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The one-month rule: why you should archive – or even delete – any email that’s more than one month old

By Shandel McAuliffe | |6 minute read
The one-month rule: why you should archive – or even delete – any email that’s more than one month old

Once upon a time, I used to keep every email I received because I mistakenly thought I might need them again at some point. Usually, to point out something someone said they’d do, and then they didn’t. Feels mean just typing that, but I bet you’re a bit the same. We keep emails to cover our butts or to expose someone else’s.

If you tend to hold on to all of your old emails thinking you might need them in the future, here are four reasons why you might want to reconsider:

1. You won’t need them


You don’t need those 11,000 odd emails in the 250 folders you have. Chances are, with all that saved data, you have only gone back 2 or 3 times to retrieve something. And when you do go looking you can’t remember which folder you kept it in anyway. It’s using up a lot of mental and physical capacity.

2. Frees up space which improves computer performance

If your IT department isn’t already onto you to reduce your saved emails, they soon will be. Many of us are given gigabytes or even terabytes of space to store our stuff, and at first this feels huge but over time it fills up pretty quickly.

3. It’s overwhelming

All those emails and folders are overloading and overwhelming your brain. Email was not meant to be a storage app, it was designed as an (almost) instant communications app.

Some of you reading this might be old enough to remember in-trays on your desk: plastic stacked trays to hold incoming mail and memos. Email was meant to emulate that. Something comes in, gets processed, and then moved on. Your inbox (and in-tray) should be sparse or empty.

4. It’s a security risk

Hackers break into stuff all the time. Chances are, particularly in HR, many of those emails contain sensitive and personal information about your employees.

What to do instead

1. Apply the 30-day rule

Delete any email that is older than 30 days including all those folders. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, then create an archive folder and dump the whole lot in there. That way they aren’t gone, they are just out of the way. Do it right now . . . select and drag.

2. Scan incoming email

In his book, Smart Work, Dermot Crowley has some great advice for handling email. He explains there are three types of email:

  • Action – requires a planned and considered response (usually only 10 per cent of incoming email)
  • Information – read and delete
  • Junk – unsubscribe and delete

3. Create a ‘done’ folder

You don’t need all those email folders. They are not helping when you need to find things, and they are only clogging up the system. What you need is a short term (30 days) way to hang on to emails that you may need to recall for projects and such.

Here’s how it works:

  • open the message
  • attend to it accordingly
  • drag it out of your inbox and into the ‘done’ folder
  • create a rule to automatically delete or archive emails when they are more than 30 days old.

Get out of jail free card

If you are working on a project, create a short-term folder for messages related to that specific project. Once it’s finished, drag the folder into ‘done’.

Finally . . .

Most of our email productivity problems come about because we don’t have a system for managing them. We operate out of a default setting that says, we open emails first thing, spend most of our day dipping in and out of them, and because we are tired and overwhelmed, we hang on to everything because we’re suffering from decision fatigue and don’t have the energy or time to think about whether we should keep it or not.

It's time to consciously decide on a system for managing your email. Start with the 30-day rule and trust me, your future self will thank you.

Donna McGeorge is a best-selling author and global authority on productivity.

Note from the editor: Please note that this article has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not to be construed as advice. There may be instances where deleting an email may not be appropriate.

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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