Introducing the one-month email rule

Emails - Start with the 30-day rule and your future self will thank you

You should archive – or even delete – any email that’s more than a month old suggests Donna McGeorge

Once upon a time I used to keep every email I got because I mistakenly thought I might need it again, usually to point out something someone said they’d do, and then they didn’t. If, like old me, you tend to hold on to all of your old emails thinking you might need them in the future, here are four reasons why you might want to reconsider:

  1. You won’t need them

Despite 11,000 odd emails in 250 folders, chances are you’ve only gone back two or three times to retrieve something. And when you do go looking, can you be sure you’ll find it anyway? These emails are using up a lot of mental and physical capacity.

  • Frees up space which improves computer performance

If your IT department isn’t already onto you to reduce your saved emails, they soon will be. Many of us are given gigabytes or even terabytes of space to store our stuff, which feels huge but fills up quickly.

  • It’s overwhelming

Some of you reading this might be old enough to remember in-trays on your desk – email was meant to emulate that. Something comes in, gets processed, and then moved on. Email was not meant to be a storage app so your inbox (and in-tray) should be sparse or empty. Otherwise, all the emails and folders will overload and overwhelm your brain. 

  • It’s a security risk

Hackers break into networks all the time. Chances are, particularly in HR, many of those emails contain sensitive and personal information about others.

What to do instead

Apply the 30-day rule

Delete any email older than 30 days, including all those folders.  If that makes you feel uncomfortable, create an archive folder and dump the whole lot in there. That way, they aren’t gone – they’re just out of the way. Do it right now… Select and drag!

  • Scan incoming email

In his book Smart Work, Dermot Crowley has some great advice for handling email. He explains there are three types:

  • Action: Requires a planned and considered response (usually only 10 percent of incoming email)
  • Information: Read and delete
  • Junk: Unsubscribe and delete
  • Create a ‘Done’ folder

You don’t need all those email folders.  They’re not helping when you need to find things, and are only clogging up the system. What you need is a short term (30 days) way to hang on to emails that you may need to recall for projects and such. 

Here’s how it works:

  • Open the message
  • Attend to it accordingly
  • Drag it out of your inbox and into the ‘Done’ folder
  • Create a rule to automatically delete or archive emails when they’re more than 30 days old.

Here’s your get out of jail free card

Working on a specific project? Create a short-term folder for messages related to it and once its finished – you guessed it – drag the folder into ‘Done’.

And finally…

Most of our email productivity problems come about because we don’t have a system for managing them. We operate out of a default setting that says we open emails first thing, spend most of our day dipping in and out of them and (because we’re tired, overwhelmed and suffering from decision fatigue) we hang on to everything.

It’s time to consciously decide on a system for managing your email.  Start with the 30-day rule and trust me, your future self will thank you.

Donna is a global authority on productivity and a best-selling author. Her series It’s About Time covers meetings, structuring your day and doing more with less