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In two weeks, I went from 23,768 emails in my inbox to zero. Here’s how.

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post
Hands on the keyboard
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If you could start fresh today, how would you set up your inbox?

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  • Set up rules: The six D’s.

    When it comes to email, Laura Stack, the “Productivity Pro,” lives by what she calls the Six Ds:

    1. DISCARD. Just delete stuff.

    2. DELEGATE. Decide if this is really something you need to do.

    3. DO.

    • Do it quickly – answer emails that will take two minutes or less right away.

    • Do it later – create a system for turning emails that require action into To Do tasks. “This is a foundation piece. You don’t want to file it; it’s like putting it in a drawer. You’ll forget about it,” she said. “So what do people do? They leave it in their inbox. This is the No. 1 problem. People are using their inboxes like To Do lists. And once you get past one screen, you just can’t process it anymore.”

    4. DATE. Give yourself a deadline for taking action.

    5. DRAWER. File away stuff you’ve taken action on but may want to refer to.

    6. DETER. “Unsubscribe from things,” she said. “I am a freak about unsubscribing right away. You want to cut back on the things that come into the inbox in the first place. There’s so much volume. Prevention is key.”



I was drowning in email. Overwhelmed. Overloaded. Spending hours a day, it seemed, and falling further and further behind. The day I returned from a two-week break, I had 23,768 messages in my inbox. And 14,460 of them were unread.

I had to do something. I kept missing stuff. Forgetting stuff. Apologizing. And getting miffed and increasingly angry emails from friends and others who wondered why I was ignoring them. Every time I thought of my inbox, I’d start to hyperventilate.

Bordering on despair, I sought help from four productivity gurus. And, following their advice, in two weeks of obsession-bordering-on-compulsion, my inbox was down to zero.

Here’s how.

CREATE A SYSTEM. Julie Gray, a time coach who helps people dig out of email overload all the time, said the first thing I had to change was my mind.

Do not spend another minute on email, she admonished me, until you’ve begun to figure out a system. Otherwise, she said, I’d never dig out.

I had six different email accounts. And my main Verizon email that I’d used for years and the Mac Mail inbox with meticulous file folders that I loved on my iMac didn’t sync across any of them.

Gray asked: “If everything just blew up today, and you had to start over, how would you set up your system?”

I wanted one inbox. One email account. And I wanted the same inbox on all my devices. If I deleted an email on my laptop, I wanted it deleted on my iMac. If I put an email into a folder on my iMac, I wanted that same folder on my laptop.

So I decided to use Gmail, which does sync, as my main account. I set up an auto responder on my Verizon email saying I was no longer using it and directing people to my Gmail account. I updated all my accounts to send to gmail. And I spent hours on the phone with Apple one Sunday (thank you, Chazz) to get my Gmail account set up in my beloved Mac mail inbox that would sync. Then I transferred old files and created new ones on Gmail. All systems go.

So now that I had my system in place, Laura Stack, the “Productivity Pro,” suggested setting up rules and doing a quick pass to get the junk out of the inbox.

Over the course of two days, I searched for junk and deleted entire batches of email. I turned off notifications from Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter. (I didn’t even realize I had them on.) I unsubscribed from junk mail and newsletters I didn’t read or could easily find online. I created rules for the newsletters and alerts I did want to keep to send them automatically to reading files.

By the end of the second manic day, I was down to 1,280 unread emails.

SLOW DOWN TO KEEP UP. Laura Palmer, an executive coach, said that to keep the inbox tame, whatever system you devise has to be easy. You have to be willing to slow down and take the time to set up a good foundation, dig out and keep it up, or you’ll just be right back where you started.

She said we have to take the time to see how our often unconscious beliefs are making our email overload or addiction worse.

“People fear being seen as a slacker if they don’t answer their emails right away. They fear letting people down. They’re worried they’re going to miss something or be left out. Or they keep checking email because they’re looking for validation, or getting attention feels good,” she said.

“But really, all those fears can distract you from what really needs to be done and what’s really important,” she said.

Over the next week, giving myself 30-minute chunks between work to whittle away at the inbox, I started uncovering the emails that were causing me that gnawing anxiety that I really did need to respond to – because I’d been so overloaded, I failed to realize that I was scheduled to be in Utah, and Princeton and Potomac, Md., all on Oct. 7.

Inbox down to 238 unread emails.

SET UP PROTOCOLS. How you handle email every day is as important as creating a good system, said Terry Monaghan, who runs Time Triage workshops and helps clients unbury from email.

“The most effective thing I ever did, and now teach my clients, is how to establish protocols for how often I check and how quickly I respond to email,” she said. She lets people know that she will respond within 24 hours on a business day, and if they need to reach her sooner, they know to call or text.

To do good work, to focus on what’s most important, she said, you need to be free of distractions and interruptions. A crammed email inbox can be distracting. And constantly checking email is a surefire way to short-circuit both productivity and creativity.

A few days ago, I made it to zero. Everything is filed. I’ve created ACTION and FOLLOW UP folders that, if my new system really works and I really do check them regularly, will keep me on top of things. I turned off the automatic delivery, so I go to the server and get emails at regular intervals.

It’s not perfect. But at least I can breathe.

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