How To: Clean Up and Organize Your Inbox

April 09th, 2007 | Life Hacks,Nerdery | Syndicate Content

A few days ago I had over 2,000 emails in my Mail inbox. That is just out of control. My mail was sort-of organized: I had some folders set up but they were really just taking up space. After reading a post on Glenn’s site I got some motivation and a few hours later had a clean inbox, and a system set up to keep it clean.

My old organization included folders that were for holding emails from different sources. Such as relating to my Prayer Room team, or from my hosting resellers account, or from If an email didn’t fall into one of these categories then it stayed in the primary inbox. If it was an email that I needed to respond to in some way I would keep it as ‘unread.’


When I realized that this method was not working, I needed a new plan. I set up four new ‘general’ folders – in addition to the specific folders I already had set up – that would cover every single email I got.

  1. Follow Up - Emails I need to reply to.
  2. ToDo - Emails that require some sort of action on my part.
  3. File: Info - Emails that have passwords, or links or information I want to keep.
  4. File: Faves - Emails that aren’t important but I don’t want to delete.


When I get an email I have two options: 1) Respond right away or 2) do something with the email. If it is an email that I cannot or do not want to respond to right away then the email gets filed into one of my folders.

For example; an email containing info on a design project I’m working on will be filed into the ToDo folder. An email from an old friend I haven’t talked to in a while goes into the Follow Up folder. Now that I had my folders set up, I was ready to start sorting, filing and deleting….


I started by sorting my emails by recipient. Knowing that there were certain people I email back and forth with random messages several times a day. I deleted the majority of those emails, and then sorted again by date.

I started with the oldest emails, and just began deleting anything that didn’t strongly look important. This is where the pack-rat inside yells “STOP! You may need that one day.” You don’t. Just keep on deleting.

Once I got to a message that needed to be kept, I would file into it’s respective folder. 2,000 messages later I had a blank inbox and a smile.

OS X Mail


The advantage of having a blank inbox and relevant, workable folders is now I can easily and quickly take care of my email with less time wasted during my day. It’s easier to spot emails I don’t need to keep and delete them after I reply – keeping my inbox clean and organized.

Then when I sit down to work from my mail program I can quickly see what emails I need to follow up with, and what needs to be done out of my ToDo folder.

(Next, I have to delete my 4,674 sent messages. Not kidding.)



  1. Aaron said:

    yeah, i know the feeling – i use gmail – google mail and the increase of space in webmail means i’ve become lazy, not bothering to delete junk etc.

    guess i need to get onto that too

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 11:56 am

  2. Phil said:

    Ha, interesting timing Shawn. I just switched from using GMail as my Mail Client back to Apple Mail now that I discovered my accounts can use IMAP. I’m just working out the best way to streamline the way I use Mail.

    At the moment I’m trying out MailTags and have set some general folders up to file into. Then I’m using tags and projects from MailTags to sort emails into Smart MailBoxes, I’m still sorting it out, but it seems to be developing well.

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 12:55 pm

  3. {Shawn} said:

    @ Phil: You’re saying you got your Gmail set-up with IMAP? Mind sharing?

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 1:02 pm

  4. Ryan Couch said:

    @Shawn: Are you a GTD fan? “Getting Things Done”, the book by David Allen, has boomed in the past few years, with all sorts of internet based apps that help you follow his “easy-to-use-and-implement” processes and steps to “getting things done” in your life, inbox, to-do-list, projects, schedule, etc.

    One of the best I’ve found to implement his methods is I use it for my own personal web design business –

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 1:04 pm

  5. Phil said:

    @Shawn: Ha, no sorry. I had my personal and blog email accounts routed through it and used it effectively like a Mail Client that I could access anywhere. I prefer using and now I have both accounts IMAP I can set up Mail on my iBook as well as iMac.

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 1:13 pm

  6. {Shawn} said:

    @ Ryan: I am a GTD fan. After hearing Mike Bickle’s teaching on the Power of a Focused Life I started getting my own life and time into order and then realized that there were lots of people with the same passion out there.

    Regarding, I use a mini moleskine as my PDA. A post on that to come sometime.

