Declare Email Bankruptcy and Get a Fresh Start

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by email that you wanted to just delete your email account and start over? If so, you are not alone.

Get Out of Jail Card from Monopoly

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com/DNY59

Last week, I tweeted a link to one of my most popular blog posts ever, “Yes, You Can Stay on Top of Email.” Almost immediately, I received two email messages.

The first person said, “I really want to catch-up on email, but I have over twenty-one hundred unread messages in my inbox. Every time I think about trying to catch up, I want to cry. I don’t know where to begin!”

The second person expressed a similar sentiment. She confessed to having more than three thousand unread messages.

My advice was simple: declare email bankruptcy and start over. It’s not worth staying stuck in this state. It’s time for something radical.

You know it’s time for email bankruptcy when:

  • You have more than five hundred unread email messages in your inbox.

  • Your colleagues are complaining about your lack of responsiveness.

  • You have have had someone say more than once in the last week, “Did you get the email I sent to you? I haven’t heard back from you.”

  • You feel anxious or overwhelmed whenever you think about email.

Does this describe you? If so, here are seven steps to declaring email bankruptcy:

  1. Admit the truth. You are too far behind to catch up. Despite your periodic vows to the contrary, you are falling further and further behind. It’s time to do something major to get back on track. Say to yourself, I am declaring email bankruptcy.

  2. Open your email program. Once you do this, immediately go offline. You need to “turn off the faucet, so you can drain the tub.” Email bankruptcy won’t take long—perhaps thirty minutes—but you can’t do it if you are constantly being pinged with new messages.

  3. Sort your messages by name. Usually you can do this by clicking on the “From” field. Now scan down through the list until you come to messages from your boss, colleagues, or key customers.

    Pick the two most recent messages from each and reply to those. But limit yourself to ten messages total. You don’t want to get stuck. If this takes more than fifteen minutes, immediately go to the next step.

  4. Create a new “Processed Mail” folder. This is the only email folder you will ever need. I explain why in “Yes, You Can Stay on Top of Email.” For now, trust me. Create the folder under your primary inbox. If you are, using Gmail, just use the Archive folder.

  5. Move all your messages into this folder. Begin by selecting all your messages (usually ⌘-A on the Mac or Ctrl-A on the PC). Mark them “Read” and drag them into your new Processed Mail folder or Archive.

    Now look at your Inbox folder and take in the view. This is what an empty inbox looks like. By now, you should be feeling a twinge of hope.

  6. Don’t worry about your unread messages. If a message is important, someone will ask you about it. If it wasn’t, you won’t.

    You don’t need to explain that you have declared email bankruptcy. You don’t need to fib or make excuses. Simply say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t see that message. Would you mind re-sending it to me?”

  7. Commit to the “inbox zero” strategy. Your goal is to have your email inbox completely empty by the end of each day. To do this, you will need to learn four new email skills. Again, I explain these in detail in “Yes, You Can Stay on Top of Email.”

    Read this article and print it out for reference. Now turn your email back on and begin to practice what you have learned. The more you do it, the faster you will get. On average, I can process one hundred messages in thirty minutes.

Finally, like financial bankruptcy, you can’t declare email bankruptcy very often. It is an emergency procedure for dire circumstances.

The goal is not to evade your responsibilities but to wipe the slate clean, so that you can stay on top of your responsibilities going forward.

Question: Question: What does it feel like to start over with a clean slate? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Deb Potts

    Oh my goodness is this post ever important. I know someone who recently got fired from a management position. After he left, his email was opened and they found 3,000 unread messages! It can be daunting to handle the firehose of emails we all get, but Michael once again delivers practical, doable content that just might save your job!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Deb. Not dealing with email can be a career-killer.

  • http://www.struggletovictory.com/ Kari Scare

    Starting with a clean slate in any area can be exactly what a person needs to find hope. I hit my reset button several years ago, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Yes, it was one of desperation, but as you mention, there is a point when this becomes necessary. It’s the choice between doing it or losing too much of what means the most to you (relationships). And the best part of this advice is to offer skills to help keep the situation from getting bad again. You see this process on The Biggest Loser. It’s tough, but drastic situations often call for drastic measures.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Exactly. Thanks!

  • Kevin Cabe

    Great post! I found my problem was never deleting emails. I had over 7000 emails going back several years. I committed several hours to fixing this problem. The fresh start was a great idea and needed! I’ve also recently started responding to emails three times a day and after responding I delete them.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      I do the same, Kevin. I reply and then DELETE. It’s wonderful!

