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Get Organized: Take Control of a Messy Inbox

Buried under 100 unread emails? Can’t bring yourself to (ever) hit delete? Don't fret—we asked an organizing pro for tips on tackling life’s biggest time suck.

Keeping tabs on emails—whether they're about your tax return or fantasy baseball draft—is no easy feat. But it can be done, even if your inbox is a certified disaster area. Sheree Wu, an organizing whiz from Solution Mavens, shared five tips on how to take the stress out of the task.

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1. Work at it while you unwind.

First step: If your inbox is in need of a major overhaul, set aside a big chunk of time for the task. Make the job more tolerable by enjoying a beer or putting on your all-time favorite movie. "I suggest two hours to start with,” says Wu. After that, you'll want to dedicate up to a half-hour a day to keeping your messages under control. "You have to make a commitment to it just like you would an organized closet," she says. "It's organization for a modern world."

2. Delete by sender.

If deleting is your Achilles heel, Wu recommends sorting by sender to trash en masse. "You could get rid of a hundred at a time, which makes your stress level go down,” she says.

3. Don’t fear folders.

One way to figure out a logical folder and sub-folder set-up: Mimic the system you already have on your computer’s desktop. Then, set up rules that will automatically push emails from certain senders into the appropriate folders. "Something from your girlfriend might be more important than an email from Target," says Wu. "You can set it aside for later, and your inbox can be like your to-do list."

4. Get into a routine.

Wu recommends checking email first thing in the morning. If you can respond in one to two minutes, go ahead and hit send. If the task will take longer, put it on the to-do list, mark the email as unread, and carve out time during your day to make it happen. 

5. Set a daily goal.

A completely empty inbox isn't always possible, but setting a low goal—say, 10 emails by the end of the day—is a good idea. "In a realistic world, you can't get to everything every day, and some of those items will need to be used tomorrow," says Wu. "If you need the email for two weeks from today, file it so that the email pops up then."

For more ideas on how to make the most of your downtime, sign up for our monthly "Off the Clock" newsletter.

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