If your email is completely under control—your Inbox is normally empty, filing new messages is a breeze, and you feel no anxiety at all about the number of messages you receive every day or the number you’ve stored over the years, you can stop reading this article now. For everyone else, I have a few suggestions to help simplify your email experience.
Consolidate your accounts
Most email clients, such as Apple’s Mail and Microsoft Outlook, can handle as many accounts as you throw at them, and of course it’s often necessary to keep work and personal accounts separate. But do you really need email accounts from iCloud, Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, your ISP, and so on? You can simplify your email by picking just one as your go-to account and setting up all the other services to forward email to that primary address (so you don’t need to worry about sending everyone a change-of-address notice).
That way, even if you’re checking your email in a Web browser, you’ll be able to see all your messages in the same place. Your email client will have less work to do, which can make it more responsive, while mobile devices will use less battery power and possibly even a bit less network bandwidth.
Trim your mailboxes
I used to have hundreds of mailboxes for filing saved mail, and then a few dozen. Now I’m working my way down to the single digits. Although separate mailboxes (or, in Gmail, labels) sometimes serves a useful organizational function, the combination of searching and smart mailboxes (or saved searches) can often accomplish the same thing. And, not having to think as hard about where to put a message, or where to look for a saved message, can save time and mental energy.
Some people advocate using a single Archive mailbox as a dumping place for all messages you’ve read and want to remove from your Inbox. I don’t go quite that far, because I have certain categories of messages I can locate more easily if kept separate from the general population. Having fewer mailboxes makes filing much simpler, especially on iOS devices.
Your goal should be to have as few mailboxes as necessary to facilitate finding the information you need rapidly. For example, my few remaining mailboxes include one for Travel (so I can easily find things like flight itineraries and hotel information on my iPhone) and one for Money (so all my receipts and tax-related documents are in one place). I no longer keep mailboxes for messages from individual friends or family members, because those are easy to find with a search or smart mailbox.
Reduce (or increase) how often you check messages
A number of people recommend checking email less often—say, once or twice a day—and leaving your email client closed the rest of the time to avoid distractions. For some temperaments, that might be exactly the right choice, and if you don’t get a lot of time-sensitive email, it’s worth a try.
For me, however, the best choice was the opposite—check email more frequently. If I did it just one or twice a day, the pile of messages would be overwhelming, so I keep my email client open when I’m at my desk and check my iPhone or iPad regularly when I’m not, answering or otherwise processing most messages as they come in. That way I almost never have more than a few messages in my Inbox, which improves my mental health.
Rethink Inbox management
My technique for handling incoming messages works exceptionally well for me (see "Empty your Inbox"). However, that’s just one approach, and you may find that an entirely different method works better for you. As I’ve written elsewhere, the crucial first step is realizing that neither email in general nor your email client in particular is to blame if your email feels out of control. Reflect on what’s not working well for you and experiment until you find a good technique.
To be sure, you might benefit from products or services that do some of the heavy lifting for you, such as Sanebox ($49-469 for a two-year subscription) or C-Command Software’s $30 SpamSieve. A different email client or other technological changes might also help. But none of these things can compose thoughtful message replies for you or eliminate the need to think about your incoming email entirely—some parts of inbox management will always require manual effort.
That said, I can offer a few quick tips:
Use server-side filtering: Gmail, iCloud, and many other email providers let you set up rules or filters on the server that can file, delete, or even send canned responses to messages that match certain criteria. Even though your Mac email client can do that too, relying on server-side rules means you benefit from that pre-filtering even when using a mobile device.
Learn to love your Delete key: I’ve long had the habit of saving almost all incoming messages, but those files do take up space, and they make operations like backups, disk repair, and migrating to a new Mac more time-consuming. Plus, even with great search tools, having a larger haystack makes the needle that much more elusive. So, I’m trying to train myself to spend half a second before performing that reflexive filing keystroke to consider whether I might ever refer to this particular email message again, and if not, delete it to improve my signal-to-noise ratio ever so slightly.
Leave the past in the past: Should you also prune the tens or hundreds of thousands of messages you’ve already saved? For me, the answer is no, because having to think about each of them long enough to decide whether it should go or stay would chew up far more of my time than it would ever save. If I can delete hundreds in one fell swoop—for example, if all the messages from a certain mailing list were also available in a Web archive somewhere—that’s one thing. But otherwise, selective culling just isn’t an effective use of my time.
Archive locally: However, it is fair to ask whether all those messages need to stay in my email client and on my IMAP servers. They almost certainly don’t, and you can reduce the amount of time your email client spends syncing with servers (as well as recover server storage space) by using an app such as Pubblog's $100 MailSteward Pro () or one of its less-expensive siblings, $50 MailSteward or $25 MailSteward Lite to archive older messages locally.