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It’s something we deal with every day and most of us are terrible at it. We put it off, we hide it, we flag it for later, but we never address it directly. I’m talking, of course, about email.

Email is everywhere and for many of us, it’s our primary method of communication on the Internet. We may check our personal inboxes a few times a day on our smartphones or laptops, and we may check our work email every few minutes on our PCs and BlackBerrys.

If your inbox (work or personal) looks like a laundry list of read and unread emails dating back seven years, it’s time to clean house. Here are five steps to help you deal with your current email problem and put you back on track to getting real work done.

Step 1: Purge What You Don’t Need

Old marketing emails from Applebee’s, chain letters from grandma, “thank you” acknowledgements from colleagues and other inconsequential messages can simply be deleted. If you don’t plan on using the coupons in that email from that store you visited once on vacation, delete it. Hoarding unnecessary emails in your inbox can slow things down and make it harder to find the messages you do need later.

This step will probably take the most time because you haven’t been doing it. If you’ve got thousands of messages to sift through, expect to take a few hours out of your day to get this done – maybe an hour at lunch and an hour or two at home. Regardless of when you do it, it has to be done now, which is why it’s step one.

Step 2: Act Now

There are sure to be messages waiting for you to take action. Some might be as simple as a two-sentence response, while others might require a bit more thought. If you can knock these out now (or soon), get it done and get rid of them. Not only are you holding up someone else by not acting immediately, but you’re taking up space that could be used for more important messages.

If you can’t act on a message now, put it in a folder marked “Action” (see below), so you know it needs to be addressed as soon as possible. This may happen if you’re waiting on something from someone else, or it requires more thought than you’re able to give at the moment.

Step 3: Archive

As new emails come in, you’ll have to revert back to step two pretty often. Once you’re done acting, however, what do you do with the original message? Well, you have two options:

  1. Archive it.
  2. Delete it.

If you archive that message, avoid complicated file structures. For most people, the only folders needed are:

  • Action – things that will require your attention in the immediate future
  • Archive – a folder for messages you want to save

What you don’t want is this:

  • Projects
  • 2012
  • January
  • Project 1
  • Tasks
  • Sub-tasks

That can get confusing and cumbersome very quickly. Instead, opt for a simple folder structure centered around 3-4 main folders. Your email client, be it Microsoft Outlook, Gmail or Apple’s, can handle advanced searches to help you find messages dating years back.

What else can help aid in that search?

Step 4: Delete

Did your cousin email you an invitation to his upcoming birthday party? RSVP, put the information in your calendar and delete the message. Why? Because you’ve already pulled all the necessary information out of it and put it somewhere useful.

Emails aren’t doing you any good sitting in your inbox – you need to do somethinga about them. Coupons from your favorite store? Print them and delete the message. List of chores to do when you get home? Put them in your task manager and delete the message. Photos of your new niece or nephew? Save them and delete the message.

You may want to save these emails for later, but that’s not the right thing to do, as they will continue to build up and clog your inbox. The best course of action is to “act and delete”. Seriously – make that delete button your best friend.

Step 5: Unsubscribe

I bet if I look in your inbox, I’ll find newsletters and marketing mailings from restaurants, clothing stores and other websites you’ve given your email address to. Do yourself a favor and unsubscribe from them (okay, maybe not all of them, but at least the ones you’re not actively reading or using the coupons from).

These messages come every few weeks – sometimes, even every few days – and can really put a damper on your email management. Gmail has a nifty “Bulk” filter that funnels them into a folder for you to sort through later, but what you’re trying to do here is get on top of your email – not hide it.

Unsubscribing from this “bacn” is part one. Part two is telling friends and family who forward you “MAKE SURE YOU READ THIS” chain letters to stop doing so. I know, they have your best interests at heart, but they’re impeding your escape from email purgatory, so don’t worry about offending them. Simply state that you’re trying to limit the amount of email that comes in and these messages are contributing to the noise.

If that doesn’t work, send them to to see if what they’re sending is a hoax (SPOILER ALERT: It is), or set up a mail rule that automatically sends their messages to the trash. There are diplomatic ways around this conundrum.

Remember, you’re only as productive as your inbox allows you to be, so get a handle on your email and you’ll have an easier time dealing with everything else life decides to throw at you.

Harry MarksMore from this Author

An adorable young scamp from the East Coast. When Harry’s not enacting grammatical violence on other people’s work, he’s avoiding crowds and yelling at kids to get off his lawn. Harry lives with his beautiful wife in an apartment complex that charges way too much for what they provide.

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