My Simple System for Organized Email.

August 9, 2017

My Simple system for Organized Email Title

My Simple system for Organized Email

I have dealt with a lot of email over the past decade. In graduate school, we lived and died by email, both as students and TAs. Entire semesters of coursework would sit in my inbox for weeks at a time.

When I worked in a Congressional office, the staff would literally process and respond to thousands of emails every day collectively. My inbox would see hundreds of new emails a day, easily, most of which required a response. 

I get fewer emails today than in years past, but I still get far more emails a day than I care to read. As someone who works from home, I rely heavily on my email. Email is my primary method of contact with co-workers throughout the day. If my email is disorganized and too many messages sit in my inbox, I start to miss tasks and information and then a domino effect follows. 

No matter what you do – small business owner, stay-at-home parent, consultant, freelancer – you probably rely heavily on your email too. Or at least have insurance and the city utility company sending you notices that you shouldn’t miss.

I was in line the other day when the woman at the cash register next to me showed the cashier her inbox … I think she had something like 11,000 emails in there. None of us should be receiving (or staring at) this sheer amount of correspondence. 

A system is totally necessary for my peace of mind and effective work-flow, which overflows into my ability to be fully present with my kids and husband when I’ve checked out of work. I bet a system would help you be a little less stressed and a little more effective too.

So let’s talk about email for a second.

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(I’ll credit my husband in part for this post. He’s been at Inbox Zero since…forever. Since he was in middle school, probably. He’s ridiculously organized when it comes to email. And even though none of the rest of us can actually achieve that, it’s hard to live with someone as organized as him without a few habits rubbing off. His system convinced me to get some control over my inbox several years ago, which in turn inspired this post.)

Whether you have 1000 emails in your inbox or 11k, it’s TOO MANY. Picture your inbox as a physical box. In your house. It should have – a few pieces of mail in it. Not thousands. 

Think of it this way: email is a system that provides you with information that you act upon. It’s not some elaborate lazy filing system (guilty! Haven’t we all treated our inboxes that way?)

First, I’ll give you my quick system for *keeping* my inbox under control. Then I’ll give you a few more quick pointers for getting yours in line.

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  1. If my inbox has more than one page of emails, there are too many. Once there are too many, I block out time to process, delete, file, etc., until I’m back down to one page. Is zero emails realistic? Maybe not. But one page should be. My gmail has 50 emails on a page. There’s no reason I need more than 50 emails in a “current” state at any one time. If there are more than that, it just means I’m way behind and need to spend some time knocking out tasks.
  2. Someone (maybe Michael Hyatt?) once write that you should only touch an email one time. Although I don’t *always* abide by this rule (I’ll note the exception below), I try to do this for most of my emails. First of all, most of your email is junk. Do you really want to give your time and energy to junk email? I don’t.  Touching each (most) email once helps me save A TON of time. When an email comes in, I open it (or read the subject line).  If it takes less than 3 minutes to process, I do one of three things (exception below):
    • Delete immediately.
    • FILE (more details on this below).
    • Add to an active to-do list AND THEN DELETE. Just following those simple steps should help you immediately take back some control over your inbox.
  3. About that exception above. I’ve organized my email settings so that my work emails and personal all come to one inbox. Some people function better with several inboxes but I can only manage one with any sanity. Some of my work emails require more than one touch. Sometimes I’m waiting on a response or a status update or need another team member to respond before I can execute a step. Regardless, these, personal actual correspondence, and emails that take more than a few minutes to process are basically the only emails that are allowed to sit in my inbox (and really, if I followed step #4, that shouldn’t be happening much either) until a scheduled regular daily (or several times a week) time when I sit down and tackle them. NOTHING should sit in your inbox indefinitely.
  4. Remember Step #2 above, where I talked about filing? Make files for your archives. Some of mine are things like “Photos of the Kids that I need to print” or “Trip to Cancun.” I have individual files for various clients whose emails I need to still access. I also have a file where I dump all of my “read this when I get time or while I watch Netflix” (I highly highly recommend this kind of file – a “non-crucial but I’ll get to it eventually” pile. Then you can actually get to it eventually without constantly weeding through it.). Even for those random emails that you kind of want to read but don’t have time, but might later – HAVE A FILE.
  5. Remember Step #3 above? Never ever go through your email without your to-do list and your calendar. As you delete, write down tasks and appointments. Need to follow up on something, produce something, schedule something?  Most of us use our inbox as a sort of loose “to-get-to” list. Folks, this won’t work. If it doesn’t go onto the calendar or turn into an actual task to execute with a deadline, it’s not going to happen. If it’s not one of these and it doesn’t go into your “read later” file, then delete it. 

