Tame the Monster in Your Inbox

Tame the Monster in Your Inbox Cover Image

K.A. Bachus

August 29, 2022

Document Security

At first glance, this blogpost does not appear intelligence related. But if we use some of the principles of document security developed by intelligence entities all over the world, we can improve our personal comfort and safety.

So I offer this to my readers as an ancillary topic that Jade Wilmerton, the Section librarian in Quiet Move, would applaud. I learned file management principles in the Air Force during the Cold War. They apply equally well to today's electronic files.

Here are the basic habits drummed into me then that you will need now:

1. Try not to touch any inbox document more than once.

2. Handle all documents with the level of care corresponding to their sensitivity.

3. Do not keep any document longer than necessary.

4. Destroy or transfer to archives all documents no longer needed locally—again, with the level of care corresponding to their sensitivity.

All well and good, you say, but how do I deal with the mountain before me?

I know a woman who is on her third email provider because she has maxed out all the free storage given by the other two. She is well on the way to filling the storage in this one. In Cold War terms, she has filled two and a half large warehouses to their tall ceilings. One person. Largely with advertisements. If you are anywhere near this predicament, I suggest the following:

Determine retention requirements of each general document category. There is no need to keep an advertisement of a sale that ended yesterday. Here are my categories and their periods of retention:

1. General Correspondence: three months.

2. Special Category: one year after close of category.

3. Tax information:

Individual: three years after it is used in tax filing.

Business: seven years after it is used in tax filing.

4. Essential personal information: until changed or replaced.

5. Historical information: archive after one year or one year after end of category.


Wipe it all out, every folder and skip to the section on basic maintenance. Chances are you will have lost nothing important. If you are a bit OCD about keeping things, the following procedures may help. Pick and choose what fits your situation and style. 

LONG VERSION. If your email account is set to archive, change that to the trash can icon instead of the file box. Email providers often set archive instead of trash as default in order to grow your storage to the point of being able to charge you for it. Move everything in ARCHIVE to trash . If this feature has ever saved you something important, you are a unicorn. It has allowed a bunch of information about you to hang around largely unsecured, possibly for years.

Now, let’s look at each category again, backwards, in the context of five gigabytes of emails.

5. Historical information. If you can remember an email, or more likely a series of emails that you think you should keep in perpetuity (it has to be memorable to be in this category at all—do not search five gigabytes of info on the off chance there might be something), use the search bar in 'all messages', or if your email provider doesn’t offer a global capability, search in each possible folder, like INBOX or IMPORTANT. Do not search TRASH. If it is important enough to remember now, you did not trash it. You have this problem because you have a tendency not to trash things. If you find your historical emails, move them to a new folder labeled HISTORY. Go on to the next category.

4. Essential personal information. These are things like birth certificates and divorce decrees. On your email account they would be in attachments to emails. You should have downloaded them, printed hard copies and saved the pdfs to a folder you know how to get to. If you did not do so when you received them, either conduct a search (again, not the trash folder) or obtain new copies and do that this time. Delete the emails they came in. Essential personal documents should not be hanging around unprotected in cyberspace. They are by nature sensitive.

At this point, delete every email in every folder older than seven years if you own or owned a business during that time, three years if not. Go on to the next category.

3. Tax information. Here you are looking for whatever you would need to show the IRS in the event of an audit. Again, you should have hard copies and if applicable, electronic copies on a secure medium. These are highly sensitive by nature and should not be hanging around online. Secure them and move on to category two.

2. Special category. You had a project that created a lot of back and forth traffic. The project is over. Maybe you closed on a house. By now, you already should have secured the more important tax, mortgage and closing documents. Search for any emails pertaining to the project. This will be a limited number. You will have to look at them to come up with your own criteria for what is worthy of being stored for one year. Chats with the realtor can be binned. Reminders about taxable or deductible items you have not yet filed on a 1040 are more important. Create a folder on the email account with the title of the project, like HOUSE. Put these emails into it. Go on to the last category.

1. General correspondence.

Delete everything in TRASH older than three months. If your email provider lets you specify length of time to hold trash, set it to three months. If they don’t, find another provider. 

Note: with big files like these, you may have to develop a daily habit of deleting the lists page by page. It will be worth it, I assure you.

Quickly glance at the most recent emails in SPAM (no more than two weeks). If something you wanted wound up there, rescue it by moving to INBOX and delete the rest.

Delete everything older than three months in SENT. You should have already moved the important stuff to other folders or to secure storage. If you are paranoid about your sent file because you think you may have to prove you sent it, I’ve known people who keep these one year. After that, it’s a liability. These are your words floating around. Check your settings for this folder. Set to three months (or one year if you’re worried).