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 1:46 pm

  7. Bes said:

    Nice tip! I am going to create a to-do and “needs a reply” folder. It can be hard to go through thousands of e-mails just to find the one that needed a reply long time ago.

    A bit off-topic: for you, are the “faves” folder where most of the e-mails end up in?

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 1:58 pm

  8. {Shawn} said:

    @ Bes: Most of my emails end up in the trash now. The faves folder currently is holding primarily funny / interesting emails.

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 2:02 pm

  9. Aaron said:

    i suppose one method for dealing with email is just to not check it until you actually have time to deal with it.

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 3:19 pm

  10. {Shawn} said:

    @ Aaron: True. But then what if you cannot deal with all those emails at once? And what do you do to the ones that don’t get deleted?

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 3:30 pm

  11. Troy said:

    Great post; I just got done implementing the “1–FOLLOW UP!!” and “2–TO DO!” folders in my inbox–it IS somewhat satisfying, except for the 29 emails now sitting in my “FOLLOW UP!!” folder, instead of my inbox. But I know this will help. It’s not like I was going to get to them all this week anyways..

    This would have come in handy six months ago, when I first started tackling the 2000 or so emails in my inbox (even though I already had dozens of folders). It was still great timing though; I had JUST been thinking about how I need to rethink my current inbox folder system, and this got me thinking in the right direction.

    @ Shawn: “Regarding, I use a mini moleskine as my PDA. A post on that to come sometime.”

    FWIW, I do the same. I’d had PocketPCs since their earliest days, until I got a laptop, at which time my then-current PDA went to my wife–that is until she got a superior MacBook last year. Since that time, the PDA has returned to my possession, and sat in its sync cradle ever since, as I have already long since found ways to make a pocket moleskine work better for me than any electronic device. Having my calendar and contacts synced into my phone and iPod helps too. But I digress..

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 5:52 pm

  12. jeff said:

    Aargh. You’re brilliant. The best things are the simple things. Four folders, here I come…

    Posted on April 9, 2007 at 7:47 pm

  13. Tour My Mac: The (Free) Mac Apps I Use Every Day | The Fight Spot said:

    [...] Most people on OS X use – nothing new there. But you can read how got rid of 2,000 old messages and how I now organize and handle all my email here. [...]

    Posted on April 13, 2007 at 11:08 pm

  14. J-Bo said:

    I use Microsoft Outlook for my mail, I have 6 different email accounts coming in, so it makes it easier than checking it via webmail, I don’t usually sort my mail, I just use the standard way that it sorts it into today, yesterday, monday, sunday, last week etc. I really should sort it out.

    And I really need to find a new program to do this, I really don’t like using commercial software, I’d much prefer to support open source, but unfortunately I can’t find one that matches outlook on ease of use, I’v tried thunderbird, and incredimail, but I prefer Outlook to both of those.

    I suppose that apple will have some better software, I can’t wait till I get my macbook at the end of this month.

    Hope you’re doing ok Shawn, I do skim most of your posts, and I like it.


    Posted on May 8, 2007 at 5:59 pm

  15. Tour My Mac: The (Free) Mac Apps I Use Every Day said:

    [...] Most people on OS X use – nothing new there. But you can read how I got rid of 2,000 old emails and how I now organize and handle all my email here. [...]

    Posted on May 15, 2007 at 12:43 pm

  16. » Email said:

    [...] How To: Clean up and Organize your Inbox – [The Fight Spot] [...]

    Posted on July 13, 2007 at 10:57 am

  17. serge francois said:

    Please help me clean my inbox I do not receive my e mails since 12/15/10 Thanks a lotSerge

    Posted on December 17, 2010 at 6:44 am

  18. HMP said:

    I found that keeping folders up to date are a pain unless you use Rules & Alerts. I agree that search is your friend!

    One major issue is the fact that marketers and advertisers love to opt-in emails at will. The end-result is inboxes full of email subscription lists… not really spam, but irrelevant junk.

    Check out Unlistr… it’s freeware that collects list junk in your email and unsubscribes you from it automatically in bulk. PC only though… hopefully it matures some more.

    Posted on August 18, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Dem's fightin' words...