That’s it! That’s how I keep my email under control.

Ok. But what about those 11k emails in your inbox right now? How do you even start? 

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  1. First, start with the new emails. Don’t tackle the old.
  2. Create 4 or 5 basic folders to begin – “Work,” “Friends,” etc. Once an email is on your to-do list or calendar, archive it in the correct folder or delete it. 
  3. Touch every email that comes in today ONCE. Get it on your to-do list and delete. When in doubt, unsubscribe. 
  4. Did I mention unsubscribe? All of those lists, ads, promotionals – unless you literally wake up excited to see that email in your inbox, unsubscribe.
  5. Do this with every NEW email that comes to your inbox this week. Then slowly start working your way backwards. 

Do you feel less overwhelmed yet? You should! If you are still experiencing email paralysis, there’s hope. I’m working on a list of 100 ways to escape email paralysis. As soon as it’s completed, I’ll send it your way – just provide your email here

Inspired and ready to simplify other areas in your life? Start with this collection of posts.

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A Day in Our Life / Fall 2015.

December 6, 2015



I felt like it had been a while since I’d written one of these, but when I went to look – over a YEAR since I last tracked our daily routine.

When I talk about juggling working from home and being a stay-at-home mommy to a once-infant-now-toddler, I often don’t have much that is super magical to say. My best answers? There is no guidebook for this. You did not take this class in college. No schedule can save you from the bad days.

You may be the most routine-setting, goal-driven, carefully planned person on earth, but nothing can prepare you for what happens to your schedules and routines when you become a mom. Add on to that trying to continue working from your home office – there are no answers that will carry you through all of it.

All this is to say that these occasional posts are not some sort of fantastic recipe for work-at-home success. My systems may or may not work for you and our schedules may be everything or nothing alike. But I write these posts to encourage you towards the possibilities.

It is not possible to have everything work well all of the time, but it is probably possible to juggle more. It is not possible to say “yes” to everything, but it might be possible to be more efficient with your time. This is what is working best for us, right now, today.

This semester, thanks to Mark’s schedule, my primary “work days” have been Mondays and Wednesdays. (This has changed in the past couple of weeks as his program has begun to conclude and we’re working on our move, but I want to preserve a snapshot for us of what the early part of this fall was like.)

Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays have tended to be the days when I’m the primary parent and are normally full of play-dates and errands and trips to the park, with me squeezing in a little work during nap time or after bedtime, or sometimes none at all. I’d like to capture those days too, but for now, here’s a snapshot of a regular “working day” for us.

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6:30 a.m. (ish) – Miles calls to us from his crib. I bring him into our bed and try to convince him that it’s still night-time and that he should go back to sleep. We play this game for 30 minutes and give up. Time to start the day.

7:00 a.m. –  Mark feeds Miles breakfast and makes a smoothie for us all. I turn on my computer and start answering emails and setting a plan for the day.

8:00 – Miles and Mark play and then set out for a walk and a coffee run. I jump on to a conference call.

9:30 – Mark and I drink coffee on the couch, read a devotional together and catch up while Miles plays nearby.

10:30 – I start cleaning up the main living areas while Miles enjoys a snack. Mark packs up for the day and heads to school on his bike.

11:00 – Miles and I play, read books, sing, fold laundry, etc.

11:30 – Miles lays down for a nap. I sit back down at my computer for some more uninterrupted work time.

1:15 – I set out lunch for Anna to feed Miles after his nap.

1:30 – Anna arrives and Miles wakes up for lunch and playtime.

1:30 – 4:00 – Work-time.

4:00 –  Anna leaves and Mark comes home. I make dinner.

5:30 – We all eat together. If the weather is nice, we’ll go for a walk after dinner or to a nearby park.

7:00 – One of us manages bath time and pre-bedtime play and routines for Miles while the other one cleans the kitchen.

