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Too much unread email? Don't delete till you read these 4 tips

Rachel Figueroa has 15,000 unread emails and two certainties: 1) The number will go up, and 2) she will never open most of them.

The New York-based freelance writer acknowledges that she is subscribed to multiple lists and says that between her two main email addresses, she gets about 100 emails a day. “I actually open very few,” she said. “I feel overwhelmed constantly, mostly because I’m worried about missing something that’s actually important.”

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It's can be easy for your email inbox to become overwhelming.

But rather than sort the emails or open them one by one, Figueroa says she has declared "email bankruptcy" — simply mass-deleted her old ones — several times. And now she's considering abandoning email entirely and switching to social media for her online correspondence.

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Figueroa’s situation is more common than you might think. Since going mainstream a couple of decades ago, email has gone from a novelty to a convenience to a total nightmare for some. Author Marsha Egan, founder of the website Inbox Detox, estimates that the average mid-to-senior level executive receives anywhere from 80 to 180 emails per day. Anytime there is 80 of anything, managing it can become overwhelming.

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“Email has become the biggest interrupter the universe has ever known,” Egan said. “We won’t be able to stop the number of emails we receive. We may be able to reduce the amount, and the next best thing is learn how to manage it.”

Lindsey Wisniewski Savage, an attorney, said she declared email bankruptcy in February 2013. At the time, she had roughly 30,000 unopened emails.

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“My goal when I declared email bankruptcy was that I would stop using the old email address with the most spam,” she said. “But I found that I actually liked keeping it so that all the promotional emails stay there. Now, if I am looking for a discount code, I know to check there.”

Egan has helped clients like Savage and Figueroa assess their inboxes and purge them, and offered four suggestions:

1. Treat your email inbox like a physical mailbox.

Most people pick up all their postal mail, throw half of it away and put the rest in piles. What they don't do is leave their unread mail in the mailbox day after day.

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“Develop the process and habit of processing email daily and getting to a point where the inbox is empty at the end of each day,” Egan said.

2. Set up a temporary folder for all those unread emails.

Label it with the date you created it. The goal is not to throw all of that back email away, but to get it out of the inbox and know what a clean inbox feels like. Set deadlines to slog through the folder of back email. At the same time, ensure your clean new inbox is empty at the end of each day.

3. Delete anything three years old or older.

Egan suggests simply throwing away email that is so old that it is “growing hair and not needed anymore."

4. Resolve that your email is under your control — not the other way around.

It all comes down to making a life choice. Otherwise, you'll end up right where you started.

“If you get gastric bypass surgery but keep eating bonbons all the time, you’re going to get fat again,” Egan said. “There is a two-pronged approach: have surgery, but then change the habit so that it won’t build up again.”

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