Readers are talking about email a lot lately.
My computer is cluttered. I have no idea how to clear it out. What guidelines do I to use to figure out whether to let go of something or keep it?
Another reader sent me this message just yesterday:
I have a backlog of messages, some of which are stored in files, some not, that I need to go through and sort out.
So do you have any suggestions about how I should tackle this? Should I just set aside several hours and go through the whole lot (and try in future not to accumulate!) or should I do a bit of time over a longer period?
A third reader piped up with a book recommendation for The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage your E-mail before it Manages You by Mike Song, Tim Burress, and Vicky Habey. (I haven’t read it, but it sounds great!)
I’m delighted you’re asking for ideas about how the heck to get rid of this stuff. It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?
Your way is the best way
I got started organizing because I was painfully disorganized. I tried to read books about how to “do it right” and you know what? I never finished them. I made stern resolutions, but I couldn’t remember all the tips I’d learned – and things would fall apart and worse.
Because I’ve been there, I love sharing my ideas for you. But remember there’s a Wise Self inside of you. No one knows what’s right for you more than you do.
The magic question
What got me out of overwhelm and disorganization was learning to ask myself: “What do I need?” I’d get stressed or overwhelmed, I’d miss a deadline or forget an appointment. After giving myself some grace, I’d ask, “What is it I need so I can do this better?”
That is the magic question.
Once you ask this, trust. Trust what you need. You may hang on to email because you feel afraid of losing its valuable information. You may be ready and want to get rid of some of it. Wherever you are, read through these suggestions and then ask yourself, “Is this what I need?” You’ll find an answer that’s right for you (and if you don’t, let’s talk).
Things to try
1. Purge email when you want to:
If you have a full Inbox right now and you want to downsize it, congratulations. That’s progress! Hampster Revolution recommends choosing an arbitrary number in advance (like 42) and just get rid of that many emails in one sitting.
Set a timer for 20 or so minutes to make it less painful and possibly faster. Then set another time to do it again. Small chunks of time might be more palatable and productive. Personally, I’d rather have a root canal than clear out email for 8 hours solid.
If you want to archive emails that are taking up space on your computer, you can use a backup hard drive, USB thumb drives or archival quality DVDs to store them long term.
You might want to put a date on your archives. If you haven’t opened or accessed the information stored by the date you choose, you can purge them permanently.
2. Give critical information a place to live:
If you don’t know where it is, it’s harder to find.
Point 1: It’s darn-near impossible to sort through email to find what you need. So don’t use email to keep track of time-sensitive information, contact information, or other details. Instead, keep it where you’re going to need it eventually anyway.
I recommend having an electronic or paper calendar handy so you can plop in info you’ll need. When the appointment rolls around, it’s all there for you.
Point 2: Because too much Inbox mail is visually overstimulating, don’t store anything in your Inbox but new emails. No “to-dos” in there. No reminders to follow-up. Nada.
To accomplish this, let it live somewhere you’ll find it. Create a place to store the emails you need but that aren’t urgent.
One way to do this is with filters. They’re amazing! Filters automatically screen incoming emails and send them into folders you design. This feature is available in Microsoft Outlook and several other email programs.
This screen shot shows you the filter categories I’ve assigned in my own account. When an email comes in from b5, Gmail filters it and automatically pops it into the correct folder for me.
Then, when I feel like reading my 13 newsletters, I will. But they don’t clog up my Inbox while they sit waiting.
3. Grant yourself permission to not choose:
I really believe that removing clutter adds freedom and energy to your life.
However, I have a clutter-removing exception for email. If you use a free email program like Google or Yahoo that offers unlimited storage, you can let yourself off the hook.
Why force yourself to purge old stuff if you don’t have to? As long as messages aren’t gumming up your Inbox, you can breathe easy. See that little “Archive” button in the screen shot? It removes the selected email from your Inbox, but stores message forever.
I particularly like Gmail because it has a very powerful search engine so I can easily retrieve old messages by name, content, subject, date and more.
If you’re loaded down with emails in your inbox:
– Start whittling away at old Inbox emails a few at a time
– Check out using filters to weed out what’s urgent and what’s not
– See if you have unlimited storage – and decide if it will help you