Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons to Clean Out Your Inbox

On occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I was back in the United States recently, clearing out my mother’s home after she died. There were the more obvious, big-ticket items to divide among my siblings: artwork, jewelry and the like. And then there were the more random things to sort through: her enormous collection of greeting cards for every conceivable holiday, a lifetime supply of emory boards, and the chipped, ceramic figures from an erstwhile Christmas manger.

The decluttering bug firmly implanted, I returned home and immediately started clearing out my own home. But I decided not to limit my cleaning frenzy to actual stuff. I also did a virtual declutter.

I’m not one of those die-hard, Inbox Zero types. I’ve come to accept that there will always be a certain base level of flotsam cluttering up my inbox. Otherwise, I’d do nothing but eliminate emails all day long.

But there comes a time – and everyone has a different threshold – when you just can’t bear to look at your inbox splitting at the seams anymore. If you’re like me, you probably dread the idea of sitting down and going through it. Maybe there’s stuff in there that you’re trying to avoid. Or you fear that by managing your inbox, you will necessarily *not* be doing something else with your time.

Today’s post is meant to help you see that by setting aside time to clear out your inbox, you’ll actually feel calmer *and* more productive. Here’s why:

1. You get ideas. I’ve posted before about how I come up with ideas, whether it’s taking a “thinking shower” or going outside for a walk. When I get those ideas, I usually write them down in a little notebook I carry around. But sometimes – and especially if it’s an idea that I plan to save for a later date – I write myself an email about the idea with the thought of subsequently storing it in a file on my computer. Except that sometimes I never actually complete that second step. And so the idea – which has subsequently flown completely out of my mind – is essentially lost, drowning in the sea that is my inbox until I find the time to rescue it (which could be weeks, if not months.) Clearing out your inbox reminds you of those little gems that are hiding in the recesses of your brain.

2. You take action. Once you’ve been reminded of that cure for cancer you came up with while jogging one Thursday afternoon back in March, you might actually be inspired to do something about it. In my case, my virtual decluttering prompted me to send off an essay I’d written (gulp) 18 months ago to a major media outlet and also to get in touch with an agent I’d flagged but never actually contacted. Those were both things I’d been meaning to do for ages. But until I happened upon those items in my inbox, they were languishing on my long To Do list.

3. You reconnect with people. Scrubbing out your inbox also reminds you of friends and relationships that matter. I just found an email that was several months old from a friend who’d moved to Colorado last year. In it, she not only brought me up to speed on what she’s been up to, but reminded me of an idea I’d been meaning to write about for ages (See #1). Another email from an old friend reminded me that his father had passed away. While I’d already sent him a condolence letter, I remembered that I also wanted to send his mother one as well.

4. You feel accomplished. If you’re like me, half of your inbox is filled with things like “Buy bananas!” “Get birthday present for X!,” “Write post on Z!” In other words, half of your inbox is filled with things you’ve already done. (And we all know the joy of retro-actively crossing things off our to do lists!) With the rest of the items, you’re hopefully either executing them (see point #2) or storing them in a virtual home. Either way, you’ll feel like you’re getting stuff done.

5. You relax. And this is perhaps the greatest benefit of all. There’s nothing quite like a good, old-fashioned declutter, whether real or virtual. It takes years off your life…removes pounds from your body…lifts scales from your skin. (O.K., I”m mixing metaphors a bit but you get my drift.) Short of doing yoga, there’s really nothing quite so soothing.

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