Delete everything in any other mailbox created by the email provider that is NOT labeled INBOX. These extraneous folders are how the provider hides emails from you. The fact that you’ve lived well without them means they are largely meaningless. Most will be advertisements.

Tame That Monster

A few management actions to take before we tackle that INBOX.

1. Create three folders:

TEMPORARY (I call mine TEMP) This will hold emails that you may need in the next few weeks. This is where I put, for example, confirmation of orders and notification of shipping.

HOLD will contain important emails you need more time with, usually because it’s not pressing but you haven’t yet determined how to answer or file it, or it concerns a matter that won’t ripen sooner than a few weeks and it is flagged and has been in your INBOX longer than a week.

[NAMES] of any special projects you have going on. There may be more than one. When I practiced law, I had an email folder for each case. Note that this category of emails is kept only one year. If your profession requires a longer retention, print and download and put them elsewhere.

HISTORY: If you have such information. Eventually, you will need to secure this information from the email account entirely and delete this folder. This is a temporary place to store a perhaps bigger project that you can’t get to just now, as you are still taming the beast that is your email.

2. Create flags if your provider allows it, or get acquainted with the flag or star system provided. I have flags titled 'do this', 'receipts' and 'read this'.

Now, let’s tackle that Monster INBOX.

If it doesn't already, change the notification setting to give more than the subject of an email. Most providers will give the first few lines of an email if you let them. This way, you don’t have to open anything you know immediately is unimportant.

Delete everything older than three months.

Sort those three months from oldest to newest. Start from the bottom clicking every advertisement (remember this was three months ago—that sale has ended). hit delete. Repeat. Do the same for every order or shipping notification that you already received. Do it for event announcements that have passed. You get the idea.

Eventually, you will start coming across things that can fit into one of your folders. Move them there.

As you get closer to the most recent emails, you may see things that would have been important to do a week ago but now it is too late. If you must apologize to anybody adversely affected and fix it, flag it and move on. You will tackle that problem soon.

Keep doing this until only a few emails from the last day or two are left on the single page your INBOX has become. Put out any fires you have flagged.

Next is maintenance. If you brush your teeth one or more times a day, congratulations, you will never have an email problem again. You know how to form good habits. Because that’s all it takes to maintain a tame inbox--good habits.

Basic Email Management Principles

Check it at the same time every day, 365(6) days a year. We boomers know how to do this because we spent most of our lives checking our USPS mailbox at least six days a week, generally when we got back from school or work. And we had it sorted by the time we got to the kitchen. Junk in the trash, interesting catalogues and magazines in the magazine rack (to be culled when full), bills next to the check book (remember those?), letters on the side table by the stationery. The difference here is there’s a lot more of it, but the discipline is the same. Pick a convenient time and do it every day, preferably at that time, but definitely by the end of the day.

Learn to swipe left ruthlessly. If you don’t have time for it and it does not pertain to your current life, send it to trash.

Use your folders.

Use, but don’t overuse, your flags. If you fill up your INBOX with flagged emails, you have accomplished nothing.

Answer important emails as immediately as possible, especially the flagged ones, which are already old. Usually, a single line will do.

Transfer important things to other means of storage off line.

Develop rules about who you let in. Every time you order something on line and give your email address, there will be a little box that says "Yes! I want your marketing emails." Unclick that. You will still get the confirmation and shipping info. You can stay on lists of favorite retailers you buy from regularly and whose emails are interesting, but feel free to swipe left even on these as you speed through that daily list. Open only those you have time for.

Unsubscribe. Often,. You will not hurt anybody’s feelings. In fact, it will actually help them to lose a non-engaged member of their list. If you never open emails from a newsletter list, maybe because you are no longer interested or you know you can’t engage for the foreseeable future, you are doing them a favor by unsubscribing.

I regularly conduct unsubscribing campaigns about once a month. It doesn’t have to be every day. I’ve been swiping left on this missive for a while now and it is evident that we have no near-time future together. I take a moment to say good bye.

If you have unsubscribed to a list twice and are still getting emails, put it in SPAM, then delete. This hurts their stats and they will eventually take action to run their list correctly.

Check your SPAM folder daily and delete or move it to inbox if it should not have gone there.

Check all folders at least weekly. Do not allow them to grow. Transfer and cull regularly.

Get rid of that HISTORY folder if you have one. Now that you know how to stay on top of stuff that should not stay online, you will not need it.

Never, ever should you have to go to a second page in your INBOX. Make that a rule. Create a new project folder if that’s what is filling it up. Answer the ones that need answering. Be careful here. Not everything is as vital as it may seem at first, but when it is important, set aside the time to do what my daughter calls 'adulting'.

Now is a better time than later. Today is better than tomorrow. With important emails, develop the discipline to  do it now. Otherwise, swipe left.

Welcome to the world of document discipline.