Minimize Your Desktop: Detox your Inbox

5 simple steps to detox your inbox - square

This post miniseries on Cleaning Your Desktop is part of my project #minimize: the the project where I get rid of all the things. It’s an awesome project. And it comes from a deep-rooted place in my soul – which is why you should check back on Thursdays to see all of the small yet awesome ways you can downsize clutter and live like a minimalist. If you want to know more about why I’m doing this project, read the first post.

Every time I sit down at my desk, I click the mouse to wake up my computer. And, as I settle into my chair, and glance across my screen, my first click usually brings up my email.

And then I sigh for the first time that day.

Friends, sometimes it’s hard to break bad habits. No matter how many times I have received the same advice: from books, blog articles, podcasts, experts on productivity, and general conversations with smart, productive friends, I just can’t seem to break the cycle of email-induced stress.

So, what’s the big deal?

Sure, email IS important. Sure, email IS necessary. And it IS something that needs to be addressed. But when you first start your day, your brain is fresh. It is available and pliable and ready for BIG stuff. So why waste that awesome brain space on email? And, even worse, why intentionally invite stress into the first part of your day?

There are a few things we can do to remedy this problem.

First, let’s talk about the size of your… inbox.

If you have a large inbox (more than 50 emails), it’s time to consider WHY. Here are a few reasons that my inbox has been overflowing for two years:

  1. I subscribe to too many things. Work things. Blog things. Semi-work things. Semi-blog things. Good, useful blogs. Bad blogs. Websites. Craft stores. Etc.
  2. I use it for work AND for personal use.
  3. I think everything is important.

Deconstructing the inbox, and how I view it, has been a process and a half. Honestly, it’s taken a lot of letting go to get myself back to a reasonable volume. But it’s SO necessary and SO needed to maintain reasonable expectations for ourselves in the places that require our attention.

Let Go

When I started this process several months ago, I knew it would be a level of effort to reduce my 400 unread emails down to … a lot less. Yes, you read that right, I had 400 emails in my inbox every single day. Sometimes I would get down to 370, but it would only be days before I got back up to 400 again. I knew it was a problem, but I just didn’t have the head space to be ready to decide what was important and what I could let go.

So, just like the previous mini-sessions I’ve done as part of my minimize project, I decided to manage my inbox reduction in stages. And what I found hiding in the depths of those 400 messages, and within myself, surprised me.

5 simple steps to detox your inbox

Five Steps to Detox your Inbox

Reduce your inbox in five steps. Here’s how I went from 350 emails down to ZERO.

1. Start big picture. Take a good look at your inbox – do you see any trends, any consistent email sources that never get read?

Yes. The answer is a big YES. I definitely had a lot of emails from the same sources. Without naming names, there was a fabric store that I used to regularly shop at, until I realized – far too late – that I never had any time to sew. Then there was the craft store, which I shopped at regularly, but only used coupons from their app and never from their email. Then there was the website that I used to love, but hadn’t been interested in for a year. And then there was that newsletter I kept meaning to unsubscribe from.

You get where I’m going with this.

Stores, especially box stores that rely on promotions to drive their sales, tend to send a lot of emails. It reminds you that you once liked their store. And whether your realize it consciously or not, it motivates us to choose to shop there again.

Those are the ones you absolutely get rid of first. And not just because of the volume of emails, but also because of the volume of waste that comes with shopping there. Save yourself the extra time and money and unsubscribe immediately.

You’ll thank me later.

2. Reduce and delete subscriptions. Do you subscribe to newsletters, blogs (other than this one, obviously), or member sites that email you too frequently? Do you read them, or do you just keep them in your inbox?

By far the biggest source of my email junk was subscription services. That newsletter I’ve been meaning to delete for just about ever. That podcast I listen to regularly and for some reason get the emails too. That blog that I already read on Feedly. The companies that send me job opportunities that I would never work for anyway. That blog that I don’t read but still feel obligated to read anyway.

All of those, gone.

For years I allowed the same subscriptions to continue to send me mail, knowing I would just delete it. And every day I would sit down at my desk and go through the process of selecting and deleting the same emails from the same sources. And some of them would get missed, or read but not deleted. And they continued to pile up in my inbox.

All of those, gone.

