Librarians, Let Go of Emails: 3 Steps to Empty Your Inbox and Do Work that Matters

Samantha Minnis —  February 18, 2016 — 3 Comments

photo of laptop and vase of tulips with text "3 steps to empty your inbox & do work that matters"Decluttering is a popular topic. I’ll be honest: I love it when I do it, but it is not my natural setting. My natural setting is collecting. However, there is one area in my life where I have the cold, dispassionate, ruthless decluttering approach of any home organization maven: emails.

I have hesitated to write this post in case I curse myself, but I bragged to a few friends about my email prowess and so far my email related hubris hasn’t caught up with me, so I’m ready to shout it from the mountain tops: there are only ever about 10 emails in my inbox. At a maximum.

As library professionals we get a lot of emails. As leaders we need to be able to see what’s new information when it’s new and get to old information quickly when we need it. How do you do that when your email inbox is at 100 emails, 200 emails, dare I say, 300 emails?

Sure, new emails rise to the top and sure, you can search, and sure, you can flag things. But all of that is so much easier when there are about ten emails in your inbox. It saves you time and it sets you up nicely for when you are going to be out of the office for an extended period of time.

Here is how I do it:

When I get to work, I do a quick run through of my emails. I go through everything in the inbox and do one of three things:

1) Deal with it right now

If it will take me five minutes or less (a quick “Ok, thanks!” to let someone know I’ve received the email, for example) or if I’m just going to delete it, I do it right now.

2) File it in a folder

I have a few folders for ongoing projects or email I’m going to need to reference sometime in the future. In addition to folders pertaining to certain projects, I have one folder for general future reference, as well as a folder for time off requests, and a folder for job feedback. I try not to keep too many emails, even in these other folders. Really test yourself: can you come up with three examples of times you will really need this information? Is this information stored anywhere else?

3) Flag it

These are the very rare items that stay in my inbox. These are actionable items or information I will need for a specific date in the near future. If I get a confirmation email for a professional development event in two weeks, I flag that email so I have the information at the ready. The flag helps me remember to delete it when the event is over. Or, if I received a message about a sink that needs to be fixed in the building, I’ll flag the email until I have time to put in a work order. Once I’ve dealt with the task (put in the work order), I delete the email.

For the rest of the day, I just deal with new emails in one of those three ways. The flagged emails get incorporated in my byzantine to-do list system (which is very good, but a post for another day. It involves Outlook, sticky notes, dry erase markers, and dance breaks).

I also clean out folders periodically. I have recurring tasks that remind me to clean out my deleted emails (once a week: delete everything older than a week), my sent emails (once a month: delete everything older than six months), and my future reference folders (once a month: delete things that are no longer relevant).

This may sound like it takes a lot of time and the initial set up will take a bit of time, but ultimately you save so much time not having to hunt for things and you save yourself so much embarrassment by not missing out on things! If you have a lot of emails in your inbox right now, don’t feel overwhelmed. If you can carve out some time each day to deal with what’s in your inbox and make folders and delete stuff, great! If you are swamped for time, just deal with the new stuff that comes into your email in the way I’ve described and maybe sort through one or two older emails every day. You’ll catch up before you know it!

I have used this system for something like 8 years and in 4 different positions and it has always been effective. I know some people are more nervous about deleting emails than I am and make a folder for all of their emails and keep them for a month, and then clean out that folder. There are lots of ways to make this system your own but I would really encourage you to keep your inbox between 0 and 10 emails and to regularly clean out your future reference folders in whatever shape they take. Join me in the joyous world of email decluttering!

3 responses to Librarians, Let Go of Emails: 3 Steps to Empty Your Inbox and Do Work that Matters


    Same! I am an email queen, but my saved links on Facebook are quite another matter. I do a monthly FB clean, and it’s ridiculous.

    I also have been thinking more about what kinds of things are actually beneficial for me to read. I am interested in A LOT of things related to librarianship and information science, but I need to parse it down. I love marketing, but I know I should be focused more on information literacy, OER/OA, and instructional design. Diversity is also very important to me. I just need to hit unsubscribe on some things.


      Yay email queens! I totally feel your struggle with saved links! When you have so many interests, it’s hard to pare it down. The thing that helps me is knowing that I can find that information when I really need it, and when I don’t really need it, it’s not actually going to help that much. Have faith in your ability to search when the topic is timely! And if nothing else, enjoy your email queen crown! 🙂

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  1. Can Shorter Meetings Improve Your Library? « Library Lost & Found - March 1, 2016

    […] like time spent on email inbox management, time spent in needlessly long meetings is time that you could spend doing transformative library […]

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