Ruthless Email: Cleaning Up the Clutter of Spam & Marketing Emails

by Annie

in email herding

Image of a can of SPAM

Mmmm. SPAM.

Quick question: how many junk emails do you get a day? 

Ten? Twenty? A hundred or more?

It’s not uncommon, and it’s way too easy to fall into this trap. Email marketing is a powerful and effective way to get your marketing message out to prospects. I use it myself, as do most folks.

Let me be clear: email marketing is not evil, in and of itself.

Don’t hate the marketer. Don’t viciously mark it as “spam” when you signed up for it. Don’t allow yourself to get infuriated over its mere presence in your inbox.

Instead, calmly and rationally, recognize what happened here, in all likelihood:

  1. You saw something — an ebook offer, or a coaching call, or a dress or a pair of jeans — that you wanted.
  2. Somewhere in the process of obtaining that pretty/shiny/helpful thing, you were asked if you wanted to sign up for the list. Or maybe you had to sign up to get the pretty/shiny/helpful thing. Whatever. YOU SIGNED UP.
  3. And now, years after the fact, long after you read the ebook, listened to the call, wore out the jeans or the dress, you’re still getting these emails.

Bottom line: You did this.

Better yet? You can undo it, too.

Why Is Marketing Email Such a Time-Sucking Productivity Killer?

Every marketing email that comes into your inbox — even if you never open it, even if you delete it immediately — sucks a little bit of time from your daily allotment.

It’s a tiny amount per email, to be sure, but it adds up.

“Isn’t that obvious?” OK, yes, Mr./Ms. Smartypants, it is obvious, but here’s something that might not be so obvious:

It also clutters up your brain.

It’s the digital equivalent of dust bunnies behind the fridge. You know they’re there. You know you should clean ’em out. But it’s not a huge priority, so … they accumulate. Quickly. Like tribbles.

Fortunately, every marketing email SHOULD come with its very own “clean-up” button. It’s called the “unsubscribe” link, and by law, every single commercial email should have one.

You can read the text of the CAN-SPAM Act yourself here (warning: PDF file), and here’s some info from the FCC on the whole “spam” issue.

Email Clutter Clearing 101

So, here’s how you get rid of the nonsense without tearing your hair out or taking the whole damn day:

  1. Every day for the rest of the month, set aside ten minutes to deal with the marketing emails.
  2. Open up your inbox.
  3. Process your important email first (and yes, we’ll be talking about how to do that more effectively two or three posts from now).
  4. Now, open up the first marketing email in there. Make a decision: does this email list offer you value? Have you clicked on the links lately? Do you get something out of that newsletter? If so, archive it. We’ll talk about how to deal with valuable emails like this in the next post. If it doesn’t provide value, go on to the next step.
  5. Scroll down to the bottom of the email.
  6. Look for a link with the anchor text of “Unsubscribe” or “Remove yourself from this list” or the like. The anchor text might read something like “click here,” so you’ll want to scan all the fine print at the bottom if it doesn’t jump out at you.
  7. Click that unsubscribe link.
  8. Follow whatever instructions you find there and save your changes. Go back to your inbox.
  9. Now, before you delete the email, look for the “From” address. If it’s relatively simple (i.e., “”), copy it and go search the rest of your mail for that email address. If it’s convoluted, with a bunch of alphanumerics, don’t bother. Instead, do a general search for the business name.
  10. Delete all those resulting emails. (Warning: if you actually made a recent purchase, don’t delete receipt or confirmation emails, ’cause you might need ’em later.)
  11. Repeat the process with the next email.
  12. If the email in question does not have an unsubscribe link? Mark it as spam. They’re breakin’ the law. They deserve it.
  13. When you have more time, say on the weekend, catch the stragglers you archived before you started the culling process by searching your archives for “unsubscribe.” (You might also want to search for: manage notificationsupdate preferencesremove meremove yourselfmailing listemail list, and click here.) Lather, rinse, repeat.
As you go through the month with this process, you’ll find that this process takes less time, because you’re culling the herd as you go. Win-win.

Avoid Email Clutter From the Get-Go

Now, going forward, how can you reduce the commercial email avalanche?

Well, you could stop signing up for stuff. And I’m all for being more discerning with the whole “signing up for newsletters” thing. You’re not doing the marketer/biz owner any favors if you’re still on the list, but not getting anything out of the emails.

But sometimes, you get some good deals from those emails. So what’s a time-sensitive couch warrior to do?

Here’s one way: get a throw-away address.

I have one from Gmail, and it feeds into my main Gmail account, but all the emails go straight to Archives. Then when I want to buy something, I first search my archives for that item to see if I have a special coupon code.

Periodically, I go back into that email address and clean out the old archives. There’s no point keeping anything in it older than a few months, because that’s all I use it for: signing up for stuff, like contests, ebooks, etc.

So your other task for the day: Go to Gmail and sign up for an email address that you will ONLY USE for sign-ups.

Turning Off Notifications: Some Additional Thoughts

Before I close this post out, I wanted to revisit the notion of turning off email notifications, which I wrote about in the first post in this series a few days back.

After I posted that article, a friend and client who performs contract legal research contacted me to tell me what a revolutionary impact the post had on her workday.

It’s amazing. I hadn’t realized how much time I spend — just the interruption and distraction factor. If I’m in the middle of a complicated research trail, and I get a notification, I go check it automatically. Then it takes me at least half a minute to decide ‘Do I want to deal with this now or later?’ And almost always, by the time I get to that point, I go ahead and deal with it then, rationalizing that it’ll take less time to deal with it then than later. And then I see there’s another email, maybe from my mother, about some sale at some store, asking if the kids need anything. I don’t have to deal with that right there and then but almost always, I do. Because I’m already there. So, then after all that, trying to get back into the middle of the research trail –wondering where I was, what point I was following up on, which case I needed to update … it’s almost impossible. Turning off the notifications just today, I think I’ve saved an hour or more.

So my question to you is: what would you do for an extra hour a day? 

 Photo credit: Ellen Moran

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Someone February 9, 2012 at 3:11 am

First off, I love that you included a picture of SPAM. I don’t know why.

Second, interesting article. I had no idea it was a law that you must put an unsubscribe link in commercial emails. I wish I had that for those annoying cousins who send me stupid forward crap. “Hmmm, I think I’ll unsubscribe from all the pictures of your cat, Aunt Jenny. Click!”. That would be nice.


Annie February 9, 2012 at 11:21 am

Oh, yeah, definitely. On both counts. (The SPAM and the family unsubscribe button notion.) (Which someone really ought to get crackin’ on soon…)


Michelle Church February 11, 2012 at 2:39 am

Love your advice…I use to be really good at cleaning my email but it has not grown legs…i do exactly what you say…if I have subscribed yet not read it, and often I don’t recognize the name…I copy the email address (from) then unsubscribe, filter my email with that email address and delete them all…Thanks for the great tips…gonna pick up a few more and make it happen!
Michelle Church recently posted..“5″ Signs That Your Marketing Efforts Are Working


Annie February 11, 2012 at 10:24 am

Thanks for the note, Michelle! I’m so glad you’re finding it helpful!


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