Getting Gmail under control: an email intervention

2911924363_e9cd37dbd8_mIt is frustrating that my personal email inbox is so out of control! It wasn’t like this in the beginning of 2013, when I had only a handful of unread messages. But by last week, I counted more than 2,000 unread messages in my inbox. While I could have just taken the “nuclear” route and deleted everything in sight, I decided on an alternative, yet still aggressive, approach to get my inbox under control.

I tackled this project in phases. I assumed that the clutter was primarily driven by the influx of commercial email: I subscribe to a variety of daily deal and technology alerts, weekly industry updates, and other monthly email newsletters. So I started with an inbox review to determine who’s the real culprit behind the clutter.

Phase 1: The inbox analysis.
I’ve been using Gmail for 9 years and while it is overall robust, Gmail does not possess some basic functionality like sorting by sender. Thankfully I found an online tool from MIT Media Lab called Immersion that visualizes your email metadata (aka, the to/cc/bcc/from information) over time. The app generated the following graph:

Each circle in the graph above represents a sender. And the line between each circle represents senders that were frequently copied on the same email.

A quick look at this graph revealed that the majority of emails were either from my wife (she’s the red circle at the center of the image above) or the people in my sons’ cub scout pack. Since both were important messages, I realized that I’d have to adjust my purge strategy by introducing a selective automation step.

Phase 2: Inbox automation.
My goal for inbox automation step was to presort and reroute emails as they hit my inbox. To accomplish this, I took advantage of the basic email management concept behind Gmail:

An incoming email message appears in the inbox by default because it is automatically tagged with the Inbox label. This label remains associated with the message until the message is archived, regardless of whether is is read (or not).

This meant that if I wanted to keep non-critical unread emails out of my inbox, I would have to strip the Inbox label and replace it with an alternate one. So to reroute emails, I created a few basic labels:

tags-list

The Bills/Buy label was created for any paperless bills (that needed to be paid) and any items that I emailed myself that I wanted to buy. The Orders/Subscriptions label was created for any confirmation or shipping notices for online order, or online services that I signed up for. The Cub Scouts label was created for scout-related emails. And finally, the Research label was created for any alerts/newsletters that I received on a regular basis.

The second step was to create “filters” that apply the right label to each incoming emails. Here’s a filter for my daily emails on ad agencies:

gmail-filter-example

The filter both removes the Inbox label from the email and applies the Research/Agency label to the message. NOTE: Even though the Inbox label is stripped, the message remains unread!

While most emails were sorted by the sender, emails for items that I wanted to buy were not easily identifiable. So I decided to tackle that issue by taking advantage of the disposable email address trick in Gmail. This trick allows me to append a plus (“+”) sign and any combination of words or numbers to my current username. I added the word “+buyit” to my Gmail address (aka, [email protected]) and then created a filter based on this address to reroute these emails to my Bills/Buy list.

Phase 3: The big purge.
Next, I went through my entire inbox and selectively deleted any unread messages that were more than 30 days old. When I came across a message that I knew I received on a regular basis, I would stop and perform an advanced search using the “from:” operator and the sender’s name. This allowed me to find all emails from a particular sender and delete them in one swift swoop.

Within a few hours, I knocked my 2,000+ unread email count down to 4 unread emails.

Phase 4 (BONUS): Unsubscribe!
As I previously mentioned, I subscribed to a variety of email lists and some were no longer relevant. As I purged emails from my inbox, I went back to and also unsubscribed from those messages that were basically junk mail. For a few that were the email simply recapped the new articles on the website, I opted for the RSS feed. That way, I could catch up on these when/if I had time.

Conclusion
Since implementing these steps, I have been able to keep my inbox down to 2 unread messages. And I resolve to adjust these in order to keep my inbox under control throughout 2014. I’ll keep you posted on my success.

How are you keeping your inbox under control? Please use the comments below to share your thoughts.

PHOTO BY Domenico / Kiuz