    • http://markstruczewski.com/ Mark Struczewski

      But with Gmail, I found out the hard way, you have to be careful. If you delete your deleted email, you could be in a world of hurt. I let Google delete my deleted email automatically every 30 days. It turns out, with Gmail, if you have a thread and some responses in deleted and others in a saved folder and you delete it yourself, it will delete EVERYTHING. I found this out the hard way. I am a Google Apps for Business client (I get Gmail ad-free) and I pay $2 month for 100 GB of storage, so I will never come close to using my storage. If I think I will have to have access to an email in the future, I will Archive it (All Mail). Otherwise, it gets deleted.

      • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

        I rarely delete anything, unless it is an ad or spam. Storage is cheap. Plus it’s one less decision (do I keep it or do I archive it). I just archive everything. Thanks.

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Great point. When I say “delete” I actually mean “archive.” I stopped using folders a year or two ago, and I’m glad I did. Before that, I had dozens and dozens of folders and thousands of saved email. The search option in my archives has been a life saver.

  • http://www.toodarnhappy.com/ Kim Hall

    Just what I needed today! While I have committed to far less clutter elsewhere in my life, I had allowed my email to build up to over 3,000 messages in the inbox alone. I did a major surgical email-dectamy and got the number of messages down to about 500. At this point I can implement the steps you outline to really clean things up and keep that inbox slim and trim. Thanks!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Come back and let us know how this process works for you, Kim.

    • http://www.liveitforward.com/ Kent Julian

      Kim, “email-dectamy” — what a visual picture :)

  • Alistair

    I did exactly this about 10 days ago … I
    moved over 23,000 emails from my inbox to an archive folder (not unread I hasten to add ! ) and since then
    have been dealing with emails instantly as they arrive . They go into one of
    seven folders

    1 – Now

    2 – Next

    3 – Soon

    4 – Later

    5 – Waiting

    6 – Action needed form others

    7 – Done

    8 = Delete !

    Not original I know ( I think I go the list
    form here ) but the relief of seeing an empty inbox is fantastic.

    I’ve also taken to responding to all the junk
    mail with the Unsubscribe option which has greatly reduced the amount of
    incoming mail.

    Add to the empty inbox, I’ve also started to use Evernote with the
    hope of going paperless!

  • http://www.ofc-itspersonal.com/ Becci Hall

    I use a little email addon called “Sanebox” that organizes my emails into folders for me … and, it learns! It automatically comes with @sanebulk, @sanenews, etc. I LOVE IT!

  • http://markstruczewski.com/ Mark Struczewski

    I pride myself on having inbox zero daily. Yes, every day. I process email several times a day and do one of the following:

    If it requires action but I can’t do it right now, I put it in the _Action Required folder (the _ allows the folder to be right under Circles in Gmail).

    If I am waiting on someone to do something, I put it in the folder ! Waiting On (which, because of the !, goes right below _Action Required folder).

    If it is speaking related, it is tagged with the @Speaking tag.

    If it is reference, I tag it with @Reference. To review, @To Review.

    Finally, if it has to do something with my Tony Robbins coaching, it is tagged with a Tony Robbins tag.

    Everything else is either sent to All Mail (Archive) or Deleted.

    I’ve been operating on a zero inbox for many months now.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Great. Sounds like a very good system.

  • Sharon Spano.

    You read my mind. I was just thinking about asking you to do a post on this topic. I respond fine. My greater problem is I can’t keep up with spam deletes no matter how many systems I have to block them. Another post perhaps?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I suggest you use a separate email address, Sharon, for forms you need to fill out online. This way if it gets hijacked its not your main account. Thanks.

  • Shana Opdyke-Carroll

    I started using Michael’s process a few months ago after listening to his 005 podcast. Although I haven’t actually counted the minutes I have saved, I’m positive it is on the order of thousands! Thanks for a great post.

  • Mark Lloyd

    Last year our office moved to Google from Outlook. I decided to use the switch as a way to implement the zero inbox strategy. The keys for me were 1. Google filters to find junk and delete it -including past emails from the same person. 2. Unroll.me to roll up all my subscriptions from Groupon and United Airlines, etc which clog my inbox and 3. ActiveInbox which easily allows me to sort my emails into: Action, Waiting on, projects and trash (or archive) which allows me to know what I need to tackle and what to get rid of.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I love Unroll.me!

