I have a confession to make: I had an addiction. I was an email hoarder. I had well over 12,000 emails in my inbox–and that was counting only my main email account.
I tried to treat my obsession, but "life” always seemed to get in the way. So after hitting rock bottom, one of my goals emerged: cleaning up my inbox.
Accomplishing this task has been a huge relief, mentally and almost physically.
Fair warning: Some readers may have arrhythmias reading this article.
Dealing with email has become a very emotional endeavor. But as they say, awareness is the first step to recovery.
You may need to make some bold decisions. So be bold. It is interesting how some colleagues rationalize. A practitioner explained to me, "Yes, I am a borderline hoarder, but at least with email there is no physical clutter!”
If you are an email hoarder as well, here are some pointers and solutions to stop the madness.
* Trim and Simplify.
Seriously question your need for multiple email addresses. Do you truly need a work email, in addition to a personal Gmail account, a Hotmail account for rebates and coupons only, and that old Yahoo account you never use but keep anyway just in case?
* How Many Accounts?
One email address is ideal. If you must, it is probably reasonable to limit yourself to two addresses: one personal, one professional.
But that’s it. Send any contacts who have another address for you a short email telling them not to use it in the future, and to use only your personal or professional email from now on.
Most email providers also allow you to forward emails. It’s a great feature, but why use the other account to begin with? Simplify your life; get rid of it.
* Unsubscribe—Part 1
Unsubscribe from any newsletter or email that you don’t need. Ask yourself: "If I continue to read this, will it help me reach my goals?”
* Unsubscribe—Part 2
Unsubscribe from all routine emails that have become irrelevant to you—Google alerts, sports result announcements, rebate emails, recurrent reminders or weather updates. Disable notifications from social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) you may be receiving. This is a sure way to clutter your inbox and distract you during work time.
As I said, this is not easy. Clicking that "disable” icon will be excruciatingly difficult for some readers.
* Keep Them to Yourself
Resist opening every chain email you receive. Sure, that list of "Top 10 things to do when you’re bored” is hilarious. (OMG did you get that email? LOL! Let me know if you didn’t get it, I will forward it to you!! Just kidding!!!)
But how does it help you reach your goals? Same concept with videos, pictures, slide shows with cute puppies, crazy kittens, cranky babies, drowsy dental patients, epic fails, 10 hottest actors, snoring husbands and rarest cars.
Delete, delete, delete and don’t forward.
Just so you know, your computer will not explode if you don’t forward chain emails to 10 people you truly love. Now, if you truly must watch, then reward yourself with one email at the end of a productive day. Not in the midst of it.
* Create Folders
Ever heard of folders? Youngsters who were born AD (After Dell) use folders routinely. Do you?
Most email providers allow you to create folders in which you can sort emails you’ve read and believe you must keep. You can be as creative as you want. Your provider may allow you to color code folders and even to create subfolders.
In your personal account, you can use folders for family, friends, finances, newsletters, school, activities, pictures, etc.
In your professional account, you can have folders for suppliers, technicians, invoices, clients, X-rays, pictures, accounting, payroll, etc. Again, your imagination is your limit.
Depending on the extent of your obsessive-compulsive disorder, you can use general folders, e.g. "Suppliers,” or 10 different ones for 10 different suppliers. My humble suggestion: keep it simple. Less is more.
| Folders in your professional email
Colleagues (by name)
This little exercise will accomplish three goals: unclutter your inbox, give you peace of mind that you can retrieve "super important” emails more easily, and organize your life.
* Be Creative
You can also be more creative and use the following folders:
Here is where you can store non-urgent emails that would be "nice to read.” If you never find the time, no harm done. At least they won’t clutter your inbox.
File things here that would be "nice to do.” Such tasks should be non-important and non-urgent.
A colleague says she "move(s) emails that are both read and acted upon into one of about 25 folders based upon subject.”
Let’s say you go to a continuing education meeting. All relevant info can go in this folder: itinerary, hotel information, vendor emails, dinner arrangements etc. Once the meeting is over, you can delete the entire folder. You can apply this tip to multiple other opportunities or events, personal or professional.
* Decisions, Decisions…
Just as with manila folders, you may need to make executive decisions when using folders for emails. Where should you store an email concerning multiple topics? Decide, by convention, to pick the most important topic. Should you need to retrieve it, you can always use your handy search box.
* Temporary Storage
One way to look at your email from now on is to consider your Inbox as a temporary storage place. Any email read and acted upon should end up in a folder or the trash can.
| Folders in your personal email
Kids (by name)
Friends (by name)
* New Philosophy
From now on, after you read an email and before you move on to your next task, make an immediate decision: file it (in a folder), forward it (if truly needed) or delete it. If you truly cannot act on it now, then keep it in your inbox and deal with it later.
This tip alone can save you countless hours over the course of a year.
* Schedule Clean-up
Another colleague sifts through emails every four to six weeks and does one of three things: Delete them; move them to another folder; or save them in her inbox. Where they wind up—deleted, moved or saved—depends upon content and importance.
Interestingly, organizing your inbox is very similar to organizing your desk or your office.
The willpower to stop the madness, a few folders and a trash can are really all you need. Clearly, your BFF is the trash can or the "delete” feature.
The inner peace you will reach after cleaning up your inbox is both an exhilarating and cathartic digital experience.
As for me, I am happy to report that I managed to tame the email monster. I am no longer a junkie. My new goal: keeping the number of emails in my inbox under one page, or 30 emails.
I am well aware that I am still at risk. Recurrences are common. But I must prevail. You must prevail.
Together, let’s beat this pervasive addiction. A tough, but worthy goal.
Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified mobile surgeon in Allentown, Pa. His website is www.DrPhilZeltzman.com. He is the co-author of "Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (www.WalkaHound.com). Katie Kegerise, a certified veterinary technician in Reading, Pa., contributed to this article.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my colleagues and fellow members of E.A. (Emailaholic Anonymous) who shared sobering stories and suggestions for this article.