5 tips for reducing inbox clutter

Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by an overflowing, cluttered, anxiety-inducing inbox…

Email, an abbreviation of “electronic mail,” was invented in the early 1970s by Ray Tomlinson as a personal side project. Since the first email sent by Tomlinson in 1971, email has ushered in an incredible new era of communication we now enjoy with billions of people all over the world sending and receiving emails every day. What Tomlinson, surely, did not anticipate back then was how ubiquitous, addictive and compulsive email would eventually become for its users. Tomlinson later said he had no notion whatsoever of what the ultimate impact would had.

How did an invention meant to serve as a speedy way for programmers and researchers to keep in touch – particularly for those who can’t be relied on to answer their phones become a nuance to our daily lives?

The hook model, as described in Nir Eyal’s book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, can explain part of what makes email devilishly addictive.

The average full-time worker in America receives 120 messages per day, and spends around 2.6 hours reading and answering emails. And, on average, professionals check their email 15 times per day, or every 37 minutes. Why do we feel such urge to check our email so compulsively, yet so unnecessarily? It’s not you. And, it’s not me. It’s the attention economy.

According to Nir Eyal, companies are increasingly using a new, stronger habit-forming mechanism to hook users called the Hook Model. The Hook Model is a variable of rewards used to grab our attention, provide us pleasure, and infatuate our mind. Variable rewards are rewards we receive randomly and without a fixed pattern, and are “a powerful inducement to creating compulsions.” Variable rewards come in three types and involve the persistent pursuit of: rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt, and rewards of the self.

  • Rewards of the tribe: Humans have evolved as species because of our ability to co-exist in larger groups and create tribes. Thus, our brain is hardwired to seek out rewards that make us feel accepted, important, attractive, and included. Email, like all social media sites, provides us with powerful social rewards and social validation, but on a variable schedule, creating the desire to check it compulsively to see who messaged us, if our boss has responded back to our pitch yet, and so forth.
  • Rewards of the hunt: While belonging to a tribe is a powerful basic need, our individual need for sustenance is even more crucial. We are hardwired to acquire food and other resources needed for our survival. “But where we once hunted for food, today we hunt for deals and information.”[3] We are hardwired to check if we have received an email about a potential business opportunity.
  • Rewards of the self: Us humans seek variable rewards that stimulate our senses for personal gratification. “Babies put everything in their mouths for the same reason there are flashing neon lights in Las Vegas. We love novel sensory stimulation.”[3] We also seek mastery of the world around us, with the desire to control, dominate, and complete challenges around us. Our email seems to call for us to complete the task of removing the unopened item notification in a sort of challenge to gain control over it.

Is it, then, any wonder that most of us feel overwhelmed with email, anxiously checking and re-checking our inboxes, while wasting precious time on processing emails? The good news is there is still hope for cultivating a healthier co-existence with our inboxes.

1. Turn off email notifications

How strange would it be if the mailman was to run up to you all day long and hand you mails asking you to take a look at it right away? Pretty strange, but that is exactly what is happening with email notifications. Notifications interrupt us, costing us valuable time and reducing our cognitive ability to focus on important tasks. And, how many of the emails we get on a daily basis are actually important and urgent? Not many. So, why do we allow them to demand our attention whenever a notification pops up? The first thing to say is, “no thank you.” Turn off notifications and schedule dedicated time to check email.

2. Unsubscribe

62% of all email we receive is not important. Yet, these emails overflow our digital space, create too much mind-clutter, and without adding much value to our lives. Processing irrelevant emails individually also wastes our precious time and attention.

Unsubscribing from newsletters you don’t use is a great way to reduce inbox clutter. Next time a subscription email arrives in your inbox, ask yourself the following questions: Is this newsletter useful? Does this newsletter add value to my life? Would I miss it if I never got another email from this newsletter? If you answer “no” to any of these questions, it might be time to unsubscribe.

It is very empowering to be selective of who gets access to your email inbox. It is important to view our inbox as a sacred space for emails that bring value to our lives. Set some time aside, an hour or two, to declutter and organize your inbox. I bet you will feel a whole lot better.

3. Try inbox-zero

If you were to have hundreds of pages of paper documents piled up on our desk, you would feel overwhelmed at the clutter, but because email clutter lives on in the digital space, we believe it doesn’t have the same impact on how we feel about our space. But, it is taking mental space.

I have always struggled with inbox zero. I suffer from email anxiety, and that means I always have unread emails in my inbox. Although I haven’t reached Inbox Zero in a while, I try and keep my unread emails under 10 or so emails at any given time. It is an arbitrary number, but I feel things are under control when I reach that level. When I see over 20-something unread emails, I know it is time for some inbox decluttering.

Set some time aside, an hour or two, to declutter and organize your inbox on a consistent basis. It doesn’t have to be Inbox Zero, but it is a good feeling to feel on top of your emails. “Don’t should on yourself,” but we all deserve a clear inbox space.

4. Create folders.

The simplest way to organize your email is to set up folders for various categories of information in a similar way you do for your paper files. You can create folders for various subjects or people or types of messages and archive them accordingly.

I am an email junkie, and tend to hold onto emails forever. Having specific folders means, those emails can live in a specific folder without cluttering my inbox, but I don’t feel anxious about deleting emails I feel the need to keep. To keep things simple, I have two folders. Receipts, bills, online orders, etc. go in the “Personal” folder, and anything related to my newsletter/blog goes into “Business.” I do the same for Work email, having no more than four folders to organize emails. I use the search function to look things up. Having too many folders can become counter-productive by wasting time and creating unnecessary clutter.

5. Set boundaries.

Boundaries help us thrive. They help us focus on what is important to us, and what we value.

Our email is a space that is difficult to set boundaries in because there are so many people, things, and information vying for our attention in that space. It is important to know what boundaries you need to set for a clutter-free inbox, set those boundaries, and keep enforcing them.

Inbox When Ready is a Chrome extension that batch process your email on a regular schedule and minimize the total time you spend in your inbox. It is a great tool to create boundaries to improve your inbox flow and reduce stress and increase focus. Boundaries can be either physical or mental, and are very unique to each individual. You can set boundaries by committing to not checking your work email when you are not at work, and so on.

Until next time,

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One response to “5 tips for reducing inbox clutter”

  1. Christina Malecka Avatar
    Christina Malecka

    Great article! And such a good reminder to recommit to taming my emails!


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