Digital Hoarding — Four Ways for Taking Control of Your Mailbox

Is this how you feel when contemplating your inbox?

I’ll try and keep this simple, since I know if it’s not, you are unlikely to try any of this. I know I wouldn’t.

If your inbox is routinely nearly empty, and you almost never miss important emails because of how cluttered your mailboxes are, and you don’t generally feel overwhelmed by email, please don’t waste your time and stop reading here – but do yourself a favor and look through some our older articles, chances are you’ll find something useful here.

If, however, you are like me, and probably the vast majority of people, and you spend far too much time on email, and it doesn’t matter how much time you spend on it, you always feel like you are falling a bit further behind, take a look at my top four recommendations and see if they might work for you.

Email Is Different from Paper Mail. Email Is the Same as Paper Mail.

I think that one of the biggest problems many of us face is that we treat email like “old paper documents” when we shouldn’t, and don’t treat it like paper documents when we should.

Yes, email has to a large degree replaced much of our valuable and important documentation, and therefore it should be treated, and in many cases archived, accordingly.  However, it is also a digital media and our email applications are wonderfully powerful things that can sort, search, and organize these documents, saving us tremendous amounts of time. Learn to use your email application and interface including filters to automatically sort and file specific types of emails, so you don’t have to.  During my last email “spring cleaning” a year or so ago, a few quick searches for the words Facebook, Groupon, Expedia, Travelocity, and a handful of other similar sources, allowed me to lop off a few thousand emails from my bulging mailboxes without even breaking a sweat. Also keep in mind that you don’t have to be nearly as granular with your digital “folder system” as you would with paper documents in a steel filing cabinet, since a well-aimed search will almost always quickly find what you are looking for. I’ve routinely seen users create many dozens of folders, each of which only contains correspondence from a single individual person, institution, organization, etc. In a digital environment this type of effort is not needed, and in many cases is counterproductive. Don’t treat email like paper documents, it’s much smarter.

At the same time, we often treat our digital mail much more gingerly than our paper mail. I usually think nothing about trashing or recycling any paper junk mail as soon as I see it, often even before walking into the house from the mailbox.  For some odd reason, and I am guilty of this, we often seem to leave the digital equivalents of these in place after simply identifying them as something of no value. And it does not take long for a piece of email that should have been discarded to become a nearly permanent part of our email eco-system.  If we treated paper junk mail as cavalierly, my entire house would be filled with mortgage offers, Virginia Gazette newspapers, and ValuePaks®. Treat junk, expendable, or “expirable” materials just like you would paper ones – get rid of them before they pile up and make a mess.

It’s Better to Prevent

Sure, as I’ve already mentioned it’s fairly easy to sort through and delete huge amounts of repeat-offender junk or simply un-wanted mail, but it’s always better to prevent from having to do this in the future as well. So if you decide that you have no interest in receiving Facebook notifications for instance, and are deleting them from your inbox, take a few seconds, log into your Facebook account and change the settings so you get no new notifications at all. In the same way unsubscribe from any newsletters, advertising emails, or listservs that you no longer want to receive. Sadly, this is not an option for many less-than-reputable email sources, but in my case I was able to “unsubscribe” myself to significantly less daily mail with just a few minutes of work. I just wish that the unsubscribe option was not so often in the fine print of the emails (literally) and that there were less boxes to click through to really, completely, and finally unsubscribe from certain sources. Regardless, the improvement was well worth the effort.

Empty Out Your Inbox

A few years ago the phrase “Inbox Zero” caught on after being coined by Merlin Mann (a productivity guru). Long story short, he proposed that by systematically applying certain methods — specifically “processes” that act upon emails based on your personal priorities, you could maintain zero email in your inbox and thereby master it. To me this is a bit like some eastern religions whereby through some carefully practiced method you can eventually attain a state of perfection. While such ideas (ideals) provide some really important goals, and lots of healthy practices for us to follow, for most of us, it’s also easy to go a bit nuts in trying to reach most likely unattainable perfection. But as I said, he makes some very good points and fortunately you can watch him make them himself.  The knucklehead version of his method, mine that is, goes something like this – it is not enough to check and read your email, you must do something with it. In most cases, sadly this just means deleting it if no further action is required and there is no need to file it away for further use. In some cases, it means responding to the email, or forwarding it another party that will need to take action based on this information, etc. But again the goal is to process the email so that you are “done” with it as soon as you read it.

Another term has been used to refer to what you can do if your inbox is completely out of control, and you have no hope, or capacity to tame it – “email bankruptcy.” As the name implies, this is a drastic action and refers to simply deleting all of your email because, well, it has won the battle. The idea is that from the moment that you declare “bankruptcy” and wipe the slate clean, you will behave and run a tidy ship and go on to win the war.

I would propose that both of these concepts are valuable and can be used to take control of you email. If your email situation is dire or dire-ish, and you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox that have gone unread, or read but “unprocessed,” I suggest you pick a date back in time, it could be a year ago, a few months or even only a few weeks ago, based on your specific situation, and you move all of that mail in to an “old” mail folder, with the full understanding that you have drawn a line in the sand, and that the mess on the other side of the line is most likely to remain a mess forever. The important thing is to make sure that what you leave behind in your inbox should be manageable, since you will now sort through this email and process it in a meaningful way a la “Inbox Zero” and until all of the email in the inbox has been read and replied to, or filed away, or deleted – i.e. “processed.”

Do Email Like You Mean It

I think one of the leading reasons that email can get out of control is that we treat it like a background task that we can merely flitter in and out of working on, almost as filler between other “important” tasks.

Given the mission critical nature of much of what is now routinely transmitted in email, I think it is best to set aside specific and significant chunks of time for the task of thoroughly and completely processing email. As I mentioned before, “perfect” scheduling for a task of unknown complexity is impossible, but having the target of doing so can still be a productive exercise. I have, as many have suggested, turned off my email auto-check function, as I find that the little “dings” of incoming email are highly disruptive and counterproductive. But in all honesty I have not yet made the full switch to only checking email when I set enough time aside to systematically go through it, rather than often performing a quick scan of the incoming stream of emails and only making a partial dent into what needs to get done. So on this account I’m somewhat responsible and somewhat Lucille Ball working the chocolate conveyor belt.

I would love to hear what strategies others have successfully used in taming their mailboxes in the comments. And please let me know if you need any help to get started with any of my above suggestions.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.


  1. Great Article! When I saw the pic, I said YES! That’s me! Great tips. We are de-dinging our computers tonight! I see the Light! : )