How to Detox Your Inbox for a More Productive Day

by James McDonald on June 22, 2016
The Next Generation of IWMS: iXMS

Today’s business professional is bombarded with dozens of emails on a daily basis. In fact, a recent study by The Radicati Group revealed that, in 2015, the modern professional sends and receives an average of 122 emails per day, with only about half of them being legitimate, work-related messages.

With so large a volume of email traffic, it’s no wonder the experts estimate that, on average, an employee will spend 474 hours a year sorting through and reading unnecessary emails!

For the vast majority of us, the sheer number of emails we receive per day, coupled with poor organizational email habits, leaves us feeling unsettled and chips away at our productivity.

If this sounds in any way familiar, read on to find out how to clean out your inbox and reclaim your productivity.

Organize by Folders or Labels

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably saved emails dating back years. Forget trying to process every message; it would take hours and there’s no real payoff in productivity. There is another option. Organizing the clutter en masse, also known as “sweeping,” is a much more efficient method.

Start by creating new folders in your email program, labeling them by year, month, project, client, or whatever makes the light go on. The folders should be labeled according to how your brain works best. You can even create subfolders, if that works best for you, but that will take a little more time.

Next, perform a search (or sort, depending upon your email platform) to isolate all emails relating to a particular label and move them en masse to the corresponding folder. You still have all your old messages, but now they’re out of the way and not cluttering your mind. If you ever have the time or inclination to process those messages from 2012, the process will go a lot quicker by virtue of having them all in one location. Or, if it becomes unnecessary to keep a set of messages, they can be gone in a flash. Clean out the trash!


The “sweep” you performed takes care of all old messages, but what about the emails coming in from this point forward? It’s time to create some filters, or your inbox will be back to suffocating status within hours. This works much like the “sweep,” as you will be creating folders by subject, date, sender, etc. Gmail’s new platform, Inbox, automatically sorts your emails based on subject matter. So your travel plans are all bundled in one area, while your finances are bundled in another. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to create additional folders based on your needs and preferences, but the foundation has been laid for you. Most email providers offer the option to create “rules,” which automatically filter messages based on the parameters you’ve set, as well.


By now, you should have a small fraction of messages in your email, compared to before. The next step is to delete anything lacking importance. This can take a while, but try to not get too bogged down in the details of the messages. If you’re not ready to let go of an email yet, create a folder labeled “later.” You will likely never address these messages, but it allows you to mentally free yourself from whatever obligation that email represents.

If you don’t want to go through this process manually, try the service SaneBox ($7/month for the basic service). SaneBox will scan your inbox and push all unimportant emails to a new folder labeled “@SaneLater.”


Like a large portion of the working world, you’ve probably subscribed to a fair amount of newsletters over the years. Unless the newsletter adds real value to your work or personal life, though, take the time to unsubscribe. The “unsubscribe” link can usually be found at the bottom of the email. If the message does not include this message or option, the email is likely spam. In this case, mark it as such, and your email provider will automatically take care of all future messages for you.

Still have quite a few newsletters that interest you? There’s a solution to that, too. Many email providers offer an RSS feed folder, which allows you to subscribe to your favorite publications without them landing in your inbox. is another great tool for organizing those newsletters. All your subscriptions are organized in one central location, leaving your email free from all the clutter.

Turn Off Email Notifications

Even with your emails being sorted automatically, as they come in, your inbox can still be a source of distraction throughout your workday. Many of us have made a habit of reading unopened emails as they come through. Depending upon the number of messages you receive each day, this could be a constant source of distraction.

Fortunately, most email providers recognize this and offer a solution – the option to turn off notifications and sounds temporarily. That way, you rule the inbox, rather than the other way around.

Develop a System That Works for You (and Stick with It)

So, now that you’ve gotten your inbox under control, where do you go from here? It’s time to create a set of rules that will work for you long-term. The key is to make it a habit. Sure, you’ll stray from your own rules from time to time, just make sure you bounce back to your system the next day, or you’ll find yourself overwhelmed once again.

Here’s a few rules to get you started:

  • Delete quickly – If an email doesn’t require any action, delete it.
  • Respond to critical messages immediately- If an email requires your immediate attention, act on it immediately. If something can go a day or two, and you don’t have time to address it right away, leave it in your inbox until you’re ready. With Gmail’s Inbox, you can even set yourself a timer to alert you when it’s time to take action.
  • File by end of the day – If an email doesn’t require action, but contains important information, file it in the appropriate file.
  • Give yourself a deadline – Make it a habit to set aside 10-20 minutes per week (or more frequently, depending upon your duties) to rid your inbox of any unaddressed messages.

The key takeaway for this discussion is to find what works best for YOU. Some like to start their day fresh, using the first hour of their day addressing emails, while others spend the last minutes of the workday decluttering their minds and their inbox. The point is, there isn’t only one way to manage your emails. Figure out what works for you, and do it.

Despite the strides we’ve made in technology of late, email still remains one of our most critical business tools. Unfortunately, it has also become one of our greatest productivity thieves. Utilize these tips to take back your workday and dedicate your time to the real mission critical tasks on your to-do list.


James McDonald

James McDonald is a sports enthusiast, brother in Christ and once swam in a tank with the infamous TV sharks.

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