Buried in Email? Declare #EmailBankruptcy and End the Madness

Are you a filer or a piler?

It’s an essential productivity question, perhaps even a existential one. Do you operate better with everything tucked away in its own tangible or virtual folder (neatly labeled, perhaps by a detailed taxonomy of your own creation)? Or do you like things in piles? You know roughly what’s in the pile, but you’d rather scan through a pile quickly than try to remember where you’ve filed something?


Overwhelmed by Email? Declare #EmailBankruptcy and End the Madness


Image: Public Domain via Pixabay


I’m a filer. Your jaw might drop if you saw the number of folders in my mail client. Similarly, I may have downloaded nearly 200 phone apps, but they’re all neatly organized into folders on just two screens.

So, for me, my email inbox is actually my Inbox. A To-Do list. It’s where I keep emails that I believe require my action or thoughtful response.

Some years ago, though, as my Inbox quantity creeped into the multiple hundreds, I realized I was feeling oppressed by that Inbox. Doing the math I knew that thoughtfully responding to hundreds of messages would take hours. Hours that I never seemed to have free.

And I realized something else: I was hanging on to a fantasy that as long as the email was in my Inbox, I hadn’t missed the boat. I could still respond and be a “good” friend, colleague, etc.

But I had to get real with myself. No one is sitting around waiting for me to answer a four-month-old email. Not even me.

So, I decided to do something radical: I declared #EmailBankruptcy.

Here are the steps I took and that I continue to take on a regularly scheduled basis. Try it. You just may like it!

5 Steps to Getting to Inbox Zero By Declaring Email Bankruptcy

1. Scan those emails.

Even if you’re a filer, act like a piler for a moment and scan those emails. Look at any sender or subject line that might be hiding something really critical … a request for proposal, an invitation to speak, a query from a reporter. Anything that could mean money in the bank or *significant* exposure for your work.

Once you’ve declared email bankruptcy for the first time, try to keep this as a new habit. Scan new emails at least once a day. (I do it more often.)

Yes, you should take a few seconds to immediately Delete, File, Forward, or Reply if you can. If you can’t, and you leave it in your Inbox, it represents a to-do. Try to minimize that.

But even if you leave it there, if you’ve touched it at least once, when it comes to declaring email bankruptcy again you’ll feel certain there’s nothing life-changing you’ll be missing.

2. Create a folder for this bankruptcy.

I would never advocate just deleting all your emails. Instead I recommend you create a folder for the time period you’re bankrupting. Perhaps you’ll be calling it 2015 Email Bankruptcy. Or I file by quarters, e.g. Q415.

3. Move everything in your inbox into the folder you’ve created for that time period.

Kind of self-explanatory. Just move those emails over into the folder you’ve created for that purpose. The key thing about filing vs. deleting these emails is that you can always go back to them.

So, the emails will be included in your Search when someone references an old email you never answered. And in fact you might find yourself with idle time to kill … on a plane without WIFI (Heaven forbid!) or a meeting that’s gotten unbearably boring … and it’s not out of the question that you might tackle the previous quarter’s bankrupted emails and answer a few.

I find that when I start with an abject apology and a check-in on whether I can still contribute, help, answer or weigh in, people are pretty shocked I replied at all, and totally forgiving. We’re ALL overwhelmed by email.

4. Announce you’ve declared #EmailBankruptcy.

That’s right. Just admit it. I tend to announce it Friends-only on Facebook and often announce it internally to work teams. I used to publish a post on my blog, even.

I say, “I’ve declared #EmailBankruptcy, so if you’ve been waiting for a reply from me on an email, I would greatly appreciate if you could re-send to bump it up into my Inbox again.” (Don’t worry, most situations have worked out and life has gone on without you, strangely enough, and you probably won’t be inundated.)

5. Keep it up!

The hardest part is probably keeping up the discipline of scanning those emails to make sure you won’t miss something life-changing, and keeping the #emailbankruptcy discipline up.

Don’t do it once a year. Do it once a quarter. Once a month, even, if you have the stomach for it. You’ll find that you get better and faster at email triage.

You get more motivated to unsubscribe from unnecessary emails and notifications, and you train people in your life to make their emails more actionable and more rare.

That’s my recipe. I’m at Inbox: 13 here at the end of my work day. I’ll make sure it’s down in single digits by morning before I start all over again!

So, what do you think? Questions? Do you think this method could work for you?

Elisa Camahort Page

Chief Community Officer, SheKnows Media and BlogHer Co-founder






Twitter: @ElisaC Instagram: @ElisaCP



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