  • http://kwinpeterson.com/ Kwin Peterson

    Thanks for revisiting this topic, Michael. I would add step to your solution: turn off the “new mail” notification. This changed my life.

    Things expand in importance according to the attention we give them. When we let the notification that email has arrived interrupt our work, or when we check our email first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and during dinner, we are letting email become our master instead of our tool.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      True. Do you schedule specific times to check email? If so, when?

      • http://kwinpeterson.com/ Kwin Peterson

        At the moment, I check email around 11:00 (after I have accomplished at least one thing that needed to get done today), 1:30 (to pick up lunchtime missives or priorities for the afternoon), and 4:00 (to catch anything that needs my attention before I go home).

        • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

          Good plan. I like your intentionality. Thanks for sharing, Kwin.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I totally agree with that, Kwin. Thanks.

  • Kristin Ingram

    I did this a few months ago and it was so freeing! I no longer dread opening my email box. Now I process or delete all emails every morning. Having a good folder system really helps.

  • Jevonnah Ellison

    Using the strategies from, Yes, You Can Stay on Top of Email, helps me get to an empty inbox each day. As a Leadership Coach for women, my business hinges on prompt email response, so I have to stay on top of things. Keeping things in perspective and unsubscribing from unwanted ads/automated robot emails has been a game changer for me. Thanks, Michael!

  • http://jjandron.afr.net/ Ron Shank

    Okay.. I did it! http://youtu.be/rALX_w5cEeA At least on my personal account. I’ll use a little more strategery in my business account.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I love that clip! If I had known it was out there, I would have included it in the post. Thanks for sharing.

      • http://jjandron.afr.net/ Ron Shank

        You’ll get a chance to repeat it, I’m sure. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Mary Wrigley

    For me my email is just one of my “I don’t know where to begin” issues … and having just read your email post and I’m about to read “Yes, You Can Stay on Top of E-mail” too, I have decided that I am going to apply this theory throughout and “declare bankruptcy” (more or less) to everything, with out actually shutting the door and running away … which would as you say be evading your responsibilities, I just want to wipe the slate
    clean, so that I can get back on top of my responsibilities and move
    forward.

    Thank you for the concept …

  • John Hardy

    Michael, this is great. I am at “inbox zero” every night. I also use rules feature in Outlook. so my inbox is less cluttered. I will have to start using the 2 minute rules.

  • http://Captainwalton.com/ Daniel R Walton

    As I work at sea, I check my email once a week on my common box, twice on my personal and business email. Snail mail often only gets checked once a month. I work under the assumption that if it is important they will send another message. This applies to snail mail. Sure I have missed some things (like the Michael Hyatt Goal setting Class) but I manage and i am happy. That is what matters to me. As for bills they are all automated with a service and we try to maintain a debt free life, that helps a lot.

  • Pat68

    I like the idea of moving everything to a Processed folder and basically starting with a clean slate. I can always do a search and recover any of those in the Processed folder should I ever need them.

  • http://brucercross.com/ Bruce R. Cross

    Yes…..a declaration for sure.
    Fortunately I have maintained a near Zero in box policy for years……there are only a handful of messages (10 or so) that I keep in front of me until I get a chance to read more closely. It works like magic……and those pesky emails like unwanted ads…or the pass this email or the world will end kind…….HIT THE BIG RED OR BLACK X!!!
    Nothing magic about this post that common sense won’t cure…..however, the post seeks to give PERMISSION to those that need it…..loved the advice…….GO THEREFORE INTO ALL THE EMAIL WORLD and DELETE!!

  • Nadia McDonald

    Definitely I can empathize with this nightmare. Once the computer screen is turned on, behold, there are a billion emails in blue print ready to be read. This is an anxiety killer, because one wants to reply. Unfortunately, there are too many and so little time. This lead me to open an additional account, but it frustrated me more due to the fact the emails were incessant. I endorse a clean slate.

  • http://firstthingsproductivity.com/ Brandon Vaughn

    Probably the best resource on this topic is by Michael Linenberger. Check him out on Amazon or on his own website (http://www.michaellinenberger.com/). Highly recommended! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpjSTPlEDLQ

  • http://www.jelizabethyoung.com/ Elizabeth Young

    Any suggestions on syncing? I implemented the strategies and am loving inbox zero, however, my Macs (laptop and desktop) are not syncing.

