Don’t just declutter your home–declutter your digital life

Drowning in the digital age.
Drowning in the digital age.
Image: Jeremy Gates for New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (And Everyone Else)
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If you are a creative person who wants to get things done, it’s imperative to have a handle on your email communication. When I’m collaborating with fellow artists, their email etiquette tells me multitudes about whether we’re in for a good working relationship. It’s become my preference to work with efficient communicators—those who reply in a timely manner and who keep replies short and sweet. But it’s hard to be efficient when your email inbox is as messy as your clothes closet.

Everyone has a threshold for how many unread emails feel overwhelming. If you dream of a streamlined inbox, these next steps are for you.

1. Be honest with (and easy on) yourself

Let’s say you have 10,000 emails in your inbox. What are the chances you’re going to go back and scroll through all 10,000 and respond to each one you missed? If you haven’t done it by now, might you just forgive yourself and let the task go? Chances are, the consequences of removing these emails from your inbox will not be life or death. If someone really needs to contact you, they’ll try again (perhaps through one of the other zillion means of communication we have available to us these days).

2. Start fresh: archive your backlog

The quickest way to declutter your email inbox is to archive everything that no longer needs dealing with. This means that if you have 10,000 emails but you know you’ll only ever reply to the first 50, you can select all 10,000 in one move, deselect those 50 (manually, but that ain’t so bad), click the “Archive” button, and immediately watch 9,950 emails disappear—instant slate­-cleaning. (The best way to do this may differ from provider to provider, but you get the idea.)

Note that archiving is different from deleting. Right this second, I have 27 emails in my inbox. But over time I’ve archived about 24,000 more, all easily searchable if I ever want to bring something up from yesterday or seven years ago. They live in Gmail’s “All Mail” folder. I pay Google $5 a year for a little extra storage, and it’s worth it for my peace of mind. But I don’t want to see all those emails every day. And I don’t have to.

Hotmail now has a built-­in archive as well. For email providers that don’t, you can easily create specific folders and save your archival emails there.

Stop the madness.
Stop the madness.
Image: Jeremy Gates for "New Order"

3. Unsubscribe—from pretty much everything

You bought one sweater three years ago from some random clothing company that now emails you newsletters five times a week. Why should you stand for this? I don’t mean they’re wrong to do it: they’re running a business. But you don’t deserve clutter that doesn’t serve you: you’re running a life.

As for the newsletters you did sign up for, once upon a time: How many of them are you actually reading? Are they analogous to that stack of magazines, taunting you with information that you don’t have time for? If you make them disappear, you can be free.

Every newsletter has a handy Unsubscribe link at the bottom, and Gmail and Hotmail now offer additional buttons for this purpose. To do some magical mass-unsubscribing, sign up for Unroll.Me or Mailstrom and prepare to be floored with amazement.

Using these steps, I’ve seen clients go from 30,000-­plus emails to 20 in under a week. It’s easier than you think. Just decide and do.

Adapted from the book New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (And Everyone Else) by Fay Wolf. Copyright © 2016 by Fay Wolf. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.