The One Email Trick That Keeps My Inbox In Shape


Email is a real pain point when it comes to truly being productive. I’ve discussed a slew of thoughts on email strategies at length here at the blog and dedicated a section of The Productivityist Workbook to email management, but if you’re looking for one trick you can use to get your inbox in better shape now, then you’re in luck. This trick is going to pay off huge dividends if you make the switch and stick with it.

The one email trick I’ve used to keep my inbox in shape is to sort my incoming mail so that the oldest email is the ones I see first. I go by the “first in, first out” rule, and it works.

I’ve heard from many people who I have encouraged to do this that they’ve pared down the emails in their inbox drastically. One individual just this past week said they were able to eliminate 300 emails in 20 minutes simply by switching to the same view I use.

There’s no reason you can’t do this. Gmail has this feature. (Note: Gmail’s web interface no longer allows for date sorting. I’d suggest you use a native application like the ones mentioned below to regain the ability to do this.) Outlook has this feature. Native email applications like Postbox,, and Airmail have the ability to sort emails from oldest to newest. Simply by “flipping the switch” you can discover any stale emails and deal with them now instead of later — and no email should be dealt with too late if you maintain this sorting method.

Flip the switch on your email sorting method for a week (or, better still, 39 days). I’ll bet your inbox — and you — will be in better shape by doing so.

Photo credit: ColinBroug via SXC.HU


    • says

      You’re right. With the new interface on the web version, the ability to have the oldest emails appear first is no longer available – not even through a Labs feature. I’ve corrected that in the piece (I don’t use the web version any longer and haven’t since before that change was made). I’d suggest that if you’d like to be able to do this that you use an application like I’ mentioned (Postbox,, Airmail, etc.) in stead of using the web interface.

    • says

      With the new way Gmail has inboxes laid out, that ability is no longer available. I’ve corrected the post to indicate that if you want that, then use an application for email rather than the web interface. Hopefully when you whittle down your inbox by doing what I’ve recommended, the amount of email that you’d need to sort/adjust views for will be lessened anyway – then maybe you could go back to the web interface! Thanks again for reading.

  1. StraightGoose says

    Mike – I respectfully disagree. I do the following after returning from a week’s vacation and have a 1,000+ emails (right number of zeros :-) in Outlook. 1) sort by person – you can immediately handle items you don’t filter that should be deleted. 2) sort by subject**the key. Scan the subject lines for what may be hot topics and start there. It is possible the request or issue has been completed or resolved. Usually you just have to read the newest of those if everyone stayed within the thread and they can be filed approproately saving a tremendous amount of time.

  2. StraightGoose says

    For those of you in Gmail who care about sorting by person, subject, mailing list, shopping site…..I recommend I was a charter member before they decided to charge for it. I use gmail for my personal email and I was able to set up rules, etc. I just made the decision that leaving emails in the inbox is fine as I hardly have any tasks related to it. For those items, I would just email to my outlook account for processing.

  3. says

    I’d like to put another recommendation for Airmail. I like applications to be simple to use, yet easy on the eye, especially when I find myself potentially spending a lot of time in them. Airmail and are like chalk and cheese when it comes to presentation.

    The integration with OmniFocus out of the box is really nice, as well as BusyCal and Evernote – all apps I use day to day so it’s a No-brainer.

    As for iOS, I’m half Gmail, half Office 365 for the different hats I wear so as great as it is, Dispatch doesn’t work for me. Boxer is my app of choice for this situation. Smart integration with both Sandbox and Evernote, customisable swipes and it’s updated on a regular basis.

  4. says

    I keep 3 separate email accounts (2 work & 1 personal) at inbox zero everyday by using and handle. I would strongly encourage you to look into them. is a daily summary of your subscription emails, and handle is an app with GTD built in using calendar, tasks, and email.

  5. says

    Back in the mid-to-late 90s whichever email client I first used — I can’t even remember the name of it now — did this by default, and so did those that followed up until I switched to Gmail in 2004. I preferred Gmail in pretty much every way, but before switching, having my inbox under control and processed each day was just something that I got done without thinking twice about — if I had read about people discussing strategies like Inbox Zero at the time, I’d have likened it to coming up with strategies for checking the mailbox in front of my house: a mountain out of a molehill. I had similar volumes of email coming in to what I’d experience in the Gmail/Web 2.0 era, sans filterable service notification spam and its relatives.

    After switching to Gmail the relaxed ease with which email was dealt with disappeared, and not long after that switch is when I took an interest in productivity which eventually lead to me writing about it for Lifehack, etc. At the time I thought it was just a matter of having to adjust to a new layout after many years of three-pane, oldest-to-newest layouts. Turns out it had to do with the difference in approach that dealing with things as people put them ‘on top of the pile’ brought. Great advice Mike.


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