8:00 – Miles goes to bed. If Mark has homework due or I have a deadline, we’ll both work for a while. If our schedules are clear, we’ll watch one of our shows until 10:30 or 11:00.

11:00 – Lights out!

Our schedule this fall has been unusual in an amazing way because Mark has had a lot of open time that he’s able to spend with at home and with Miles. That’s made juggling our schedules this fall so much easier than it was last year.

That will change once he transitions back into a full-time job which will happen in the New Year (eek! How are we done with school?!) and then we’ll have to find another new normal.

What do normal days look like for your family?

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A Day in the Life

October 7, 2014

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Working from home and caring for our three-month old is a sanity-strengthening exercise. On the one hand, I’m unarguably the most mature person in the room for most of the day. On the other hand, by about 4:00 p.m. on days with no conference calls, I begin to wonder if the English language has been permanently reduced to overly inflected speech and farm animal sounds.

Some days seem like a blur of “Miles-conference call – Miles – notes – Miles – dash through 30 emails – Miles -dinner – Miles – project – Miles- 30 more emails – bed.” Sometimes I wonder if I could be more efficient, be a better worker, be a more attentive mom. Ok, not sometimes – every day.

So I tracked myself for a day. Here’s a little peek into our whirlwind.

5:45 a.m. Miles begins to wail. I pretend that it’s just a dream and continue to hide under the covers. Mark nudges me. I give up. Two against one. I feed Miles.

6:30 a.m. I stumble into the kitchen and start heating the water for the French press.

6:45 a.m. – Knock out some invoicing and emails.

7:00 a.m. – Start perusing the contents of the fridge for smoothie supplies. Get sidetracked cleaning out the fridge. Remember that I’m making a smoothie and refocus. 1 banana, the rest of the raspberries, orange juice…

7:15 a.m. – Mark walks into the kitchen and splits the smoothie. We drink them while we do a devotional together.

8:00 a.m. – Mark leaves. I jump on a conference call.

8:40 a.m. – Call is over. I hear Miles stirring in the bedroom. From then until 10:00 a.m. is Mommy-and-Miles time. We sing, tickle, talk, do tummy-time, and get dressed. Miles nurses again and falls asleep.

10:00 a.m. – I work, do laundry, straighten up the house, and shower. I feel very productive until I get sidetracked on Facebook trying to track down someone from church. I remind myself to reconsider deleting my Facebook account.

11:45 a.m. – Miles is awake. More tummy-time and singing. Miles practices in his Bumbo chair and plays on the floor. Mommy gets lunch.

1:15 p.m. – Another nap for Miles. More work for Mommy.

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2:00 p.m. – Miles spends 20 minutes trying to eat his stuffed cat, Murphy. I send videos to my parents. “Look at how adorable your grandchild is! And so talented!” We read “The Story of Jesus” (the edible cardboard version). I keep working while Miles plays in his gym.

3:00 p.m. – I conduct a phone interview. I take notes on my laptop while sitting on the floor by Miles. He is sufficiently entertained by the strange faces I make in between questions and by his gym for the duration of the call. When the call ends, Miles eats again and we head to the grocery store and Home Depot. Miles sleeps, waking briefly to greet the checkout guy at H.E.B. At Home Depot, I check to see if I am the last person of the season to look for outdoor cushions. I am, and there are none in stock. I briefly consider buying a white pumpkin instead. Miles wakes up. I leave the pumpkin.

5:00 p.m. – It’s a beautiful afternoon. Miles eats again. Then I put Miles into his Ergo and we walk to the mailbox.

5:45 p.m. – Miles continues to eat Murphy and sits in his swing nearby while I start chili. I decide to add mushrooms. I provide Miles with a running monologue while I cook. “Garlic is really the key here, Miles. And try to use fresh basil.” I wonder if there is a market for cooking shows for children 2 years and younger.

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6:45 p.m. – Mark comes home and leaves again to run. I bathe Miles. Mark and I eat. Miles tries to eat Murphy again. I decide that the mushrooms are a good addition. Then I google “Are mushrooms healthy?” and find out that there is an entire group of people who think that mushrooms are potentially carcinogenic. I tell Mark that I’ve raised our collective chances for cancer.

7:30 p.m. – I try to put Miles to bed. Mark protests and takes Miles from me.  They play.

