What rough beast slouches towards Inbox Zero

I’ve had what you might call an email problem. Before Getting Things Done was published, and long before Merlin Mann started talking about Inbox Zero, I was already in a deep, dark pit of email messages, both read and unread (and plenty that were actually read but were marked as unread). I’m going to tell you how I got there, and how and why I got out of it.

Habits and residue

I’ve been using internet-based email since about 1990. At a time when most people still hadn’t even heard of the internet, I had subscriptions to a variety of mailing lists covering all kinds of subjects, on and off, over long ranges of time. Even though most of these were public mailing lists, those lists weren’t well-indexed by Google or anyone else during much of the 90s, so I ended up keeping them. And that habit stuck. When I first got access to gmail a decade ago, I quickly realized that it gave me some great tools to automatically label and filter mailing list content, so I moved all my subscriptions there, and in fact used my gmail account almost exclusively for mailing list content for many years.

Some of these mailing lists, especially those covering Apple tech, were really high-traffic lists, and over time, I found myself lacking the time to read them all, and I ended up with a lot of unread messages festering in categorized folders in gmail. Over time, it also seemed that some of the lists’ headers changed just enough to no longer be picked up by the gmail filters I had set up, so they ended up languishing in the inbox itself. I became accustomed to the fact that my gmail inbox had this ludicrous, growing number attached to it, and maybe that desensitized me for what was to come later: Life kicked me around a bit.

Kicking around

I’m not going to go into detail of how life kicked me around. It was mostly family issues, including a death and some other changes, the kind of things that happen to everyone now and then during their lives. I found it basically impossible to keep up with the flow of email. I had already gotten used to just leaving most email messages in my main account’s Inbox at all times, and relied on searching/filtering to find things. That’s pretty much the same as just hitting “archive” on everything, except it’s still in the Inbox. When life started kicking me around, I began not only leaving things in the inbox. I also left them unread or, if they seemed important, I might read them and then mark them as unread, to leave little reminders for myself that I hadn’t yet answered them.

That alone might have been OK, but I was so bogged down that I wasn’t even deleting pure spam and garbage, so it was also just lying there, unread, with the emails that I had some intention of handling properly, some day. In short, this was a big, unmanageable mess.

The dream of zero

Sometime during all this, maybe about five years ago, I began to hear about things like Inbox Zero, but it seemed like an impossible dream. By that time I surely had tens of thousands of unread messages spread across various accounts, and taming that hoard seemed both impossible and not very useful. What sort of gain would I get that would actually be worth the time it would take me to sort it out?

So time went on, and my unread counts grew. From time to time, a friend or co-worker would notice the ridiculous badge number on my email program, be surprised, and ask me about it. Eventually I developed a standard excuse: “You don’t tick a check-box for every ad you seen in every newspaper you read, do you? So why should I spend time dealing with every piece of spam or uninteresting offer that hits my inbox?” Snarky, right? I felt so clever with this excuse.

An epiphany

A couple of weeks ago, I was pairing with a colleague visiting from another office, who noticed my inbox badge, and said “Oh my god, it’s true!” I looked up and saw the number, similar to the growing number that I saw several times a day, and that I had become so desensitized to. If memory serves, it was roughly 143,000. Yes, that’s one hundred forty-three thousand unread messages. And the thing that got to me was that the “oh my god, it’s true” implied that the number was so large, and was so far outside the norm, that people were talking about it. And not just any people, but my colleagues at thoughtbot, who I consider to be the smartest, finest people I have ever worked with. At that moment, I realized that I had to make a change.

The main culprits

I started thinking about this, and a few days later started looking through my email to look for patterns. I first turned to my gmail account, which contained all that mailing list content. That account alone had over 100,000 unreads, and the vast majority were from mailing lists. Many from lists that I had stopped subscribing to long ago. Those were the easiest to deal with, by using the gmail web interface to find the list content, mark all the messages as read, and archive them all away. My gmail account has always been remarkably free from spam, so doing that left me with a (very large) handful of individual emails marked as unread. I dealt with some of the newest ones right away, but most of these were old enough that I conculded that if I hadn’t answered them by now, I didn’t need to work about them any more. I selected them all, marked them as read, and archived them. Gmail: sorted!

More problematic were my other main email accounts, one on iCloud and one on a personal domain. Each of these had gathered copious amounts of spam over the years, so the unread messages they contained were a frothy mix of spam and actual emails from friends and associates that I had marked as unread (or had actually never read) with the intention of getting to them later. As with gmail, I reasoned that old, unanswered emails could be safely filed away, but I didn’t want to actually file away the spam as well, so a new approach was needed.

The devil in the details

I decided to use the Smart Mailbox feature in Mac OS X to help me out. I made a smart mailbox to show me just the unread messages from one of these accounts, then sorted the message list by sender. A huge number of the emails I wanted to get rid of were recurring emails coming from a variety of sources, and having them sorted by sender let me find huge chunks of these, select thema, and delete them. I started with the A’s and worked my way down, deleting garbage all the way. By the time I reached the Z’s, all I had left were emails from actual humans. I marked them all as read and archived them away. Finally I went back to the inbox (which still contained many thousands of read messages) and archived those away as well. Then I did the same for my other main non-gmail account.

Plowing through those thousands of messages did take time, but not as much as I feared. I finished off the last of those inboxes, starting from about 7000 unreads, in about an hour just today. Altogether this project hasn’t taken more than four or five hours, spread across a few evenings.

The promised land

So now, suddenly, I find myself at inbox zero, and I think I’m here to stay. I’m surprised, myself, at how good it feels to not see those big numbers looming over my head. I’m no longer using “unread” as a flag to tell me that I need to do something, someday, about this message. Now, the unread state simple means that I haven’t read it, and the continued presence of a message in an inbox itself means that there is some unfinished business. The inbox becomes a sort of dynamic to-do list. It’s great.

And that’s the end of my tale. You probably don’t have such an extreme amount of unread email as I did, but hopefully this will serve as a lesson. I honestly never thought I would be at inbox zero, and yet there I am. Dreams really can come true, I’m living proof, yada yada. Now go forth and purge.