you aren’t allowing a flow, and eventually you prevent more good things from arriving.

If you feel a pang of guilt gnawing at you every time you open your email program, then I hereby dub you a Woo-Woo New-Thought-Loving Asheville Freak, and we’ll just go with that. We’ll know that you, too, believe that each email carries a weight to it, and that each indecision and inaction is just you telling the universe or your subconscious, “I can’t handle any new opportunities, friends, or income sources. No thanks. I’m all full-up.” (Otherwise you’d feel no pang at all.)

Do you really want that?

Of course not. But how do you begin if you’re dreading it, I mean really dreading it?

Start by setting the intent.

(No, scratch that.)

Start by being forgiving of yourself. And THEN set the intent.

I like setting goals on index cards. Write one goal or intention down per index card and read it every morning before you begin your day. Make sure the goal is do-able. Something like this: “By July 15 (or some day within 30 days), I will have deleted, filed or responded to or acted upon every email in my in-box.” For some people this is no small task. (We were at dinner with my friend Beth and her husband Jim, and while we were all looking at our menus, Jim stopped the discussion to announce that Beth had about TWO THOUSAND (and he said it in capital letters, too) emails in her In-Box. This fact upsets him to no end. Beth laughed and turned the shade of her Cosmopolitan. I dedicate this post to all the Beths in the world.)

When you read the index card every day, all you’re doing is reminding yourself that this is important. You don’t have to get gripped with fear and loathing about it. Within about 10 days of reading my little card over and over, I sat down and dealt with all the emails in my In-Box. I didn’t write it down in my calendar. I didn’t carve away time. I just did it one day. It was easy. (I include words like easily and effortlessly and healthily in my goal/intent setting.)

Two Guidelines for Cleaning Out your email In-Box:

1 – Start at the top of the list of emails. Do the required action for each email. Do it in order. Don’t skip any of them.

I borrowed this idea from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. (A book that, ironically enough, I didn’t finish.) Allen coaches his clients who are over run with undone to-do’s to pile up all of their unfinished to-do’s in one In-Box and then complete each item in order. His clients stack up every un-filed bill, every incomplete item that comes into their head during the process, every unanswered piece of mail into their In-Box and then one by one, they do each item. They aren’t allowed to toss anything aside. They have to answer it, apply for it, file it, trash it, whatever. No matter what it is or how long it takes, he requires clients to begin the GTD process by going through their In-Box in this methodical way.

This is what I did with my email In-Box. One by one, I went through each email and acted upon it. Some of the emails were CD requests from radio stations or information requests from other songwriters, or general public questions about my tours or blogs or lyrics. I just plodded along, focusing on one email at a time. When I was tempted to bypass an email with a lame excuse like “I’ll wait on that one because it’s a little more time consuming,” my Inner Nurse Ratched (who read Getting Things Done in its entirety) told me to sit my ass back down and do it. All of the emails fell into one of these areas: Deal with it, delegate it, delete it, or file it. Some of the emails required some thought or research on my part or on my employee’s part, and so I filed them in a mailbox entitled “IDEAS TO PONDER.” (Yes, it’s a shame that a corporate managerial mind like my own is going to waste writing songs.)

2 – Assign Homes for Filed Emails.

I borrowed this technique from Julie Morgenstern’s book Organizing From the Inside Out. Her premise is that if every item that comes into your house has a place where it belongs — a home — then you’re more likely to put it away. And you are less likely to create clutter. Same thing with emails.

I have to file lots of my emails. Invoices for my web hosting, booking requests, CD distribution orders, etc etc. So, many of the emails need to be filed and revisited. Creating homes for emails is a valuable process that will truly serve you in the long run.

Note: There is a wrong way to create a home for email. One employee in my office made a new Mailbox for almost every email that came in. So the many many Mailboxes she created are completely chaotic. (That’s my next project.) There’s a mailbox called, “Show in Dallas.” And one called, “Guy making Independent Film.” This helps no one at all. It takes at least five minutes just to scroll down and see all of the mailbox headings she’s created and try to figure out what she was thinking when she filed an email away. “Now let’s see, if I were her, where would I put that email from CDBaby?”

