Taming the Email Monster: How to Simplify Your Email Inbox and Eliminate Virtual Clutter

Here's how to simplify your email inbox to get virtual clutter under control! I really need to do this!

This post is part of the Monday series on simplifying that inspired my book, Your Simple Home Handbook. The series began with 10 Reasons to Start Simplifying Now.

Welcome to the 21st century, where virtual clutter is as rampant as physical clutter.  Maybe it’s not as obvious, but when you look for it, it’s there. In your

  • social media streams
  • blog feeds
  • digital photo files
  • computer desktop
  • email inbox

We forget about virtual clutter because we don’t trip over it. If kids’ toys were strewn across the floor you might think about investing some time in a purge. But the storage space of the virtual world seems endless. Why bother with virtual clutter if space isn’t an issue?

Stop right there.

The thing is, simplifying isn’t about finding adequate storage space. It’s about bringing peace to each sphere of your life so you can function and flourish in your space.

Virtual clutter is a real problem because it’s an area where we lack balance. The virtual world is face-paced and new information swells the current on a daily basis. Many of us haven’t figured out how to organize this area of our lives, so we come away from the computer feeling stressed.

We need to apply the same rules to simplifying virtual clutter as we do to simplifying the physical. When you go through your wardrobe, you sort items into “yes!” “maybe,” and “purge” piles. When you’re done sorting, you implement policies to keep future influx in check.

In the coming weeks, we’re going to take on virtual clutter, starting with the email inbox.

I’m picking the email inbox to start with because it really NEEDS to be organized. Unlike social media or digital photos, which are more recreational, your email inbox is a hub for work, appointments, and important family or community engagements.

First, Set a Goal for Your Email Inbox

What’s an email inbox for? It’s for incoming messages.


It’s not a burying ground for two-week or (two-month!) old messages, expired coupons, or closed conversations.

I used to have thousands of messages in my inbox! The stacks went back nearly 10 years, since I first acquired that email address. I had never filed a single message, and I had hundreds of unread messages from promotions or mailing lists I no longer cared about.

New, important messages would get lost in the slurry, shuffled further down the line as more and more emails piled up. My email inbox was a beast that could only be tamed by organization and a faithfully followed system.

Is your productivity suffering from an overflowing email inbox? Tame it! Let this be your goal for your inbox:

A single page for messages that need to be processed or addressed. The rest of the email account is a neatly-filed storage box.

Next, Tame the Email Beast!

Depending on how big your email monster is, you may need to attack it in chunks in 20-30 minutes each day.

Start by unsubscribing to any mailing lists that are no longer useful to you. (The “unsubscribe” option is usually at the bottom of the email.) Delete all back issues of those emails by using your email client’s search feature to pull up all emails from that address. Select all messages that come up from that email address and delete in one fell swoop.

Gmail Tip: The search feature is the blank field with the magnifying glass icon at the top of the page.

Repeat the process for messages from other email addresses that are no longer relevant. For example, I had hundreds of emails from various academic offices at my college. I batch deleted emails from these addresses and freed up lots of storage space!

Gmail Tip: Gmail makes it really easy to batch delete. Instead of clicking each individual message, go to the checkbox icon (just below the search bar), click the dropdown arrow, and select “All.” Every message will be selected, and all you need to do is hit the trashcan icon to put them all on ice.

Next, you’re going to build a filing system for all of the remaining messages.

Most email clients allow you to create folders to sort messages into. (Google specific directions for your email client.) I decided to lump old messages into very broad folders: “College Era” and “Post College.” My folder system for current emails is more specific. I have a folder for each client I work with, a “Professional Development” folder for how to blog/work better newsletter subscriptions (such as AmyLynnAndrews), a “Family” folder, “Friends/Community,” “Receipts,” etc.

Gmail Tip: When you select a message a new set of icons will appear under your search bar. Click the dropdown with the file folder icon and choose “Create new.”

You can also create subfolders for another level of organization. For example, each of my client folders are nested under my “Work” folder.

Gmail Tip: When creating a new folder, check the “Nest label under” box and select the folder you would like.

I batch filed the “College Era” and “Post College” messages by working forward from the last page of my email inbox, selecting all messages, and moving them in batches to their new folders. I also marked all messages as “read” so that when new emails hit my inbox I can see an accurate number, rather than the total number of messages I haven’t clicked!

Gmail Tip: After selecting all messages, click the “More” dropdown box under the search bar and click “Mark as read.”

When I reached more recent emails I slowed down a bit, giving more thought to each email’s new location and addressing messages that were awaiting a reply.

Last, Create an Email Policy

After filing all of your messages, you need to decide on a policy to keep future messages under control. Some people recommend checking your email just once or twice a day and dealing with messages as soon as you open them.

I generally keep my email inbox open all the time, since incoming messages often determine the day’s work flow. I do try to address messages right away, though, rather than letting them fester. After I respond to an email, I file it in the appropriate folder. Emails that I don’t have time to respond to right away I keep in my inbox for later in the day, or I file in the “To Do” folder to address later that week.

Whatever your policy, remember that your inbox is just a landing zone–messages shouldn’t stay there. Address them, delete them, file them. The goal is to get them out of the inbox.

If you use Gmail, be sure to check out this post on 10 Gmail Hacks to Optimize Your Email Inbox!

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Do you want lots more simple living ideas? Check out my brand new book! Your Simple Home Handbook is a 100+ page guide to decluttering your home and simplifying your stuff. Work through 30 different areas of your home–at your own pace–and enjoy the benefits of a space that breathesClick here to learn about my book!


  1. This is GENIUS. I have four and a half years’ worth of emails in my inbox…although I have gone through and deleted a LOT! I will definitely be using these ideas! Thanks! 🙂

    1. Thanks! It was a wakeup for me to realise–hey, I’ve got systems for organizing my home, why not use those as a template for organizing the INtangibles?

  2. You can also search for the word “unsubscribe” in the search box to pull up those email subscriptions (since they usually contain the word), and actually open a few to click the “unsubscribe” link before deleting them all at once so you don’t get future emails from old, unwanted subscriptions.

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