My Latest Book

Product Details

Also available on,, and other Amazons and bookshops worldwide! 

To Think About . . .
If you do not die first, you will have time to do it. If you die before it is done, you don’t need to do it. Russian proverb
My Other Books

Product Details

Product Details

Product Details

The Pathway to Awesomeness

Click to order other recommended books.

Find Us on Facebook Badge

Search This Site
« NEWS FLASH: New E-Book To Be Published on Monday! | Main | Counting down with Kindle »

How to Clear An Email Backlog

The trouble with large backlogs, as I have often remarked, is that they are very difficult to clear. Once your in-box gets to the size that you can’t deal with all your emails in one session, it seems to fill up as fast as you empty it. I expect you’ve had the experience of getting several hundred emails down to 60 or 70 after a mammoth effort, only to find that after a couple of days the backlog is nearly as big as it was before.

Ok, here’s a three stage method for clearing the toughest email backlog. I don’t claim it’s the only way of dealing with a backlog, but it certainly does work.

Stage 1

Sort your email by “Name of Sender”. That will achieve two things. You can see which emails are from important people whom you don’t want to ignore, and you can also delete loads of stuff like Facebook notifications in batches.

Stage 2

Sort your email by “Subject”. Again this will bunch many emails together which may no longer be relevant or which you decide you can’t be bothered with. Delete them all.

By the time you’ve done the first two stages, you should hopefully have reduced the number of emails in your backlog considerably. Time for the next and last stage.

Stage 3

Sort your email by “Date”. Now deal with your email in batches of one day at a time, starting with the most recent day (today). This is the opposite of what most people do, which is to start clearing the oldest emails first. Starting with the oldest is a mistake because it will take you a long time to work from the oldest email to the most recent email, and during that time you will be behind on all your email. If you start from the most recent and work back you will instantly start getting on top again. Or as a client of mine once put it: “If you start from the oldest, all your friends will think you’re an idiot. If you start from the newest, only half of them will!”

Every time you finish a day, download new email and deal with that before starting the next day. That way you are not adding to the backlog by neglecting new mail. So the sequence goes like this:

Clear today’s mail

Clear today -1 (yesterday)

Clear today’s mail

Clear today -2

Clear today’s mail

Clear today -3

If you have a month or more’s worth of neglected email, it’s going to take you some time and probably several sessions to get through it all, but you will be able to see exactly how much progress you are making and best of all you won’t be adding to the backlog.


Reader Comments (11)

As a means of avoiding an email backlog in the first place, I'm finding Sanebox very useful. It only puts important emails into your Inbox, putting the rest into a special folder where you can deal with them later (it can learn which emails are important). It also allows you to defer emails you know you can't deal with today (for whatever reason) by moving them to special folders where they stay for a set period of time before coming back into the Inbox. There are other ways of deferring emails too.

The net result is that I find my Inbox is much less cluttered and it doesn't overwhelm me, so I actually deal with it promptly.

It's not a free service, but I liked it so much after the free trial that I was willing to pay for it. (It's at )
September 18, 2013 at 19:53 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette
Hi Mark,

Good write up and it does make sense ( a lot! ).

Stage 3 could be enhanced as follows:

- Create a Smart Mailbox / Filter called "Yesterbox" which should list all the emails older than 1 day. I took the idea from .

- Limit the Inbox view to only show the emails of today — again one could use Smart Mailboxes / Filters or whatever is applicable.

Now you have a nice separation of today's and all the "past" emails to work with accordingly.

September 20, 2013 at 9:19 | Unregistered CommenterStefano F. Rausch
Hey Mark,
Like this blog and the ideas in it.
E-mail backlog is a killer.
Of course the ideal is to be disciplined enough to never get to that point.
This book is amazing at de-mystifying discipline and showing how you can build it for mega success in anything;

A bit of overlap in focus between here and there I think.
October 1, 2013 at 1:11 | Unregistered CommenterConnorBryant
I use Gmail and, believe it or not, it is not possible to sort email. Not by author, not by any parameter.

Gmail recommends searching -- by author, for example, one at a time, or by date range etc.

Any suggestions on how to clear an email backlog in gmail?
October 1, 2013 at 19:14 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Freedman
Steven Freedman
Gmail is surprisingly lacking in some areas isn't i?

UI've had similar problems

I just bit the bullet a while back and set aside a huge chunk of time to go through and delte almost everything or sort it into folders if I wanted to keep it.
Then started keeping my actual inbox to 0, either by deleting mails once I'd read and replied to them, or sorting them into relevant folders if I wanted to keep them for reference later.

Build a short window of time into every evening to do trhat religiously
October 9, 2013 at 4:16 | Unregistered CommenterConnorBryant
An excellent tool to clean up Gmail and keeping it lean is
After cleaning it up, a very nice "organizer" is
February 5, 2014 at 12:41 | Registered CommenterStratos Laspas
Yes but how can I delete them?
My inbox is showing just over 15,000 emails……..
April 1, 2016 at 1:01 | Unregistered CommenterPETER AMODIO

<< Yes, but how can I delete them? My inbox is showing just over 15,000 emails…….. >>

The article is not about deleting emails. It's about clearing an email backlog, which is rather different.
April 1, 2016 at 11:12 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

You can use another client, such as Outlook, to manage your gmail account. From memory, this can be a bit tricky to set up, but works beautifully.
April 1, 2016 at 13:20 | Registered CommenterWill

I generally wouldn't go back more than a week or two. Anything older than that is likely to be pretty moribund. Go back until you're not getting current actions, then select the lot and move them to a folder labelled "Missed opportunities and broken promises".


(If your backlog has arisen in the last couple of weeks, you probably need to seriously consider your filters and commitments.)
April 1, 2016 at 13:25 | Registered CommenterWill
Doesn't it depend on your job and current position? In my case, my backlog is often "one month long" which means that I have not yet completed my tasks which should have been completed a month ago (this would be perfect).

For me, this is not a real problem since I am involved in long-term projects and the customers understand that not every problem can be solved within hours or days. In some cases I also communicate the delay in completing the tasks to the customers. But this is something I try to avoid since it also causes an huge overhead.

My backlog is, spoken in figures, about 8-15 mails and 1-3 projects long. I try to keep those numbers small, but I am not in a position where I may delegate stuff. So I have to increase my productivity in order to make everyone happy.
September 14, 2016 at 16:55 | Unregistered Commentermomo

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.