Create BIG categories for your mailboxes. And take some time to think about what your big categories are. An example of an independent musician’s big categories might be Booking, Distribution, Emailers, Publishing, Publicity, Radio, Website. And each big category has sub-categories. For instance: Booking – Requests, Booking – Benefit Concerts, Booking – Opening Acts, etc. Or Publishing – Film & TV, Publishing – ASCAP, Publishing – Indie CD’s. The key thing is to put the big category name first consistently, even when you have a sub-category so you can easily locate that email later.

Take time to think about your mailbox headings first. Then start moving the emails into them. But be careful. You don’t want to overload the mailbox to the point that the information is now all crammed in there and that becomes your new In-Box!

Feel free to add any suggestions. And Beth, if you read this, I’m anxious to hear how it goes for you! And Tony Madrid, if you read this, may you and your truckloads of Viagra disappear one night in a dark alley in Bransen.

  • Michelle

    I have often wished there was a way to file my emails into different places, so I could get back to things by category. I just don’t know how to do that in Mac mail. I have made a point of trying to push through and respond as needed to the important emails, and get to the political/environmental/etc notes as I can fit in the time. I get a gazillion notices from linked in. It would be great to put them all in a pile and just go through a batch when I want to make the time. Maybe someday I’ll make time to find some instructions online somewhere. I’ve also tried to remove myself from as many mailing lists as possible. Still, it just takes up a lot of my day to go through them.

  • Jay

    I recently found a website containing a real FREE open source to verify email lists… Initially I was skeptical but it worked fine. Indeed since I found them this is the first stage I take when cleaning up my email lists. It’s a multilingual tool and its website URL is

    It works as a breeze to me. No charges whatsoever as it is an sponsored site.

    Best of luck!


  • troy

    I’ve been GTDing in spirts for 2 years. I had a snafu with my MAC where I couldn’t archive emails. And so I’d leave some, then I started adding categories without having meta categories and in a matter of months I went from a clean box to 4294965i42 emails and 2967 unread. I’m tempted to dump them all and restart but that would be too dangerous. So I’m reseting my categories at the various perspctives 10,000, 40,00 feet, etc. And then your simple “take an hour a day to nail this by July 18” appears the most doable. thanks!

  • Hagit

    I have to admit this – I have 8628 items in my inbox this minute. And i DO delete emails, just not the important ones. Oh, I have to find me a system. I’m still not ready to delet so much information. 🙂

  • WaltDe

    Very good reading. Peace until next time.

  • Tammy

    Christine – the problem with me and emails is that Tony gave out my addy to all of his friends that “have the cure all” ~ seriously, I think the email is truly viral – it multiplies like crazy. I am learning to be ruthless. Delete or action is my only choice as I’m a right brainer – which translates into 724 possible categories for one email (if I were inclined to create a series of folders – the number would be to much!)

    I’ve read about the organizing then the procrastinating then how to organize my procrastination and in the end, I just shut everything off except the music and just do it.

    Thanks again for another jewel on your blog!

  • christine

    Anne, You are too funny. I smiled the whole time I read your note! I hope Kelsey checks back in to read what you wrote. It’s good. And it’s great to get that kind of encouragement. Thanks!

  • anne

    Ok – so I am also Beth – well, not really, I’m Anne – but when I read the ‘how to clean out your e-mail in-box’, I had 2800 e-mails in there. I now have 3. I am officially unburdened of all those yammering voices in my in-box. It’s kind of like 2800 people on the phone all at the same time, only you’ve pressed mute. They’re still there, and you can only block them out for so long. Of course, many of those e-mails I deleted (and I deleted most of the 2800) were reminders for meetings that happened in 2004….sigh…it’s a very good thing you decided to write a blog Christine.
    And Kelsey – I just finished grad. school after several years trying to complete my PhD and do a more-than-full-time job and start a new relationship, buy a house etc. You can do it! Little chunks each day. I wrote for 30 mins each morning while trying to finish up (and most of each Saturday). Sometimes it went in the trash, and sometimes it was perfect. And mostly it was in between. But it got done. In order to get to the office on a Saturday, I promised myself some really good coffee and a muffin from the West End bakery for breakfast. Got me out the door and on my way. But if you need a day/week off from it – do that too. Makes you more productive in the end.
    Tut….since I have been blabbing, I now have 2 more e-mails in my in-box!! 5 e-mails….too many, too many….


  • Pamela Platt

    I resent that……!
    Mucho Amore,
    Tony M.