8:15 p.m. – Miles starts to wail. I feed him once more and put him to bed. I’m working on a more structured nap/bedtime system. He drops off almost immediately. Success! I drink a glass of wine and start to work on a blog post while Mark does homework.

8:45 p.m. – Mark finishes his homework. We find another disturbing documentary on Netflix (this one is about people who have escaped from cults) and turn it on. Miles starts to wail. So much for bedtime. We play with Miles and watch the documentary. Miles finally goes to sleep only well after it ends. We are failures at bedtime.

11:00 p.m. – Sleep!

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Live a Creative Life: Ten Actions to Take Every Day

October 1, 2013


I blog, in part, because I believe in creativity. Humans are enormously gifted and the creative potential of any given individual should amaze us. Sadly, many of us, for either lack of time, inspiration, or courage, simply float from day to day, ignoring our own incredible potential and simply neglecting the creative gifts with which we are endowed. So here are some action steps you can begin to take today to tap into your creative potential.

1. Surround yourself with creative people.

One of the most frightening things in the world is the negative opinions of other people. On the other hand, the encouragement and examples of others can also inspire us to do things that we never thought possible. Surround yourself with people who are creative, who are doing creative work, and who encourage you to do the same.

Does this mean that you can only be friends with starving musicians? No. Creativity can be found in the offices of CEOs, of politicians, of small business owners, of medical professionals, and of freelancers. Creativity is an attitude towards life. Find people that inspire you to live better and befriend and learn from them.

2. Journal.

Journaling is a wonderful discipline and creative practice. Committing to daily or weekly journaling doesn’t mean that you have to spend hours each day pouring your soul out on a piece of paper in the privacy of a closet. Journaling simply means that you assess your current position, goals,  and actions and continue to reevaluate, learn from past mistakes, and set new goals as time goes on.

Journaling can be wonderfully inspiration: there is nothing quite as inspiring as knowing that you are more productive, closer to your dreams, or more mature than you were a year or five years ago. In my journal, I often collect quotes, lines from sermons, and even memorable scraps like pictures and pressed flowers. Your journal can be big and bulky or a simple notepad. You can journal every day or once a week. The point is to do it.

3. Take pictures.

I wrote another post on why taking pictures is important. Taking pictures helps you to remember past events, people, and places and inspires you to be creative and to try new things.

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4. Read writing by creative people.

Read good writing. Try novels, editorials, classics, epic poetry, travel memoirs, and biographies. Read about what other people have done, by people who are writing well, and inspiration can’t help but follow. Personally, right now I’m so inspired by the amazing collections of cooking memoirs. Amateur cooks and successful chefs are creative artists and I love reading about their processes, motivation, failures, successes, and perspective.

The Internet allows all of us to tap into the genius of incredible creatives. I read a variety of blogs by inspiring creatives every day. Bloggers like A Beautiful Mess, Seth Godin, and Freelance Folder inspire me to become more creative, more productive, and more courageous.

5. Sleep well.

I always talk about the importance of sleep. Regular, restful sleep is absolutely imperative if you are going to be at your best, healthiest, and most creative. Do you need to develop discipline and learn to get up with your alarm? Sure. Maybe you need to set some goals and learn to go to bed and wake up earlier. But make sure you’re getting a real 7-8 hours of sleep every night (or whatever you need to be at your best). If you aren’t rested, your body goes into survival mode. It’s hard to create when you are tired and sick.

6. Eat well.

This is along the lines of #5. It’s hard to be creative, disciplined, efficient, and courageous when you’re hungry or full of junk food. Learn to eat well. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Make yourself a smoothie for breakfast. Make sure you’re eating nutritious food regularly. Drink a lot of water. To be at your best, you need to provide your body with good food.

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7. Cook.

Cooking is like photography  – it’s incredibly inspirational and a great creative practice. Learn to cook. Experiment with different sauces, marinades, and dishes. Stop using your microwave and start using that big thing in your kitchen called the stove. Incredible creativity can be cultivated in the kitchen. Added bonus? Cooking for people will allow you a medium for good conversations about creativity.

8. Be creative about your home.

Try to cultivate creativity in your home by decorating, painting, rearranging, and coming up with creative solutions to storage dilemmas. Your home is one gigantic (or one tiny) palette for your creativity. Use colors and light to make your home a creative, fun, inspirational place to spend time. Explore estate sales and Craigslist and learn to furnish your home creatively. Practice those creative muscles on everything you see every day.

