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How to Use Search to Tame Your Inbox

Although today is both Mother’s Day and my son’s birthday, I asked for a very strange gift…two hours alone with my inbox. When I ended my week I had 918 unread e-mails, and the last thing I wanted was to begin aother week with the shadow of Outlook looming heavily over me.

This happens from time to time, and when it does, just digging out becomes more time consuming than I really can afford. Suddenly the important e-mails that are wedged between completely inappropriate cold pitches and spammy Twitter direct messages become lost. Clients become agitated – or worse, don’t become clients – and friends begin to wonder what happened to me.

On days like today when it’s time to implement what I call the slash and burn method, the most effective tool that I use is my mail program’s search function. I use Microsoft Outlook, but any program with an inbox search window will work just as well.

Step 1: Begin with your unread e-mails – While you most likely have mail that you opened with just a glance that needs a longer look, you’ve got to clear the clutter first. I confine my beginning searches to just my unread mail folder.

Step 2: [Bulk] – My spam filters work fairly well, but I still receive quite a lot of bulk mail, the majority of which I do not need to reply to or even read. My favorite way to slash and burn through my unwanted e-mails is to begin by searching for [Bulk] in the subject line.

Step 3: Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare – Oh my! – Yes, it is important if someone sent you a direct message about how to find your Facebook friends on Twitter. Of course you need to know where your buddies ate dinner last night. But if you have your social media settings sending messages and updates to your inbox, this is a great place to delete, delete, delete! One of my favorite things to type into my inbox search is “Direct message.” (Delete, delete, delete…)

Step 4: The Usual Suspects – Do you subscribe to product updates from HP, Google alerts on your favorite celeb, or have you ever bought anything ever from Amazon (ever)? Chances are that some of the e-mails that you generally ignore are actually eating up quite a bit of space in your inbox and making that “Unread e-mail” number more overwhelming than it needs to be. Take a look at what you most often delete, fill in the search field with those keywords, and then before you delete, seriously consider unsubscribing. It only takes on Mother’s Day spent cleaning out your e-mail to learn your lesson.

Step 5: Let the cream rise to the top… Not only do you need to focus on what e-mails should disappear, but you need to find the most important e-mails. I tend to search my entire inbox, not just my unreads, for client addresses in the event that something slipped by accidentally.

What are your best tips for taming an unruly inbox?

Resources:

2. How to Organize Your Inbox – by Fred Brunel

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