    I have gmail and bluehost accts and use the default apple mail program.

    What’s the best setup so my inboxes sync on all devices?

    Thank you!

    • chasflemming

      I was about to type the same question!

      • http://www.jelizabethyoung.com/ Elizabeth Young

        Ha. Well I ended up running all emails thru gmail, which I’m still in the process of testing. So far it has been the easiest setup I’ve tried.
        On my iPhone I now use the gmail app and it’s been good.

        I found Mac mail way too inconsistent.

        Hope that helps.

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    I haven’t come to this point Michael, that would be crazy to have 3,000 unread emails! I’ve taken the Dan Miller approach and work in uninterrupted blocks of time, I devote specific time to checking email.

  • Kimmi Sue Walrath Doerr

    I love this. Right now I have two email addresses and both are over 1500 emails. Will be doing this.

  • Tamara

    Thanks for these simple steps! I realized that I was on too many subscription lists so I’ve unsubscribed to everything that isn’t really important or key to my daily success. I’m tired of being marketed ti at every turn. It’s disruptive. It’s made a huge reduction in my inbox!

  • http://ClassicallyTrained.net Jon D Harrison

    I had to give myself permission to do something like this a while back. I applied a strategy I learned from application of some of David Allen’s GTD appraoch and inspired by the video game Tetris.

    Yes, Tetris.

    http://classicallytrained.net/tetris-time-management/

  • http://www.nickcerda.org/ Nick Cerda

    Your email and productivity tips are spot on. A few years ago I found myself in an email heavy organization and it was tempting to just let them stack up. But your system for processing email is easy and efficient and helped me stay up with the email load and excel at my job. I’m now in a new position with a new organization but still utilizing the incredible productivity tips you offer here. Thanks!

  • http://juliesunne.com/ Julie Sunne

    Working on it right now, Michael. Thanks for the motivation.

  • Bill Hendricks

    Doesn’t an “inbox zero” strategy assume that one actually CAN (and should) respond to all the e-mails one gets in a day? I get lots of e-mails that need no response. And lots that can be responded to in short, quick replies. But countless of us knowledge workers are receiving e-mails that ask us to do some real thinking and put care into our responses. It’s easy enough to say, “Well, then, reply that you’ll work on a longer response and then set those e-mails aside until you can formulate such a response.” But that just creates a new pile. At some point, thoughtfulness reaches a limit—because, after all, we humans ARE limited. Not sure our technology has come to grips with that fact.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      No, not at all. It simply means you process them. Check the article I link to in the post about staying on top of email.

  • http://www.businatomy.com/ Adam Witmer

    Great post, Michael. I work in an industry where retaining e-mail is important and have gotten in the bad habit of keeping everything in my inbox. I love your suggestion and will implement it tomorrow. Great idea.

    • Pat68

      My company is more proactive and every so many days, when you log in to your account, you get a message to reviews e-mails in the Review folder. If not read and classified by a certain date, the messages are deleted. And believe me, they do it! Many of us have looked for e-mails long after the fact and found them gone. And to be honest, I rarely look into this folder when prompted. I know it’s full of lots of e-mails and I just don’t have the interest of energy to wade through them. I try to be more proactive and file away e-mails as they come in and any that end up in the Review folder I just assume (rightly or wrongly) are mostly e-mails I’m not interested in saving.

  • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

    Starting with a clean slate feels like freedom! I recently “retired” an email account I’ve had for over a decade, effectively declaring “emali bankruptcy”. I was getting nearly 400 emails per DAY at that account. Closing it down took a huge weight off my shoulders. I essentially followed most of your steps, and I can tell you the result was worth the effort (and courage) required.

  • Daniel Hernandez

    About to give it a shot. Thank Michael!

  • kringlebertfistyebuns

    Gosh, and here I thought I was bad for having several hundred *read* messages in my inbox. Guess I’m just a small-potatoes packrat, though.

  • http://www.emailtiger.com.au Steuart Snooks

    Great article and there IS a way to catch up on an email backlog WITHOUT simply declaring bankruptcy and deleting everything. This is especially important for those who would feel uncomfortable doing this and/or are concerning about deleting message they need to know about. I’ve recommended this idea to hundreds of workshop participants over past 8 years with great results and feedback. See how to do this at http://emailtiger.squarespace.com/email-tip-7/