The empty inbox: How it’s going

Well! This emptying-the-inbox plan is taking longer than I expected.

One reason I posted my intention to clean out my inbox, rather than just write about it afterward, was to give me some accountability. Going public with my plan has been keeping it at the front of my mind—pushing me to actually do something I’ve been thinking about doing for months. But it isn’t done yet.

So here’s what I’m noticing.

The hugeness barrier

I’m loosely following Mark Hurst’s cleanup guidelines in Bit Literacy. He insists that a pristine inbox starts with one intense purging session (what he calls the Induction process). Devote a couple of hours to nothing but shoveling? I thought I was game for it, but gee, somehow that three- to four-hour window just never seemed to materialize. And my resistance to the task was only growing as time passed. So I decided to buck Hurst’s prescription and tackle the job in stages.

I’m happy to report that in one hour I pared things down from 251 messages to 156. Not bad. What helped:

• Sort. This is a Hurst technique I liked. I sorted by subject line first, which tended to put the newsletters and other related messages together…making it easier to delete the older stuff.

• Create new folders, as many as you want. My half-tongue-in-cheek plan to create a “Read-contemplate-decide” folder really did work. I created an “Inspiration” folder too. I even made a subfolder for one particular author. Don’t those folders sort of overlap? Who cares? Now I have a place to file all the messages and articles I’ve been meaning to re-read in hopes they would Change My Entire Way of Functioning In the World. Zoom, zoom, zoom, file, file, file. Will I read them now that they’re in the folders? Who knows? But I wasn’t reading those articles when they languished in my inbox, and now they’re not causing me stress.

• Use the one-minute rule. For this, I thank my commenters. I’ve never liked the much-recommended guideline that says: Handle immediately any email containing a task that will take two minutes or less to finish. Let’s face it, an inbox full of two-minute tasks will take a lot longer than a few hours to get through, making the whole cleanup project look even more unpleasant. Sharon Anderson suggested, instead, tackling emails that look like they’ll be one-minute tasks. I’ve been using a timer to see how much I really can get done in a minute, and even when the action takes longer, the one-minute goal keeps me alert and moving quickly. (I use a timer that counts up, not down, so that I don’t have to hear the preachy old “ding” and feel like I messed up. I just note how long the task actually took.)

Everything else gets entered in the calendar or added to the to-do list.

I’ve been waiting for another hour to materialize so I can get through the rest of the inbox, but the idea of spending another hour on this is feeling kind of oppressive. So I’m interested to see how many messages I can clear out in, let’s say, a half-hour, or even 15 minutes.

The moral I keep coming back to:

No matter how much you like the sound of somebody else’s method, don’t wait too long to spin it your own way.



  1. Your moral is awesome, and something I’d find helpful to apply to other places too.

    I struggle with my inbox too. It’s currently around 100 but, has been far, far higher than that recently. I’d love to have few enough messages that scrolling isn’t required.

    You know what I wish someone would invent? An automatic way to send an email you’ve replied to somewhere else (trash, archive or wherever).

  2. Janet, I’m working with the concept of smaller time increments, too. Because the intimidation factor of an overflowing inbox (or an enormous stack of things to file, or too many things on my to-do list, or whatever) can be so intimidating that I resist and procrastinate, like you’re describing here.

    It’s kind of amazing how much you can get done of something in even 10-15 very focused minutes. Who knew?

  3. Janet Bailey says:

    @Shannon – Great idea about the invention. That extra step of archiving after replying adds up to a lot of time when you’re dealing with hundreds of emails.

    @Michelle – Small increments—liberating! It takes some experimenting to find the optimal chunk of time. I’m leaning toward 20-minute chunks.

  4. Muso says:

    Wow – chilling out in Sebastopol – wasn’t that the site of a big blood battle? I’m out searching for amazing people like

  5. Katie Brandt says:

    Accountabilty has helped a ton with my time management. Every day I send my task list to a friend and have to report my progress before I go to bed. Knowing I will have to say “not finished” keeps me plugging along instead of roaming aimlessly on facebook – thanks for sharing and I know you will get your email box cleaned out.

  6. Nisa says:

    Creating a “To Do” and “Read, Contemplate” folder finally helped me empty out my inbox that I had been streamlining for about a month. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Janet Bailey says:

    @Nisa – really glad this helped!

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