How a clutter-free inbox can increase productivity
Updated: Feb 10
Guest writer, Spencer McBride. Full disclosure: Brittany Smith is my wife, and I am deeply biased in her favour. That said, I am also by nature a disorganized person. We worked together to change those habits, and I can comment firsthand on the very real benefits of having a more organized life.
It’s a big number. Though I suppose it depends on what it’s counting - if you have 6000+ grains of rice, that’s a good meal. But if you have exactly 6389 unread emails in your inbox, as I once did, it is horrible and overwhelming.
Not all the time, of course. Sometimes, you don’t even notice the number. It simply sits in the top corner of your browser, and your eyes glaze over it as they look at the most recent emails. Junk, important, important, junk, mildly worth a read…why bother deleting or even reading the junk? There’ll just be more of it later.
Of course, there IS more of it later, and when you do occasionally notice the rapidly increasing bold-font digit labelled ‘Unread’ there are tons of easy excuses for why you don’t need to do anything about it. “I don’t need to see those emails again anyway”, “it’s just a number and it doesn’t stress me out”, “data isn’t really expensive anyway”, and “who cares about emails too unimportant to open in the first place?”. Besides this, I know worse people - my mother has more than 20,000 unread emails! So six thousand is fine. And they just keep piling up.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that seems to be perfectly logical. But it’s also self-defeating. As I found out when my favourite professional organizer helped me clean up my email, the truth is that these things ARE important and that an organized digital space has huge advantages.
Here’s why you should rethink your emails:
You’re not sure what you’re missing
I often thought, “I don’t need those emails, I’ve read all the important ones."
I was wrong.
And if you’re like me, there are a lot of messages in that block of 6389 unread emails that DID need to be read. Some of them were important opportunities or responsibilities that I missed out on, showed up late for, or annoyed someone with questions about because I didn’t read the email.
Among the junk mail, flyers were tax forms from previous years, receipts, school information, and some other paperwork that I didn’t bother reading but were important nonetheless. Even if you’re committed to getting rid of the trash, it’s not as simple as highlighting all the unreads and hitting delete. There can be a lot of diamonds in the rough. Unless you’re the kind of risk-taker that likes to jump without a parachute and see what happens, the only way to fix this problem is to look through all of them and sort the wheat from the chaff.
And that’s before we’ve even mentioned all the “Read” emails! A lot of those were ready to be deleted as well, but some were important enough that I didn’t just want them kept - I wanted them to be put in a folder where they would be easy to find any time I wanted them.
It reduces stress
The disorganization probably doesn’t create stress for you - unless you think about it. For me, it was never something that kept me up at night, but if I ever really looked at it it was distressing. And “don’t think about it” is not a great way to manage stressful situations.
When trying to find an important email becomes a chore that takes ages, and you have to scroll and scroll through pages just to find an email from a few days ago, and you can’t remember who sent you that piece of information so you can’t find it…that is the time to try to organize your email. Compare the amount of stress and time that it takes to organize your emails with the amount of stress and time it takes to use that horrorshow of an inbox. For many people, myself included, putting those emails in order will save time and stress immediately.
After working with the greatest Professional Organizer ever to put my old emails in folders and create a ‘triage’ system for new messages, my “email hide-and-seek” time has gone from hours a month to practically zero.
Extra data is more expensive than you think
Many emails have a limit on how much data they can store. This fills up slowly, but if you start sending a lot of documents or photos, that limit can be reached quicker than you think, at which point many people start paying for extra space online to keep those emails. This might seem a small price to pay to hold on to what you have, but not if a large part of that is junk.
Every data plan is different, so I won’t throw math at you or talk about Return On Investment, but they all have something in common. The monthly fees are small, but there are a lot of months. Even if you’re paying a dollar a month to extend the amount of data in your email (cheaper than any plan I’ve ever heard of) you’re paying it for the rest of your life. If you have no plan to get off the monthly charge, you’re just going to keep paying that price or higher each month. They are essentially charging you infinity of dollars to access your data.
That might seem a little dramatic but it is. But the point remains: data SEEMS cheaper than it is. Look at how much you’re paying per year to hang on to every email in your overcrowded inbox, and ask what it could be worth to get rid of this expense.
The experience itself is worthwhile
Most of the emails I went through were trash, and easy to delete. But more of them were valuable and important to me.
In addition to the practical advantages mentioned above, the exercise of sorting through 11 years of disorganized messages turned out to be an incredibly positive experience.
Just some of the messages I found in my personal email, some read and forgotten, some never read at all:
Some of my early conversations with my wife.
Loving messages from my friends and family.
Hilarious exchanges made me laugh all over again.
I project that I was very proud of, that I had completely forgotten about.
A very kind and supportive message from a co-worker after I was laid off.
My last email exchange with a friend who passed away.
Some memories of when I wasn’t doing well, but a conversation with friends or family helped.
Great pictures I didn’t have anywhere else.
Some reminders of why I don’t talk to THAT person anymore.
Some reminders of why I don’t miss THAT job at all.
Conversations about my wedding, both the stress and the beauty.
And a slew of heart-warming memories from ages ago.
I restarted some of these conversations with people I hadn’t talked to in ages. For others, all I had were the memories, but that was enough.
Before, these messages were in the same place as the trash. Randomly distributed throughout tens of thousands of conversations about logistics for soccer and which printer we should buy, and how I should organize my email better,(all deleted now) were these valued memories.
I kept them all. As with my important documents for work, education, taxes, and the like, they’re in a special folder, where I can look at them at any time.
Organizing your digital space isn’t just valuable and important. It’s rewarding on every level and I hope that my experience with decluttering my inbox inspires you to do the same.
🤞🏻 Remember, organizing is a process. Learning new routines and strategies takes time, however, the more you repeat those processes the more likely it is that you will see long-lasting results!
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