How to reduce the daily deluge of email clutter

CorrespondentApril 21, 2013 

Digital clutter is a curse. For many of us, email has become the major way we keep up with friends both near and far. A cluttered mailbox – and whose mailbox doesn’t quickly become cluttered? – overwhelms good intentions and lets interesting correspondence molder under the weight of spam, catalogs, newsletters and dumb jokes circulating as chain letters.

Three weeks ago I decided something had to give. My problem was pretty much self-inflicted, brought about by the countless mailing lists I’ve managed to get on in the past two decades. Some I signed up for directly, while others came as a result of a product inquiry or a purchase. These in turn spawned other subscriptions that began to arrive unsolicited and unexplained.

So I started unsubscribing wherever I could. Most reputable businesses will offer an opt-out function somewhere at the end of the message. I tested these day by day to see what happened, and found that most worked quickly to remove me from their lists. Some were persistent, though, and a few I simply gave up on and flagged as spam. I dislike that route because I still have to go through my spam filter every day checking for messages that get in there by mistake.

But the things I am subscribed to seem to know no boundary. How did I get on a mailing list in Tagalog? Who signed me up for updates on Brazilian agriculture? I don’t read Mandarin, so how did I wind up with weekly Chinese emails laden with images of books sold on Amazon?

Easy social-media fixes

In trying to turn off the spigot, I’ve found myself taking dead aim at the social media sites. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn were updating me constantly about things I could read about by going to their respective sites. It’s easy enough to fix this by changing settings on the site itself, or checking the update messages for an unsubscribe option. Similarly, I turned off all eBay notices that told me whenever anybody put something on my watch list up for sale. I set the list up years ago, but I’ll only reactivate it if I get back to collecting vintage fountain pens and coffee memorabilia.

What I hadn’t expected from the inbox surgery was how useful it made mail on my smartphone. Before it was absurd to even look at my inbox on the phone because it was so stuffed with non-essentials that I couldn’t navigate through the clutter. But now, as I continue to control the influx of newsletters, the communications I do need to see stand out. I also discovered a superb new email app called Mailbox ( that makes message filtering a matter of learning a few simple screen gestures.

2 more options

All this is an ongoing process, but I’ve also learned about a couple of tools that may help if you’d like to pare down your own inbox. is an online service for Gmail and Yahoo that culls all the subscriptions in your inbox and offers three choices. You can leave them coming into your inbox, unsubscribe to them or collect them all in a single mailing that you get daily.

Or take a look at Mailstrom, which works with other email services and helps you set up mail priorities and filters as well as unsubscribing from newsletters. Even so, I’m less comfortable with letting a third party tweak something as sensitive as my email, so I advocate mastering your email program and setting up your own filters. If you can live without some of the travel promotions and shopping come-ons, your life may get a little less complicated.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

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