9. Silence.

It’s hard to find time for silence between the phone, the computer, your Ipod, traffic, the radio, the television . . . force yourself to turn off all of those mediums for a few minutes every day. Read in silence or just relax as you sip your coffee and reflect for a few minutes. Inspiration will grow out of those minutes of calm that would have drowned in the static of the day otherwise.

10. Find your sweet spot during the day.

For some people, it’s late at night. For me, it’s early in the morning until about 9:30 a.m. Your sweet spot is that period of time where you can work without stopping, where time flies, where your creativity sparks furiously. After that period of time, you’ll need discipline and lists, and goals to make you productive and efficient. Figure out where your creative sweet spot is on the clock. Protect it. Then make the most of it.

This list is just the beginning. The world if full of such inspiration and so much room for creativity. What are steps you take every to make space and time for creative inspiration?

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Of Scams, Education, and the Freelance Life

July 10, 2013

Being unemployed is hard.

Rmember the somewhat-scammy phone-call I received after responding to a Craiglist ad last week? Well, I caved. They called me again and since you can’t make less money than $0 and since I have tutored before and since they weren’t asking for my credit card information, I decided that I had nothing to lose.


Yesterday, I merrily drove out to Tyson’s Corner to have an “interview” with the “tutoring agency”. I knew something was wrong when I showed up to a sketchy office in the back of a building and nobody was using English as their first language. Or even Spanish.

I had a wave of momentary panic and almost left but then I realized that I could at least write a somewhat amusing blog post out of the experience and so I sat back down in the waiting area. Ah, the sacrifices writers make for their art.

Here are some key tips that I garnered. You should probably not take a tutoring job if:

1. The agency seems oddly under-staffed and unoraganized. For instance, the person with whom you are supposed to interview never shows and the “interview” turns into yet another “initial screening” with the same person who was unable to give you any kind of concrete information over the phone in the first place.

2. You are told that the agency works with foreign students and “high-profile” individuals and embassies from a variety of countries in the Middle East, not all of whom are known for their enthusiastic support of the U.S.

3. You are told that the majority of work you will be doing is not necessarily tutoring, but homework “completion” for aforementioned foreign students.

Folks, I am all about tapping into the system of free enterprise to provide less-than-priviledged students with all of the tools possible to learn and succeed.

But there are also a lot of people making money off of other people attempting to circumvent patience and plain ol’ hard work.

When the interviewee mentioned #3, I flipped. There is a not-so-fine-line between tutoring and making totally illegitimate money off of the cheating techniques of students too smart to plagiarize.

Apparently, I am not able to hold a poker-face, because the interviewer started to backpedal. “Sometimes applicants aren’t comfortable with our processes,” she said. Yeah. I bet.

Allow me to rant a bit. Education is something an individual acquires through dedication and time. Success is something achieved through patience, sacrifice, and perseverance. You cannot write a check and pick up an education and long-term success at the store down the street.

If you are trying to shortcut the system, you will be disappointed and probably lose a lot of money in the process. And if you are making money by promising someone that they can write a check and purchase education and success, you are lying.

In case you are wondering, I did not take the tutoring gig and I am just as unemployed as I was yesterday. Yes, being unemployed is hard. But at least I know where I don’t want to work.

Share your funny freelance or scam story in the comments!

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Confessions of an Unemployed English Major

June 28, 2013

My blog has been largely silent because when I last wrote Mark and I had just gotten engaged. When you are engaged, lots of people want to congratulate you and give you advice but what no one says is that wedding planning is a schedule-wrecker. If you have a job, you will only go to work and plan the wedding. If you do not have a job you will only plan the wedding, which is why it's probably a good idea to remain employed during engagement.



We are married and I am officially unemployed and trying to figure out what it means to be a wife and a full-time writer. After sending out emails with writing pitches for hours, I remember halfway through the day that my name is supposed to be Emily McCord. Then I remember that the only thing more difficult than changing my name legally will be changing my name on social media. Being part of Gen Y is hard.


I realize now, too, that I will probably never be taken seriously again by many of my professional friends because I am now one of those annoying people who doesn't have a day-job and who complains about things like slow Internet and the price of obscure food products.


