Spring cleaning 101: how to organise your email inbox


9th April 2024


Alexandra Johansen

Reading time

3 minutes

Spring cleaning inbox

Now that the March equinox has passed and April is in full swing, it’s officially the season to delve into all things spring cleaning. We’re starting the series off with that task many of us may dread. Why is it important to tidy your email inbox, anyway? Preachy productivity phrases are a dime a dozen when it comes to inbox wisdom and you’ve probably heard a lot of them already (cue the ‘a cluttered inbox creates a cluttered mind’ and ‘have a place for everything and everything in its place’ etcetera etcetera).

Let’s cut to the chase: there’s very little harm an organised inbox can do and a wealth of practical and mental benefits. We hear you – it can be an annoying or tedious task that may feel like a time waster at first. But (and here’s some hypocrisy from us pulling out one of those phrases) you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. That is to say, sometimes it’s not possible to accomplish something worthwhile without adverse effects elsewhere. Luckily the adverse effects here are mostly just a bit of screen fatigue, time spent, and dwindling patience.

So if you put aside the time and effort, you’ll reap the rewards of a freshly organised inbox. We’ve written about Outlook, but the principles apply to any email service. Without further preamble, here are some of our top tips for organising your email inbox:

  • Be brutal with subscriptions: go through all of those newsletters, bulletins, and e-blasts that pile up every month and start culling. Consider whether you ever actually open them, and if so, do you find the content useful? If so, how frequently do you look at them, and how often after they arrive in your inbox? For the subscriptions that are worth keeping but aren’t a top priority and might clog up your inbox, we recommend creating a rule that will automatically file these in a designated subfolder in your inbox. You can keep track of unread emails and will be easy to find when the time is right. You can also get into the habit of filing these manually if you like to parse everything coming into your inbox first.
  • Utilise folders: speaking of folders…there are many schools of thought when it comes to organising your inbox. Do you like conversations to be sorted in threads or does that make email chains more confusing? Do you file by client/organisation/sender, task, urgency, or timeliness? Of course, different approaches work better and worse for different people, so if you’re new to folders, start by picking one and running with it for a few weeks. If it doesn’t optimise your inbox, then try another. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to start.
  • Create an archive: we’ve all got a backlog of emails gathering digital dust. Is it a big deal? No. But if you have the time and patience, it can be useful to delete or at least archive some of these. Especially as they can take up storage space on your device.
    • MailButler pose an exercise for this –ask yourself: “When was the last time I needed an email that was five years old?” This encourages you to think more deeply about your relationship with emails. What value do they actually bring you? How do they help you achieve your goals? If your answer to the five-year question is “never,” continue to lower it to “four years,” “two years,” etc. until you reach a time range of emails you’re comfortable with storing, knowing they serve a purpose in your life. The answer might be different depending on the role emails fill in your work life, but the next step is simple: make a bold move and delete (or perhaps archive) everything from before your time range.
  • Check your ‘Junk’ or ‘Spam’ folder: are there important emails that consistently get stuck there? Is there a contact that keeps getting caught by the filter and barred from your inbox? Take a proactive step by checking for these, adding any contacts or senders that don’t get into your inbox, and marking emails as not spam.

We’ll keep this updated as we go because you’re never too old to learn something new (oh look, another of those phrases!). If you’re hitting the flow of your professional spring cleaning then keep an eye out for our next installments in this back-to-basics, 101 series.