How I Finally Purged My Inbox from 39K Emails to Zero


Unread emails. I know you have them. I had them, too … 39,667 to be exact, across four different email accounts. And these emails did more than just clog up my inbox, they burdened my sanity.

That number — 39,667 — in all its red bubble notification glory lit up my cell phone’s home screen like some sort of shameful scarlet number. I know, I’d think. I need to clean this thing out.

Time and time again, friends and family — heck, maybe even a few almost-strangers — would take a quick glance at my home screen and gasp in horror, “Oh my God! You have so many emails!”

Again: I KNOW.

There I was, wading through tens of thousands of product press releases, sales promotions, and spam emails daily in search of the really important stuff, like emails from my kids’ schools, shipment notifications, travel itineraries, and yes, those coveted 40 percent off promo codes at Loft. The daily email dig was exhausting, infuriating, and downright depressing. So in the spirit of spring cleaning, I recently decided to put on my big girl pants and tame the wild beast of nearly 40,000 unread emails.

And I did.

Day after day, hour after hour, and even sometimes through blurry-eyes, I organized and deleted my inbox down to ZERO. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it really sucked. But I survived it, and you can, too with these inbox spring-cleaning tips learned the hard way.

1. You can’t rush it.

You’ll want to. Oh, how you’ll want to. And even if you go into this digital purge with your trigger finger poised and ready on the delete key, it’s still going to take a while, so set up a plan. Some people swear by using downtime at their kids’ sports practices for the sole purpose of organizing their inboxes. Some frequent travelers use their time in the sky to do the same. Wherever your downtime takes you, establish regular pockets of time to chip away at your overgrown inbox and actually stick to it. I promise: Little by little, victory will be yours.

2. You might be your own worst enemy.

When I started my email elimination, I tried about a million different ways to tackle those massive messages. About three days in, weary and desperate, I happened to search my own email address (other than the account I was currently working in) and lo and behold: I WAS ONE OF MY OWN WORST EMAIL OFFENDERS! Yes, over the years I had been sending myself emails for all sorts of things as reminders. Long before Siri, I’d copied myself on things as reminders. It worked for me, and it may have worked for you, but those days are long gone.

So start by searching your own email address; you might be surprised at what you find.

3. Now look at your family.

My husband, god bless him, likes to copy me on errrrything. Yes, I’m detail-oriented. Yes, I’d probably get upset if he didn’t. But his constant CC-ing congests my sacred inbox. And it’s not just him. My stepdad loves to send email forwards (remember those?). My son sends me anything and everything he doesn’t know what to do with. My mom sends me articles because she’s not active on social media. Your family loves you … and there’s a really good chance they love your email, too. But you don’t need to hang on to their forwards forever.

4. You bought something online one time, and now your inbox is committed.

I don’t care if you bought your dad a fishing pole in 2004, or ahem, adult-themed straws as a gag for your BFF’s bachelorette party 10 years ago; you’re going to get promotional emails for the rest of your natural life unless you take the time to unsubscribe. So if you’re no longer in the market for fishing gear or naughty novelties, do yourself a favor and UNSUBSCRIBE. Sure, it takes a second, but it’s so worth it.

5. Out of business, but in your inbox.

My email addresses have been around for a very long time. They’ve seen some things. They know some stuff. And they’re unfortunately the home of thousands of emails from now defunct businesses, such as Toys ‘R’ Us, Babies ‘R’ Us, Verizon Fios, Sport Chalet, Discovery Channel store, Linens-N-Things, Sports Authority, Radio Shack, Circuit City, Borders, KB Toys, Claire’s … and many, many more. You know the places you used to shop that no longer exist — do a search and clear ’em out.

6. Still in business, but perhaps no longer in yours.

And then there are the stores and/or sites that are still in business, but are no longer of use to you.

Sometimes you outgrow them. (Think: Abercrombie & Fitch.)

Sometimes your kids outgrow them. (Think: Gymboree.)

Sometimes it’s you. Sometimes it’s them. But whatever the reason, you drifted apart. Going back to #4, there’s no need to continue an email relationship that’s no longer serving you. Unsubscribe, my friend.

7. You never signed up for this.

I never signed up for press releases on everything from lawn fertilizer to nipple shields, but there I was on email list after email list (after email list). If your email address has spread like a bad rumor, unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

8. Think about what you keep.

Yes, order confirmations are important. So are shipment confirmations. But once you receive the product or service and all is well, you probably don’t need those emails anymore. Sure, certain emails matter, so get them out of your inbox and into a proper home in a folder. And if all else fails, remember that most orders, confirmations, itineraries, invites, and receipts can be found online at the source.

9. Notice those notifications.

When I first signed up for Facebook (hey, 2008), I didn’t realize they emailed me every. single. time. someone tagged me, wrote on my wall, or even replied to my post. Fast forward to today, where I can safely say that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest were among my greatest inbox offenders when it came to those 39,667 emails. And it wasn’t their fault, it was mine. I never changed their default notification settings. (Doh!) So do me a favor and do a quick “Facebook” or “Twitter” search in your email. There’s a really good chance your social settings needs a little TLC.

10. Be on the lookout for buried treasure!

About the time your eyes begin to bleed and you lose all sense of good judgment in this arduous excavation, you’ll consider doing one of two things: deleting your email account(s) altogether and/or setting your computer on fire. But don’t do that, because SURPRISE! I’m willing to bet there’s actually a lot of really great sentimental stuff in there.

Unearthing 17+ years of emails brought back a ton of memories for me. There was that email announcement I made when I was pregnant. The back-and-forth with our realtor when we were looking to purchase our first home. Those emails between my grandma and me when she wasn’t really sure her “messages would get through.” It might be hard to remember, but before social media, we shared videos and pictures through email. (Yeah, I know — that sounds like a million years ago.)

So slow down. A massive and exhaustive DELETE may just erase precious memories worth saving.

While the weight of 39,667 unread emails surely felt heavy, I had no idea just how freeing an empty inbox (and the absence of a scarlet notification number) would be. I also didn’t realize that tackling this chore would inspire me to declutter other invisible areas of my life.

High on my inbox victory, I began shedding memberships to social platforms, groups, and clubs I was no longer interested in, apps that littered my phone, and heck, I even closed an old bank account that’s held $16.34 for the last six years. Why? Because I could.

In adulting, the mental load can be great, but maybe with a little attention, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Thanks to an empty inbox, I finally get the message.

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