How? At the bottom of every email you receive, there is a little blue link that says something to the effect of “unsubscribe”. Click there. You will probably be brought to a page that requires you to read and answer a question. Do that. And make sure your selection reflections “unsubscribe me from all emails”.

Note: you also have the option, with many companies, to reduce the volume of emails you receive from them. This is a great option if you like a company, but feel like you get too much from them. It’s also a good option if you’re not quite ready to say ‘forget you.’ Don’t worry – if you’re not sure about something, almost decisions in the world of email subscriptions are reversible. You can always change your mind later.

3. Use un-enroll services. After you identify all of the big email sources, what are the other things that still follow you? Do you know what you’ve signed up for?

In step 2, the purpose – for me – was about making decisions on the big things. The things I was intentionally holding on to for some reason. The things that I couldn’t quite let go of, but knew that I needed to. For me, going through and either reducing the frequency or fully unsubscribing from those sources gave me a sense of freedom. And I knew I needed more.

Enter: Unroll.Me

Unroll Me is just what it sounds like: and un-enroll service for email. You enter your email address, authorize the app to make changes to your email address, and BOOM – with a quick click of the mouse you can delete basically everything in your inbox. It’s totally free. And super simple.

A note caution: This service makes unsubscribing shockingly easy to do. A little too easy. In the right frame of mind, you might accidentally delete things that you actually want – or need. This is why I suggest starting with unsubscribing – or reducing – in Step #2. That process will get you thinking about what is – and is not – important for you to receive.

4. Keep only what brings you joy. Do you have subscriptions, emails, newsletters or other sources of email that bring you joy? If so, keep them. And make room for them.

In the flurry of unsubscribing I did – there were a few moments that surprised me. And it made me realize that while there is a lot of junk in my inbox, there is also a lot of awesome.

Email newsletters from people like Cathy Zielske, Charissa Moore, and Elise Cripe always get clicks from me. The same is true for Studio Calico and, of course, Becky Higgins. It’s important to keep the good ones, not just for the content, but for the feeling you get when you open your inbox and find a treat from them. Imagine what it would be like if you only got awesome emails from sources of joy? Now make that happen.

This is also true in reverse. And, possibly, this is the biggest lesson I learned from cleaning up my inbox: there are things that bring you dread.

These emails from sources that actually make you sad, or stressed, and you keep them out of some kind of unrelenting obligation. I had something like that. It was for a committee that I just didn’t enjoy working on. And while I stopped participating in the calls, and while I stopped reading their emails, I had literally 150 emails in my inbox, unread, from this group. It’s a volunteer position for an organization that isn’t relevant to my current work or lifestyle. It does not bring me joy. And, knowing that, and accepting that, gave me the peace of mind I needed to hit the delete button.

Friends, if you get nothing else out of reading this entire blog, know this: you choose what you spend your time and energy on. It’s your choice. So if you choose to let something stress you out, if you choose to act out of obligation but not necessity, it is your choice. And, at some point, you can also choose to let it go. With this project, with this moment, I did that.

And I feel incredibly free. I feel lighter. And I’m definitely happier.

5. Address or move on. After you get through the subscriptions, and the unenrolling, you may still have more random emails in your inbox. So, now what?

Friends, the awesome thing about choices is that they exist, you get to make them, and they’re often at least somewhat arbitrary. I had all of these other emails in my inbox. Stuff that I felt compelled to respond to. Stuff that friends and family sent me that, again, I felt an obligation to.

Today, I let it go.

I gave myself a deadline when I first started this inbox detox: if I didn’t have those emails either addressed or acknowledged within a week, I had to let them go. And I did. And you know what? My friends and family still love me. And the world continued to go on. And nothing in my life really changed at all.


I think you can tell from the amount of text I assigned to each of these steps that the first steps were the hardest. And by the end, it got easy. Or easier. I think that’s the trick with a lot of my work towards minimizing the stress and the extra stuff in my life: it’s about learning how to let go and practicing letting go, starting with the easy stuff and slowly progressing to the harder stuff. If you can master that, you can be free to let go. And I hope you do.



Next week we’re going to move into the desktop version of this program: four weeks of file organization, management, backups, and – of course – deletion using a tool provided to me by SingleHop cloud computing. I can’t wait to share more!