When was the last time you looked at your email inbox and were overwhelmed? For most of us, email is a regular part of our life. But when our inboxes get out of control, we run the risk of either spending an inordinate amount time in them, or of letting the important pieces of communication fall through the crack.

One approach that I’ve found helpful is called inbox-zero. It’s the intentional goal of getting your inbox to zero on a regular (e.g. daily) basis. Ideally, each piece of mail gets hit once, and you decide then if it needs to be deleted, archived, or acted upon. And in the cases where action is required, but you’re unable to act immediately, you archive the email anyway, and then make a note of it on a list of any outstanding items you need to get back to. This allows the inbox to truly be inbox for incoming communication, and lowers the likelihood of an important item getting lost amid the potentially hundreds (thousands for some people) messages that may accumulate.

I’ve been using this approach for years now, and have found it effective. But there’s something even more effective than being able to process your inbox efficiently. It’s choosing to keep unnecessary emails out of your inbox in the first place.

For a little while now, I’ve been getting pretty ruthless with the ‘unsubscribe’ link that appears on the bottom of most non-personal emails. Sure, I can delete or archive the ones I don’t want fairly quickly, but why not just stop the unnecessary ones from hitting my inbox to begin with? Because I can’t get any quicker than not needing to deal with it in the first place.

Why we don’t

Next time you have several emails in your inbox, take a moment to see how many of them are unnecessary? How many have outlived their value?

It can be easy to let these kinds of subscriptions accumulate. Perhaps that newsletter was once valuable and informative, but no longer serves that purpose. Maybe the emails are from online retailers or service provider that you’ve used, and now you’re being swamped with promotional emails. (Often, instead of having you opt-in for these emails, they make it where you have to opt-out.)  It doesn’t take long for these to add up, but unless we take the time to intentionally unsubscribe, they’ll continue to keep coming.

Other times, we consciously choose not to unsubscribe because of a fear of missing out. What if I stop receiving these emails (e.g. promotional), and I miss out on a good deal? What if I miss out on an interesting article or commentary? And this might be true–you might occasionally miss out on some things. But it also pays to consider the flip side.

Why we should

Although there may be some interesting information or promotions we end up missing, there are also things we could be saving by unsubscribing.

Save Our Time: By unsubscribing, there will be by definition, fewer emails to look at, which means you’ll have more time for the rest of your life.

Save Our Money: Think about it. Why do companies keep sending promotional advertisements? Because they want you to buy something from them. They want your money. And although there may be a good deal here and there, how often do they actually send you something that you were already looking to buy? And how often are you tempted to buy something that wasn’t even on your radar just minutes before?

Save Our Focus: If there are fewer things in the inbox, it will be harder for the important ones to get lost in the midst of everything else. And if the less valuable emails have been eliminated, it means you can spend your attention and focus on the things in life that matter most instead of regularly deleting (or mindlessly reading) emails that aren’t providing any significant benefit.

Choosing to unsubscribe

I’m not saying to go out and unsubscribe from every single email. But I am suggesting that you give thought to what you let into your inbox. Is it something you actually find valuable? Is it something you would miss if it stopped showing up?

For me, if I notice I’ve deleted or skipped over an email from an organization multiple times in a row, that’s a clear sign to me that it’s a good candidate to be unsubscribed from. Sure, I may miss out on some things. But I’m also saving myself time and the distraction factor.  And for me, that’s more important.

For some, the ideal of unsubscribing can be difficult. Especially when it’s stemming from a fear of missing out. But my suggestion would be to err on the side of unsubscribing too much than too little. And after a few weeks, if you realize you really do find value from something you’ve unsubscribed from, you can always go back and resubscribe.

But my guess is that more often than not, you won’t even miss the emails when they’re not there. Which says something about how important they really were all along.