How to handle Inbox Infinity

How to handle Inbox Infinity
Photo by Reuben / Unsplash

Although I'm done with the Summer Challenge series for now, I have one more article on my mind about email. And then, I swear I will shut up about it. This is about what to do if you are experiencing what I call Inbox Infinity. This is the situation where you have so many unprocessed emails in your inbox that, even if you want to get them in order, the sheer scale of the work makes this infeasible.

This is inspired by the reader who messaged me after my recent post about Inbox Zero, who told me that they currently have 168,000 emails in their inbox — 68,000 of which are unread — and gave me a sad-face emoji. The unstated message there is Inbox Zero sounds nice, but there's no f—ing way it's happening for me. My initial response to this person was unhelpful: "Well," I said, "you have your work cut out for you, but if you start now and process a little each day, you can pretty soon get it under control."

After sending that reply, I did the math. Let's say you're this reader, and make a series of questionable assumptions: (1) you've already got a system of tags and folders set up for housing processed emails; (2) you are fluent with the workflow for Clarifying what's in the inbox, so that the only real work involved is actually processing the emails and not figuring out the process of processing; and especially (3) you work fast when processing emails, spending only 5 seconds on average to Clarify each item and get it to the right place. Like I said: Questionable. Make one more assumption, namely that you are only going to deal with the 68,000 unread emails in the inbox.  

Under all these assumptions, it would take you: 68000 emails * 5 seconds per email * (1 day/86400 seconds) = 3.94 days to get to the bottom. Four straight 24-hour days of email processing, and that's just for the unreads and doesn't account for new unreads coming in. You could be more sane and do a chunk each day, let's say one 2-hour block of email processing every evening. That comes out to about 48 days. So "no f—ing way" sounds about right.

And yet...

Given what I keep hearing about faculty being totally exhausted and burned out, and with the new academic year coming up in three weeks, and the news of the world not really getting any better, 2021-2022 is looking like a repeat of 2020-2021 in terms of the strain that will be placed on each of us. There are parts of this we have no control over. But there are parts where we do, and to the extent we can get things under control, we must. Email is one of those things. So the cleanup has to be done, or else it's a vote in favor of living in perpetual exhaustion.

I've been thinking about how I would handle Inbox Infinity if one day I woke up and found myself in the same situation. I'd approach the problem in four steps. In each of these steps I will try to give specific instructions for how to handle it. These all assume Gmail because that's what I use. If you use another email program, there are probably analogues for everything.

Step 1: Divide and conquer

The first thing I'd do is apply the "one year rule" for clothes in my closet to my email inbox. This rule states that if you haven't worn a piece of clothing in a year, you're probably never going to wear it again, so there's no point keeping it. There's something about the one-year mark that demarcates stuff that might actually be useful from those that are just probably not. This includes email. So divide up the inbox into messages that are a year old or older, from those that aren't.

One of the reasons I prefer Gmail is that this filtering process is easy. Just go to the search bar at the top of the Gmail window and type:


...and then the only things you're looking at are unread items in the inbox that arrived prior to August 5, 2020. (Change the date and leave off is:unread as needed.) These are the skinny jeans and ugly Christmas sweaters of your email — the things that, around my house, periodically find a permanent home at Goodwill. That gets us to step 2.

Step 2: Out with the old

Now that you've isolated all the emails older than one year, it's time for honesty. If I have not needed any of those emails by now — if I have not been bitten by ignoring them yet — then I will probably never need them.

So I would declare bankruptcy and delete them all. Click the select-all box and then the trash can:


And they're gone.

For a lot of people, this could be thousands or tens of thousands of emails in the inbox, gone in just a few clicks, and suddenly that 3.94 day period for cleaning house has gotten a lot smaller.

But this really freaks some people out. What if I delete something that's important that I end up needing later? Let me put on my "Dad voice" for a second: This is why you have to have good email hygiene in the first place. If you think that all that stuff might contain something important but don't know, realize this is a huge source of stress that you don't even realize is living in your head rent-free – until you get honest with yourself and have to click the trash can button.