I understand now what Donald Miller was talking abut when he wrote "Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. . . . We are worth so much more." I find comfort by assuring myself that I am worth at least $4 a day because I did not spend any money commuting to work. 


And then I remember that Mark will probably ask me how much money I made today when he comes home. I check the fridge to make sure that I have food for dinner because I have this theory that if I just keep making amazing meals, Mark will not notice that one of us is not producing any income. Or at least he will pretend not to notice because he knows that if I get a full-time job he will have to help out with the cooking.


After I check the fridge I realize that it is almost 11:00 and that I need to send out my resume to at least three more people this morning because one of them just might recognize the inherent and lasting value of two English degrees and hire me. 

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Reflections of a Graduate Student

October 19, 2012
As the last semester of my English M.A. program speeds forward, I grow nostalgic. This period is bittersweet. I’m excited to leave behind late nights of homework and to move on to whatever the next phase holds. But I have never regretted my choice to pursue a grad degree in English. (The night before a final paper is due doesn’t count.)


This is not because it will allow to me to make substantially more money. (It won’t.)

This is not because I think a graduate degree will vastly increase my chances of glittering success in the field I chose as an idealistic, optimistic undergrad. (It hasn’t yet.)

This is not because I have some idealistic notion about how current research in English departments everywhere is going to change the world. (Unlikely.)

It’s simply because the things I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve garnered during my graduate years have been deeply valuable and truly irreplaceable in more ways than I can count.

This post isn’t meant to be melancholy, though. One of the things I’ve learned, in a program that emphasized writing studies, is how not to teach composition. Students of Writing Studies are hounded, nagged, and lectured until we would die before we would Ever. Teach. Composition. Like. That. 

So chronicled here (with a bit of light-hearted tongue-in-cheek) are some teaching methods that English graduate students, especially those whose programs emphasize composition, are taught to avoid like the plague. I’ve even included some take-aways that writers of all walks can use.

1. In a composition class, a teacher should use lots of literature, especially novels. Students of all majors will naturally be more effective writers if they read a lot of literature, especially poetry from the English Renaissance period.

Take-away for writersNot all reading is good reading. To hone your craft, especially read the kind of writing that you want to master.

2. There is only one good way to teach writing. Hound your students until they master it. Make them practice until they drop. They’ll get it.

Take-away for writers: Someone else’s method may not work for you. If you are frustrated with a method, stop. Drop it. Try something new.

3. Pre-writing is useless. Brainstorming. Looping. Free-writing. Bah Humbug. Make your students write an essay, for crying out loud.

Take-away for writers: Sometimes the long way around is actually the shortest. Stop trying to write the novel, the post, the book and just spend some time doodling or journaling or brainstorming. 

4. Drafts? Excuses. If it’s not there the first time, it won’t be there the second time. Get it right the first time or go home.

Take-away for writers: Write. Then re-write. Then re-write again. Drafts are your friend. The first draft is simply the beginning of a long and painful journey. So get started.

5.A perfect draft, clear as crystal and utterly free from any errors in grammar is the ultimate goal.Get your commas right or stop.

Take-away for writers: Grammar is important. Really important. It aids clear communication and one’s professional image. But grammar is a means, not a goal. Don’t obsess over comma errors at the same time you’re worrying about content. They are different issues. Prioritize accordingly. 

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It’s the Little Things…

June 19, 2010

It's the little things in life that count. Like an organized inbox. E-mail accounts can spin out of control if left to their own devices. My own was becoming overwhelming. As of yesterday I had 150 "new" messages, all of which were over a week old.

There were 54 pages of e-mails, most of which contained at least somewhat relevant records, but the junk was making it difficult to keep track of the important stuff.

It was time to do a little housekeeping. I needed to clear out the advertisements, spam, and automated updates. But who wants to wade through 54 pages of e-mails? So I automated the process:

  • I searched for the e-mail address of the advertisement/spam/automated update in question. This helped me find all the e-mails of any one kind at once.
  • I clicked "Mark All."
  • I clicked "Delete. "
  • I repeated this process until I ran out of junk mail.

Now I was down to 39 pages of mail, but now, at least, most of the e-mails were legitimate records and not useless advertising.

I'm also unsubscribing from automated updates as they arrive. It takes a few seconds, but it should save time down the road.

What did you organize this week?

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