My email inbox was an embarrassing mess. This is the story of how I cleaned it all up--quickly, efficiently, for free, and without losing anything important.

It's also about how you can do the same thing if you ever find yourself in this woefully disorganized situation.

(I won't judge. But if you find this useful, I hope you'll also download my free ebook: 12 Simple Tricks That Will Probably Make Your Life a Little Better.)

To set the stage: There were 22,508 unread messages in my Gmail account. Additionally, there were many thousands of other messages that I had apparently clicked on somehow to make them look as if they'd been read, but that I hadn't deleted.

So, after procrastinating for quite some time, I finally decided to do something about it. I started on a Tuesday evening, and I had Inbox Zero by Thursday morning.

Truly, if I can do this, almost anyone else surely can, and I'll explain the steps below. But quickly, let me just share three initial points:

  • First, there was no big, secret trick. Once I figured out how to untangle my email, the process was simple. Granted, executing that process took dedicated effort, but it was mostly the kind of thing I could do while sitting on the couch and watching post-season baseball on TV.
  • Second, I was adamant that I would do this by myself: no browser extensions, no giving my password to an assistant. This was partially for privacy, but mostly because doing it myself meant that afterward, I would know exactly what had been done.
  • Third, my system worked, but I'm not going to tell you it's the most efficient method. In fact, I learned some things for next time. (This email account was one of the three main accounts that I use; the other two are sadly still in need of aggressive cleanings. I'll tackle them next, and perhaps share some more lessons learned afterward.)

I'm really glad that I took the time to do this. I'm surprised at the literal, physical feeling of reduced stress that I've felt by getting this account under control. Also, I found three pure diamonds in terms of emails that I would have otherwise missed. (I'll talk about those at the end.)

First, let me guide you through what I learned. Here's how I went from email chaos to Inbox Zero in less than a day and a half.

1.    It's mostly about sender management.

Of my 22,508 unread messages, perhaps 1,000 were things that I actually wanted to read or save. Drilling down, I realized that about 90 percent of these valuable messages were sent by roughly 100 different senders.

However, the desirable messages were drowning in a never-ending barrage of more stuff. Simply dedicating three seconds to each of the 22,508 emails to figure out what was in them would have taken 12.5 hours without breaks. Obviously, that was not going to happen.

The key was to reorganize everything by sender, instead of by date, at least for cleaning purposes. However, if you're using Gmail, as I was, this can be difficult. At least within the web interface there is no way I can find to organize them this way. So, I had to come up with my own techniques.

2.    Choose your email program.

The easiest way I found to sort by sender was to use a separate email program. Reading my Gmail via the Mail program that came on my MacBook Pro fit the bill; you can sort by date, by size, by subject, and by sender.  

I started by culling the herd, and archiving every email that I could quickly identify as a marketing message or a newsletter. How did I find them? By searching for words like "special offer" or "unsubscribe" or "time is running out," or even copyright notices; things that you would only expect to find in commercial messages.

Archiving so many of these pained at once because I used to write the Inc. This Morning newsletter, and I now write a highly rated daily newsletter called I hated to imagine anyone doing this to my work! But, it was necessary.

3.    Spreadsheets are your friend. 

Using the Mail program to sort by sender was important, and you could probably rely solely on it, but I found another method. For reasons I'll explain shortly, I didn't just want to sort; I wanted a single list of every address that had ever sent me an email. 

I am no programmer, but I was able to connect my Gmail to a Google Sheet, and then copy a script that I found on Stack Overflow to extract all the sending email addresses. I'm not going to link to the specific one I used here, because it's a bit risky just using someone else's (freely shared) work like this, but you should be able to find something similar.

The utility for me in identifying these senders like this was that I could create filters in Gmail to archive all old messages from them immediately, while also creating rules so that any new incoming emails from those senders would skip the Inbox. More on this below.

4.    Separate the domains from the addresses.

This was something I hadn't thought of. Once I gave permission to a marketer or a newsletter to send me messages, they often wound up sending emails from multiple addresses on the same domain: for example: "," and "," and ""

Getting rid of many of these quickly was a lot easier after I extracted the domains from the email addresses. I did this within Google sheets simply by using the SPLIT function.

For example, if an email address was in cell A1, you'd enter the following formula in cell B1: "SPLIT(A1,"@")." (Don't include the opening and closing quotes or the period.)

This puts everything to the left of the "@" sign in one cell, and everything after it -- which in most cases was the domain itself -- in the next cell.

Using these lists of domains, I was able to create filters in Gmail that would wipe out entire swaths of emails that I would never in a million years have time to read. It was significantly faster than just using the Mail program.

5.    Filters rule.

This is going to be Gmail-specific, but I've alluded to filters a few times, and I should expound a bit more. 

A reasonable person might ask, Why not just unsubscribe from all the random non-personal emails?

The reason is that unsubscribing takes several steps: (a) open the email, (b) scroll down, (c) find the unsubscribe link, (d) click it, (e) wait for a new page to load, and either (f) verify that you've automatically been unsubscribed, or else (g) figure out how to do it from that page.

We're only talking about seconds, but they're my seconds. So, by searching in Gmail for senders with specific domains, and clicking the little "create filter" link at the bottom of that search page, I was able to archive hundreds of messages at once, apply labels to them, and ensure that incoming emails from those domains would skip the inbox.

6.    Archive is your other friend.

Another Gmail-specific point here, but in my experience running email newsletters I've seen that roughly half of all email addresses in use are from Gmail anyway. 

In short, if you're naturally disorganized like me, one of the things that might hold you back from just deleting every email more than a month old, for example is a fear of losing something important. While I was methodical, I also found it comforting to archive many emails rather than delete them.

I do sometimes go back and look for things I've read, and archiving simply means they're moved out of the inbox where they can overwhelm other things. But they're still there, and if you every do need them, you can easily find them.

7.    Who's sending this stuff?

I want to point out that almost none of the email that was clogging my inbox was spam; at least if you define spam as marketing emails (or phishing, etc.) that you never consented to receive.

In my case, I'd signed up for a lot of things that seemed like they'd been interesting at the time, but that I never had time to read -- along with things that came from approved senders but that I didn't really need. Think: notifications, real estate alerts, or a zillion Google Analytics emails, or a notification every single time someone signed up for my newsletter.

I also hate to admit it, but one of the most massive space-takers in my inbox was the thousands upon thousands of press releases that people send me. I understand and respect that it's people's job to do this, but the vast majority wind up in my filters now, unread.

Not for the first time, I thought: There has to be a better way.

The diamonds in the rough

In the end, I also came across quite a few emails that I had missed or did not know I had, but that I really wanted to read and save. Mostly, these had been hiding in plain sight among the thousands of others. There were dozens of these, but three in particular stood out:

  • A financial notification that could now be worth a few thousand dollars, and which I had completely missed a few months ago.
  • An email from a friend who has since passed away. I'd read back in the day but I was very glad to find it again. 
  • Another email from a friend I hadn't heard from in more than a decade. This overgrown email address was the one he had for me, and when he thought out of the blue to try to connect again, it's the one he naturally used. 

Overall, this was a learning experience, and nowhere near as difficult as I feared it might be. But, even if finding these three messages had been the only benefit, the whole thing would have been worth it.