If you know there are important messages that are in the pile somewhere that you need to keep, then before deleting, search those up and move them somewhere safe. Again Gmail Search comes in handy. If it were me, I'd do some searches by sender (add from: followed by a name or email address to the search query) or especially look for stuff with attached files ( has:attachment ), because truly-important messages tend to come from certain people or carry files. Then Clarify each of those one by one to get them in the right place, whether it's a Gmail tag, or putting the attachment in a Reference folder and trashing the email, or just realizing the email no longer has any value and trashing it without saving. Don't forget the v keyboard shortcut in Gmail that provides a two-click process for moving an email to a tag and removing from the inbox.

But generally speaking, the idea here is to just delete the old stuff in a massive batch. This requires courage. However — in Gmail at least you can hedge your bets by choosing "Archive" instead of "Delete". This will put all those old emails out-of-sight/out-of-mind in an archive, out of your system but still accessible via a search later. (That's the basic rule of the internet today — nothing ever gets truly deleted.)

Step 3: Deal with the new

So now all the older-than-a-year emails are out of the way. If this still leaves an unreasonable amount of new emails, you might repeat this process for different time frames: Process through the emails that are 9-12 months old; then the ones 6-9 months old, etc. At some point you will get to a short(-ish) list of emails that are relatively new and have not been Clarified. This is where I'd start next.

What is "short"? If you are fluent with the Clarify loop, it should take you less than 30 seconds per email to simply decide where it goes. Don't laugh. In the Clarify process this is all you're doing — getting stuff out of the inbox and into the right home. You are not actually replying to or otherwise acting on those emails unless the action can be done in less than 2 minutes.  This takes discipline. We are indoctrinated to think that emails must be replied to immediately but that's not true, and it's not realistic even if it were. Multiple times a day, something like "Reply to Bob's email about the thing" ends up going in to my Next Actions list in the @email context, and I get to Bob when I get to him (unless it's less-than-2-minutes quick). So don't get sidetracked — all you do at this point with the new stuff is put it on the right shelf.

If you have 100 emails in your inbox, at 30 seconds per email to process it, this would take you 50 minutes to complete. That is doable. If it's 1000 emails, then 500 minutes which is a bit over 8 hours. Which is a lot; but not out of the question. For example if you really mean it about getting your email in order, you could block off one day, and just sit down and do it. Or spread it over a week, at 2 hours a day. Whatever the case, the time spent now getting all this in order will earn you more time, and better quality time later. Isn't this what we want?

Step 4: Get on the wagon and stay on

Once the inbox is at least under control, if not actually zero, then I would make a firm commitment to zero out my inbox every day. Not just a solemn vow but an actual commitment in the form of a daily time box for this. For me, this is part of my daily review and takes about 15 minutes, since my inbox is at or near zero most of the time. The concept is simple, and it's something I try to teach my kids about cleaning their rooms: It's a lot easier to keep a room clean than it is to get a room clean. It honestly does not take much time to maintain order in your email once you have seriously invested time to get it there in the first place. So get on the wagon and don't fall off. But if you do, then forgive yourself, and start back at Step 1.

Don't mind me

This advice is foolishness to a lot of people (the ones who tweet-reply to my Inbox Zero posts with screenshots of their overfull inboxes accompanied by a happy-face or middle-finger emoji). Some people swear, up and down, that they never do any such thing as Inbox Zero and it works out for them. Some say they use their inbox as the to-do list, which... okay, but there are tons of problems with that that I would write about if I hadn't already sworn to shut up about this. If you think all this Inbox Zero stuff is pointless nerd fantasy, then I will probably never change your mind.

However: Like I said, if you are faculty and are as perpetually tired and burned out as some of the people I see, then I will just claim that you owe it to yourself to do what you can with what you've got, to make your situation better. Exerting absolute control over your inbox is a step in that direction that pays off handsomely, and even if you're at Inbox Infinity it's not out of reach.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.