Limit The Number Of Messages In Your Inbox and Sent Folders

Do you have thousands of email messages in your Inbox or Sent folder? If so, read on to learn how this can cause problems as well as better ways to organize your messages. Recently, I’ve had a string of users who have been negatively impacted since they’ve had over 10,000 messages in either their Inbox or Sent mail folder.

Email applications and webmail systems are not all created equally and some are more lenient than others in terms of the number of messages that they can reliably store in one folder. That said, I recommend that you store at most 2,000 or 3,000 messages in any given folder. This includes, the Inbox, Sent folder or any other folder of saved messages. When the number exceeds a few thousand the likelihood of problems tends to increase, especially if you use Apple’s Mail or Microsoft’s Entourage or Outlook applications.

To achieve this goal of only having a few thousand messages in any folder, I recommend that people create email storage folders named Inbox Archive and Sent Archive. Inside each of these folders create sub-folders named something like Inbox 2014, Inbox 2013, Inbox 2012, etc. as well as the corresponding folders to hold older sent messages in the Sent Archive. Then every quarter throughout the year, select all of the messages in the Inbox and drag them into the current year’s inbox archive and, similarly, for the sent archive. If you send or receive a high volume of messages, you might need to do this clean-up every month.

Important Note: If you’re going to embark on cleaning up your mail folders, please make sure that you have a current backup of your entire hard drive, before you start. Nothing should go wrong, but sometimes moving thousands of messages stirs up the dust in Mail or Outlook and can cause them to act up, freeze or produce error messages which, while unlikely, could cause some messages to be lost. Furthermore, when you select hundreds or thousands of messages and start to drag them around you could click the wrong button, by accident, so please have a current backup.

Moving hundreds or thousands of messages doesn’t occur instantaneously. In fact, it can easily, take many minutes. The actual speed depends upon many factors including the age and speed or your computer, the speed of your Internet connection and the speed of the mail server you’re using. So, it’s convenient to watch the progress of these  large-scale moves. To do so in Mail, click on the Window menu and select Activity. To do so in Entourage or Outlook, click on the Window menu and select Progress. In each case, a small window will appear which’ll show you the progress of moving messages from one folder to another. Always, make sure that you can see the messages in the destination folder before your delete them from mailbox that you’re cleaning.

Here are some examples of things that can go wrong if you have too many messages in a given mail folder:

Example 1: A client had more than 25,000 messages in her Inbox. She uses Apple’s Mail application. One day she noticed that she wasn’t getting any new messages in her Inbox. She connected to her email account using webmail and saw all of the new mail messages. When we investigated, we saw that Mail was attempting to download new messages, but it just appeared to get stuck. Mail was able to send messages, but it just didn’t succeed in retrieving messages for her Inbox. No error message was displayed. After going through basic email troubleshooting steps we called her email provider, which happened to be GoDaddy. GoDaddy didn’t immediately know the source of the problem, but when they saw that her Inbox contained over 25,000 they asked her to select a large group of messages and move them to another folder. As soon as she did this, Mail was then able to successfully download new messages into her Inbox. Problem solved. I’m not entirely sure what was wrong but I think the mail server was struggling to work properly with 25,000+ messages in the Inbox.

Example 2: A client had over 10,000 messages in her Sent folder. She uses Microsoft Outlook on her Mac and accesses her email account using her MacBook Air, iPhone and iPad. One day she noticed that recently sent messages were not showing up in her Sent folder in Outlook. However, she could view these same messages in the Sent folder using Mail on her iPhone or iPad. Later in the day, she checked again and all of the messages had eventually shown up in her Sent folder in Outlook. She contacted me. When I saw that she had more than 10,000 messages in her Sent folder, I immediately moved many of them to her sent archive folder, which we had set up in the past but she hadn’t used them recently. We waited for these messages to be moved. Then we sent a few test messages and they immediately showed up in the Sent folder in Outlook. Problem fixed. My hunch is that Outlook was having problems handling a folder with 10,000 message in it.

Example 3: Email accounts can become full. Every email provider has a cap or quota on the amount of storage space available for use by your account. When your account hits this limit, you won’t be able to receive any new messages. In fact, new messages are typically returned to the sender. Many, but not all, mail systems will send you a warning email when your account becomes 80% or 90% full. If your account becomes full, it’s either time to delete some unneeded messages or to move messages out of the Inbox and Sent folder and into your local archive folders. Once you’ve moved enough messages off of the mail server and into folders that reside on your Mac, your account will have room to receive new messages.

I hope you’re able to avoid all of these problems by regularly cleaning up your Inbox and Sent folders.

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