Clean Out Your Jammed Inbox in 5 Quick Steps

Getting things flowing smoothly again is easier than you think.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

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.

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.