Clean Out Your Jammed Inbox in 5 Quick Steps

Getting things flowing smoothly again is easier than you think.

Without checking, how old is the oldest email in your inbox?

Take a guess. Now sort your inbox by date received, oldest at top. How close was your guess?

The oldest message in my work inbox just turned six months old. Most emails get processed and cleared out within 24 hours, but a few stragglers hang on.

No matter how dedicated you are to Inbox Zero, sooner or later, you realize that your inbox is starting to back up. First one log, then another. Pretty soon, it’s like you have a net that’s catching every task that comes down the river. Everything gets stuck. The river is impassable until you can clear the logjam.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Darren Baker

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Darren Baker

Every incoming message represents one of four things:

  • Something to know
  • Something to remember
  • Something to do
  • Something to ignore

Sometimes, it’s clear what an email represents. Not always. And it can change. Wait an hour, a day, or a month, it may be something different. Someone else responds to an inquiry, that sale ends, or it’s been too long, and now it would be awkward to reply. (It happens.)

Things that are stuck in the Inbox represent a deferred decision. We don’t know what to do with it, we get overwhelmed, and we do nothing.

One by one, the logs build up.

Are you ready to get things flowing smoothly again? Clearing out the logjam might be quicker than you think.

  1. Archive messages older than two weeks. Select every message that’s older than two weeks and archive it. Don’t review each one to make sure it’s okay to archive it. Just do it. If you haven’t acted on it yet, it’s not worth the stress of keeping it in your Inbox.
  2. Identify the tasks. Quickly go through the remaining messages and look for things you need to do. For each task you identify, create a task in OmniFocus. Include a link to the email message, then archive the message. That link is your direct connection back to the message so you can find it again—immediately—when the task comes up.

    For now, forget the Two-Minute Rule. Don’t do anything except capture tasks. If you switch modes to complete a task, you risk losing your momentum.

  3. Delete or archive anything that isn’t waiting for a response from you. If it’s interesting, archive it. If it isn’t, create a task to either unsubscribe from the list or create a rule to sort future messages away from your inbox, then delete it.

  4. Ask a clarifying question and archive the original. Sometimes an email gets stuck because we don’t know how to respond. Maybe a long reply is needed. Maybe you need to do some research first. Instead of worrying about how to give a proper response, ask a simple clarifying question. Then archive the original; when you receive a clarifying answer, your email app will let you quickly find the rest of the thread.

  5. Don’t over-think it. When it’s time to sit down and reply, keep it simple. Don’t write a paragraph when a sentence will do. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Respond with the information they’re looking for, and move on. “Good enough” is perfect.

It’s not just your email Inbox that can get logjammed. The bottom item in the Inbox on my desk has been there over two years. Several items need archived, but that’s how long I’ve been deferring the decision on where they go. Two years. Every now and then, I have to sort through the whole thing to make sure that something actionable isn’t hiding in there.

When your Inbox gets jammed, take a few minutes to clear it out. Make decisions. It will feel painful at first, but all you’re doing is being explicit about the implicit decision you’ve already made through inaction. Put everything where your system can track it properly, and get things flowing smoothly again.


Colter lives in the heart of Silicon Valley with his wife and children. He enjoys golf, sings baritone, and watches mostly British TV shows.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. For more information, see my comments policy.

  • Scott Miller

    I disagree with Step 1. It’s very frustrating to be on the other side of that, where you send someone an e-mail, they never respond to it, and when you ask them about it they say, “Oh, I probably deleted it. Can you send it again?”

    • It certainly is! It can be really frustrating just waiting that two weeks for someone to respond. I’m curious as to what you would list as the first step to cleaning a log-jammed inbox.

      • Scott Miller

        My recommendation would be to start with the most recent emails and work backwards. I organize my email into five folders: @Action, @Reference, @Someday/Maybe, @WaitingFor, and OOO (in my company, people send out an email in advance of vacation or business trips). I look at the @Action folder on a daily basis, the @WaitingFor folder on a weekly basis, and the @Someday/Maybe folder on a monthly basis. Everything that I don’t need anymore gets archived or deleted depending on whether I might need to refer back to it in the future. Much easier to run an automatic search in a single archive folder than creating an elaborate filing system as I’ve seen colleagues do in the past.

        • I’m curious about the OOO folder. Do you leave all OOO notices there, or just the active ones so you can check current availability?

          • Scott Miller

            Just the active ones. I manually set them to expire on the last day that they are relevant, and configured auto-archive to delete expired messages every night.

    • If the message is still in your inbox after 2 weeks (pick your interval), untracked, you’ve already decided not to act on it. By archiving it, you’re just being honest and owning that decision. When you follow up with them, they can search for the original message in their Archive folder and reply. If you follow up with them by email, their mail client will surface the original message for them automatically (or it’s quoted in your follow-up).

      Like LR said, it’s frustrating to wait two weeks for a response, whether your message is in their inbox, archive, or trash.

  • Thank you for this! I cleared 278 emails in ten minutes, some deleted, some archived, some sorted into other places, but OUT of the inbox. I’d never thought to archive the “things to know” messages.

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