  • David (meer kitty2)

    So … You mentioned David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” or GTD as it is called in shorthand by devotees. Emptying the inbox is the second step in the 5 step process of organizing that gets done regularly. Taking things out of their inboxes (email and real) and deciding what you actually need to do with it is an important processing step.

    GTD does not ask you to complete each item as you process it, just decide what it is and whether it is actionable. If it’s not actionable, file it or toss it. If you decide it is actionable, then what project have you committed to and what’s the next action. A project is any task with more than one step. “What is the NEXT ACTION?” is the key question. The hard part for me is whether or not to accept the work implied by transfering the task from the email to my next action or projects list.

    Fight the urge that arrises to do everything that lands in your inbox. There are items that go into the “someday/maybe” folder for a good reason. Be brave about deleting things that aren’t useful or so far out of the focus of your life that they aren’t going to happen. Trust the universe that if one of those “maybe” items or deleted items really is important, it will come back again in email or some other form.

    GTD is an easy book to read, and hard to do. For me, it has been worth the effort.


  • christine

    You’re funny! Isn’t weird how we get these things done when we’re avoiding other things? When I’m getting ready to pack for a trip, I’ll tend to get every last bit of organizing done. Or when I tell myself to sit down and write a song, I’ll think, “oo. maybe i should go through my emails.” Maybe we could write a self-help book about getting things done when you’re procrastinating on getting other things done. It could be a whole new time-management system!

  • Kathy

    I agree that getting those emails read AND FILED is energy releasing! I have a blackberry (that David calls my crackberry) now and when there is a light blinking to say I have an unread email it’s only a matter of time (short time!) that I must check it. However, this means I am now taking even longer to file them. Now that I have at least read them they sit there in my inbox looking at me….and looking at me….and looking at me. But every now and then I am on a train or plane or sitting around trying not to do something else and move them all over into those folders I’ve created. It’s one of those things that makes you feel really good once it’s done! A true accomplishment. Select All and Delete is also catharctic but I’m not brave enough to do that…..what if I have missed a nugget of wisdom that could help me in some way? see, there I go again. Blockage of the energy. Hmmmmmm

  • christine

    See now? All you have to do is Select All. And then hit delete. Of course, god knows WHAT that would do to the computer when it’s trying to shuffle through two thousand emails! I’m sure there will be more dinner time stories from Jim…

    Thanks for the note, and for not minding that I used you as an example! (It’s Jim’s fault.)

  • Beth

    Okay, so I am THE Beth Christine is referring to here. There’s a part of me that wants to rationalize my very right brain behavior (I’m a musician!) as an excuse. There’s another part of me that does want to ask, “Now how can I possibly have a handle on email for pete’s sake (!!!), when I am consumed, out of inspiration and motivation, by all the tasks Christine proposes and challenges us to do?! I mean, I’m trying to get to the gym, set aside chunklets of time to work on those goals on index cards, setting my timer 30 minutes here and 15 minues there to declutter and “create order”, “buld a relationship with money” 15 minutes a day, “showing up” to practice music whether I feel it or not, etc. I could go on and on with all that I’m doing to become a bit more sane, wise and free. Christine, your blogs DO inspire me. I’m glad my embarrassment in that moment got you thinking about how to help all the “Beth’s” out there. Now we have a method to begin the attack. Whoa, Nellie. Deleting ten emails a day, with TWO THOUSAND PLUS in the inbox will take me, let’s see,……..oh, yikes! Go forth anyway, all you Beths. Eventually, we’ll get a handle on it. Eventually.

    Delete away!


  • David (meer kitty2)

    I found a how-to on Lifehacker relted to handling email inbox task requests. I thought I would pass along the link.

    Kelsey, you’re very brave.


  • christine

    Hi Kelsey. Yea, the goals on the index card took me a while to get into… but once I figured out that I could set SMALL goals, then it became more fun to read over them each morning. Congrats on starting grad school! And little goals will probably be a good thing til you get used to the new schedule. Be REALLY kind to yourself. That’s a big change!

  • Kelsey

    I recently “found” your blog and am really enjoying it. I especially appreciate the idea of goals on an index card, so simple, but potentially powerful. I began graduate school on Monday, after being a stay-at-home mom for the last year and a half. I am finding the managing the house, raising the kid, relating to the husband, AND going to the school a little overwhelming! Setting smaller and specific goals for how I will navigate these waters is something I have to try.

    Blog on!