Is It Time to Declare Email Bankruptcy?

Last week, I twittered 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.

Petition to File for Bankruptcy - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #8359066

Photo courtesy of ©

The first person said, “I really want to catch-up on email, but I have over 2,100 unread messages in my inbox. Every time I think about trying to catch up, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach. I don’t know where to begin!” The second person expressed a similar sentiment, confessing to more than 2,500 unread messages.

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My advice to people in this situation is to declare email bankruptcy and start over. You know it’s time to do this when:

  • You have more than 500 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, “I sent you an email about that. Didn’t you get it?”
  • You feel anxious 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 radical 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 30 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 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, just trust me. Create the folder under your primary inbox.
  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.” Now simply drag them into your new Processed Mail folder. Now look at your Inbox folder and take in the view. This is what an empty inbox looks like. By now, you should start feeling a twinge of hope.
  6. Don’t worry about your unread messages. Chances are, someone will ask you about a message you have filed. Count on it. 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 100 messages in 30 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: Is it time for you to declare email bankruptcy?
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  • Ron Edmondson

    Michael, this is a great post. I am usually the one saying "I sent you an email" or "Didn't you get my email?". I know a few people in my world that I hope will read this.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I have a few in my world, too!

    • Aussiejoy

      Me too man!

  • @ServingStrong

    Tremendous advice. Many times if a message very important, it will come back around again. I bet most people will be surprised at how much junk they really have lying around.


  • Mike Rapp

    Let me just give a little plug for GMail here. Their "conversation view" is a life saver for keeping track of email. While you will still receive the same volume of email as before, when sorted in Conversations, I find I can get through them a lot quicker.

    "Starring" conversations is another great little time saver as well.

  • Jason

    Mike, I would venture to guess that a good portion of these 2,500 emails are junk mail. I have found it very helpful to set up a seperate account that I use when ordering items online or signing up for newsletters. If I were in their shoes I'd let them have the house, or in this case the email account and start fresh.

  • Bill Whitt

    Thanks for this advice, Michael. I once had over 500 unread messages, and I made the decision when I migrated to an IMAP server just to mark them all read. (Most of them were bacon anyway.) No negative results… just a great feeling of being back on top of things!

  • Forrest Long

    I was recently off line for six days with server problems and my email really piled up. When I finally got the problem solved I deleted most without reading and started again. I probably spend too much time reading emails that aren't important anyway. Thanks for the advice in this post. The internet is wonderful, as long as it serves us and we don't become slaves to it.

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  • Cassandra Frear

    I know I shouldn’t be laughing, but I am. Terrible of me. Please forgive.

    I should have more empathy, and I do — I do. Enough to post this as a link in my sidebar in order to help those souls who need it.

    Before that, I will leave a quote with you:

    “Our two greatest problems are gravity and paper work. We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paper work is overwhelming.”

    - Dr Wember von Braun,
    quoted from Time Management for Unmanageable People

    • Diana

      Terrific quote! Thanks for sharing:-) I am laughing myself as I hear a crescendo of voices crying out, "I am declaring email bankruptcy!"

  • totai

    Excellent post!!

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  • Daniel D

    Indulge me with my slightly off topic response. I think this post could be applicable to more than just someone’s inbox. Not necessarily trying to go all philosophical but life, like an inbox, can many times get overwhelming. The influx of inbound (noise and distraction) coupled with the “junk” mail (hurts, hang-ups, etc) that takes up memory space can all be debilitating over time. While declaring bankruptcy of a life isn’t really an option, starting fresh in many ways, certainly is. Starting fresh for most doesn’t mean giving up (although we should be “surrendering” daily to Christ), it means reflecting, reprioritizing, realigning, and refocusing. Removing the things that bog us down or at the very least slowing down long enough to asses and make corrections so that we can move to creating life versus just responding to it. For those in business it may also mean cutting loose that idea or project that seemed good but is now just weighing everything else down.

  • Sandra King

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I won't tell you how many messages I'm dealing with – including some from myself, photos,etc. Let's just say it's more than "what they said." This is another giant I can now effectively stone as I continue to battle clutter in my quest for the simple(r) life. You rock!

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  • Tobias Schelle

    Greattttttt! Well, I thinks your advices are extremely useful for everybody, specially for me. I have more than 6000 unread mails in my inbox. Thanks a lot.

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  • Bankruptcy Adelaide

    Yes totally agree with the other comment. Thanks for sharing this email bankruptcy.

  • Tom Rowe

    John … the email bankruptcy that we often read about is a Chapter 7 … complete liquidation. Move everything out the Inbox and forget about it. Or delete it. Knowing a little about the bankruptcy laws, instead of a Chapter 7 I recommend a Chapter 13, which is a reorganization. Much like you recommend, move all your emails into a “Chapter 13″ folder. Now you have a fresh start to move forward in your Inbox. But, as with a real Chapter 13, you have to make periodic payments for a period of time to get out of debt. With email, work your way through the Chapter 13 folder, 5 or 10 a day … something quick and easy. When you process your last email, delete the Chapter 13 folder – your email debt has been discharged!