Digital Spring Cleaning at Your Fingertips

I recently returned from vacation with over 900 e-mails in my inbox. In today’s world that might make someone seem important, but a good chunk of these messages were unsolicited. Sure, I might have known the sender (or company), but I did not asked to be sent their list of upcoming events, special reports or their latest IT security/cloud solution. So I spent more than just a few minutes unsubscribing — in addition to deleting — the first morning back in the office. It felt like cleaning out a closet.

After all, as a former colleague quipped, “digital cleaning is the new physical cleaning.”

Though an easy, albeit obtrusive, solution, it is time-consuming to unsubscribe from unwanted messages, particularly from foreign companies in countries that don’t have enforced spam policies that never adhere to unsubscribe requests (hello, junk folder!). With a job requiring me to interact with many companies, which often includes the exchange of business cards, it can be a challenge to keep the e-mail deluge pristine. No one would eat off the (virtual) floor of my inbox.

It’s one thing to give your contact details to a person with the intention of possibly following up; it’s another thing altogether to become besieged with mails from a computer system that scanned your card.

As it takes less effort to casually delete an unwanted e-mail, that’s what I’ve usually done. I didn’t realize how many unsolicited messages I received until it piled up during a rare period of not checking my e-mail (I was out of the country and not authorized to take my Blackberry with me, admittedly a great way of ensuring that I truly disengaged during a vacation).

So what is a beleaguered inbox owner to do?

I’ve met people who boast that they “don’t do e-mail.” Unless you’re President Obama or have a personal assistant to tend to your messages, that’s not a satisfactory way of communicating in today’s world. It’s akin to not taking phone calls or reading letters. Speaking of which, perhaps it’s time to bring back the art of writing letters and/or talking. One reason many people suffer from e-mail fatigue is that we all contend with too many messages. But that’s a topic of a different blog.

So, in addition to dedicating a bit of time each week to culling your e-mail box and contacts, let’s brainstorm some solutions! How’s this for an entrepreneurial opportunity: business cards with a “do not send me impersonal messages/spam” QR code on them? Structuring e-mail addresses with embedded codes that will not allow them to be entered into a mass mailing system? Or self-customizable folder to direct all Constant Contact (and similar programs) messages to the junk folder unless otherwise commanded? A step beyond creating folders from specific senders/topics, this would recognize masse-mail systems.

There must be solutions out there. If so, please tell me! In the meantime, I’ll grapple with the problem that everyone else has: how to cope with the intimidating inbox of pending items. Or, of course, seek a personal assistant…

Aileen Nandi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mike Thornton

Great blog! I had a similar experience after returning from vacation where I had no cell service. Luckily I was only in the mid 200 count for 4 days.

1) I do take the time to unsubscribe for unsolicited e-mails. It has really seemed to reduce my garbage e-mails and really doesn’t take that much time.

2) If I use my e-mail where it could be captured by some program I replace the @ symbol in the address with (at).

3) If we did returned to typewritten memorandums only important information would be communicated in writing and eliminate a ton of unwanted e-mail traffic. I often ask myself when sending an e-mail, “is it important enough that I woudl type a memo?”

4) It should be a national law that anyone that has an e-mail address should be required to take an e-mail etiquette course. Maybe even issue an e-mail user license. Might eliminate the stupid ‘Thanks’ e-mail.

I’ll stop now.

Aileen Nandi

Thanks for the Friday humor, Mike! With FOIAs and hacked mails, I see people even more careful what they put in writing (and when they choose to do so). However, being inundated with company mails clogs up my box big-time. I’m using some of your tips to prune my mailbox.

Kathleen Smith


I concur with taking the time to unsubscribe and mark items that are “Junk” but the most important tool I found is creating folders for my Inbox. As I serve on several committees, it is helpful to put those committees and their participants in specific folders by creating rules so that when those messages come in, they automatically go into those boxes.

For my inbox in general, I keep the inbox less than 25 emails at any one time. Yes, I know this sounds incredulous, but once I have done my action with a particular email it then goes into a folder. My inbox is my to do list.

As to social media, on Twitter I am a big fan of lists. I several lists for key topics and people I follow and if I don’t have time to check all of my streams, I can at least take a quick look at my top topics and followers.

Hope this helps.


Aileen Nandi

Wow, Kathleen, you are amazingly ruthless with your inbox — great tips! I will aim to have 25 or fewer e-mails in my inbox (now that I am unsubscribing from unwanted messages with alacrity).