This is a story about my inbox. In 2006, a friend opted me to gmail beta account. In early 2019, I noticed that I had over half a million emails. Comparatively, my combined old Yahoo and Hotmail accounts have roughly 5000 emails between them from active use from 1998-2006. How did this happen? Google accounts translates roughly to:
- 38,500 emails a year (vs 625 with Yahoo/Hotmail)
- 3,200 emails a month (~vs 52 with Yahoo/Hotmail)
- 740 emails a week (vs 12 with Yahoo/Hotmail)
- 105 emails a day (vs 2 with Yahoo/Hotmail)
While I know this glut is not an uncommon experience, but I pride myself for my efficiency. How could I seriously consider over 100 emails a day being productive? I decided to take matters in my own hands.
I am proud to say that my inbox is now just under 35,000 mails. Here’s what learned about my experience.
A step back in time
In 2010, I had a colleague who began deleting old emails from his gmail account. I told him there is no need because he will likely never run out of space. Otherwise he could do some old school folder filters to categorise things. He just said he needed a clean inbox for clear mind. I just nodded and left him to it. I thought to myself he was looking at it backwardly. Now, 10 years later, I felt he was on to something.
I had constantly battled my inbox tidy by keeping unread messages at the top. If my inbox has less than 20 unread messages, I was at the top of my game. If it went over 1,000 unreads (which happened several times), I would work for hours to get this under control. For the most part it worked. Until it didn’t.
In the days of my early internet experience (lets just say 1998-2008) I remember my inbox as pretty sacred space. I like writing, and if given the option to write or call, I typically preferred to write.
But email had become so habitual – first thing I do when I wake up. What new mails did I get? Sitting on a bus, train or ferry, yep, emails were my go to before surfing the net (I am not really on social media; I imagine the noise there is just as bad). The constant check was an inane practice, and wasn’t adding anything, but taking away time I should be enjoying life. So early last year, I checked my gmail email account (you can do this by typing “in:all” in your search bar. My result was over 500,000 emails.
I started to think of these emails as analogues of pieces of paper. If that was the case, would I keep that that piece of paper? I wanted to actually get to the bottom of why I would have so many emails. So over the course of a year I decided to clean up this digital horde of information.
Sadly, I should have documented the numbers, it just didn’t seem important at the time. This wasn’t the case, as I have to rely on my potentially faulty memory. Nonetheless these here are a few things I’ve learned along my journey.
User Engagement is socially acceptable spam.
Going from 50000 to 35000 is sizable, 93% reduction. What were those emails rendered useless? Most of them came under the guise of ‘user engagement’ from e-commerce and social media sites.:
- Purchase confirmation receipts
- Purchase status updates
- Delivery updates
- Automated newsletter signups from when you bought a product
- Alerts from things you did on a website (you just logged in, you have items remaining in your account)
- Alerts from what others did on the website (auction bids, others looking at your classifieds)
- Social engagements (you got a like, someone wants to connect to you)
- Reminders that you haven’t engaged in the service for a while
- Reminders of expiring services or renewals
- Verification of email or identity
- Terms of services change & Policies updates.
- Engagements with customer service
Of the above, I want the paper trail of purchase receipts. However the worst noise came from numbers 4 – 8. I would suspect that 75-80% of my deleted emails came from those. I had 2 simple rules for keeping something in this group:
- Is it useful for record keeping?
- Did it add meaning or colour to my life?
For the above: purchase receipts and some customer service engagements where the only ones worth holding on to. It was the latter that most of these succumbed to. Its highly subject to me, but I was going to be brutal. No more noise.
The most noise came from Twitter, Facebook (before I deleted my account) and Google+ (before they deleted their account). These were constantly barraging me into engagement from people I didn’t particularly care about. Even after I disengaged or deleted my account, I would still get occasionally notices, but these are at a complete standstill.
The most annoying were the coy newsletter and promotional emails opt-in: this result from missing a pre-ticked box, requirement for the terms and conditions, or simply opted in without asking. Among those, a financial advice – one I had signed up for was particularly bad: In the course of 10 months, over 2,000 emails were sent from their products, talking heads and sales. I had just signed up for a once-a-month video cast about the financial market. Other furtive opt-ins had accumulated for years sending 5-10 emails a month resulting in 1,000’s of emails.
The ones I thought would be worst – Ebay and Amazon, were surprising benign. While there was a lot of noise for auction or purchase events, but it died down afterwards. I think what matters here, is that though there was flurry of emails here, they were expected, and at the time, useful. However, there was no need to keep the myriad of bid notices as history, only winning bids.
Getting rid of unwanted email was surprisingly easy. It was simply a matter of putting the domain in the search box, and then excluding keywords that I didn’t want to match. I used a negative match “-” for the types of email I want For example:
from:biffsbargainbarn.com -receipt -”account information”
This would find all the emails sent from biffsbargainbarn.com, and exclude anything that would be a receipt or account information. You will have to experiment with the negative keywords.
This way, I could select all and delete swaths of unwanted emails to my satisfaction.
More Difficult Decisions
The more difficult decisions were emails that enjoyed reading. I belonged to Quora, which is a social question & answer website. I found myself spending a lot time on their emails simply because they were interesting. But what I find is that they were creating aof n artificial feedback loop. For instance I had read 2 or 3 articles about the Beatles. Soon enough most of my engagement was around the Beatles. After awhile it felt all the same. The problem here was, as they gathered information on my interests, they couldn’t hold me there because there was little novelty.
This one was one of the email types I deleted. I did so because they were a time suck: though interesting and engaging, but over the course of years it wasn’t meaningful. It was just something that held my attention. So why did I decide to delete these emails?
The decision was made by how I shared the emails. Out of the thousands of emails from Quora I got, I shared 8 articles from Quora. When I looked at the articles I shared, half them didn’t originate from the emails, but where part of other online research I did.
Quora wasn’t the only newsletter I decided to delete, it was just the most significant one. The litmus test was whether I would miss it. As much as it held my attention, I actually don’t miss that email at all.
The remaining 7%
Although it took a good year to get to this point, it has been a great treasure trove of discovery including the first email I sent to my future wife!
- I’ve found very meaningful emails from significant events in my life
- I realised emails that I sent to myself – whether links or photos, where far more interesting than nearly all the newsletters I subscribed to. Even from 14 years ago, still are meaningful to me
- I’ve been able to reconnect with mates outside of noise of social media
- The vast majority e-commerce emails are noise; hitting the unsubscribe was a relief.
- I’ve moved on from Gmail to paid, privacy focused email using my own domain.
- I spend less time on email, but the time I spend communicating is more enjoyable.
- It makes it easier to put down my mobile phone or close the lid to my laptop.
Also, please excuse me know, I am going to call my mum.