How do you manage not drowning in stuff?
May 22, 2012 6:05 AM   Subscribe

Do you save email? Bigger, philosophical question inside..

As I was going through my gmail account this morning deleting various messages and not deleting others, it occurred to me why I was saving any of the emails I've already read and responded to at all. (These is a personal email account, not a work account.)

For instance, an email from a friend saying his wife was retiring from teaching I decided to save, while another one that was a "we really enjoyed our night out at that restaurant with you" type thanks email I deleted... Why should I save or delete either? Will I read them at some point 20 years from now? There will be too many to read and, why would I want to anyway? I used to save handwritten letters from friends and family, though I'm not sure why now. I never open them up to read now.

It just seems there is too much "stuff" now to try to maintain all of it for some supposed future date when I will have more time - that will never happen!

I used to visit older relatives at their home where the place was pretty spartan: few photographs, fewer books, minimal furniture etc. I used to think the place was kind of barren but as I've grown older I'm beginning to think they had the right idea of having pared down and not an accumulation of "stuff".

What do you do? How do you manage the glut of email, and more generally, stuff that you are interested in?
posted by bellastarr to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
In g-mail? Why would you delete any personal e-mails? Just hit the archive button! If you want to look it up later, you can search for it, otherwise it's effectively "deleted" as you won't see it in your inbox anymore, so it's still out of sight and out of mind. It's not like you're going to run out of storage space.
posted by Grither at 6:07 AM on May 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't delete any personal correspondence; everything gets archived. I've definitely gone back to years-old emails from anything between trying to figure out exactly which day I went to that place with that person to reading long, old conversations from what feels like past lives at this point. Considering most email search functions are pretty powerful, the comparison between a full archive of emails and a cluttered house doesn't work unless you have nearly-perfect recall for where everything is (which is basically what a search function is.)
posted by griphus at 6:10 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I really don't see the point in deleting anything other than junk mail. I think I've had gmail for close to 10 years now, and am at about 25% capacity. I rarely even put emails into folders now; I have some rules-based tagging, but the email is instantly searchable, it hardly seems worthwhile to do more than that.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:15 AM on May 22, 2012

There are a couple of philosophies here:

1. The Outlook Philosophy: Sort all the stuff you want to keep and reference back later in folders--be hyperorganized, spend a lot of time sorting through email, and you'll know exactly where email X is when you need it later.

2. The Gmail Philosophy: When you're done with an email, archive it. Everything goes into an amorphous blob of a folder called "All Mail." Then if you want to reference it later, search for it. Much less time spent, and generally as long as you can remember a key detail or two you can find what you're looking for.

I personally prefer the Gmail philosophy. Storage space is cheap, and the time spent on sorting emails is expensive.
posted by JDHarper at 6:16 AM on May 22, 2012 [11 favorites]

I agree that you should just archive, archive, archive (though I admit to deleting plenty too, because I don't like the feeling of my archive being full of rubbish, because I am irrational).

One additional worthwhile thing might be to use some kind of simple marker — gmail's "star", or a tag, or whatever – just quickly to identify "good" emails before you archive them: emails of praise or compliments from others; newsy emails from friends that made you feel happy to receive them, etc. That way, you've got a simple way of browsing through some mood-lifting, ego-boosting messages when you need that. Cheesy but it works.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:16 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't delete any email that was personally written to me (as in, someone decided "I'm going to write John a message," rather than a company sending a mass email to as many people as possible). There's no benefit to deleting it. And there is a detriment to deleting it: it takes time. It isn't worth my time to sit around wondering if I'm going to need a particular email message in the future.
posted by John Cohen at 6:17 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The oddest old emails can sometimes come in use, you just never know at least that is what I tell myself, but yes, I have occasionally looked up ancient stuff and its been useful.
posted by infini at 6:17 AM on May 22, 2012

I would never delete emails and I rarely archive them. I don't have a lot of physical stuff, though. I don't think that really has anything to do with that, though. It's a totally different thing. Though, I have a fairly good method of organizing email, so it's been useful to have it.
posted by two lights above the sea at 6:43 AM on May 22, 2012

I say delete, delete, delete. I archive in Gmail only account information stuff (I bought a new garage door remote from an online store that required me to create an account... my software activation notifications, etc.). If it spills off the screen or onto additional pages it gets deleted. I have no interest in revisiting emails over the years, I am more interested in the new things that happen to me in life. My exception is of course work mail in which I save everything that might be useful to the job in the future (a sales contact lead, documenting things to cover my or my workplace's ass, etc.).
posted by No Shmoobles at 6:50 AM on May 22, 2012

I archive all non-spam mail, and keep it in monthly folders (one for inbox, another for sent mail). I don't do gmail, this is just on my local drive under on OSX with spotlight search goodness in front. Takes too much time to decide to throw something away, and I love having years-old conversations to hand.
posted by migurski at 6:52 AM on May 22, 2012

I find myself searching through old emails fairly regularly. And I'm sad that I didn't think to save my email accounts from college or earlier. So I vote for keeping as much as possible.
posted by mullacc at 6:56 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I never delete anything. This has often become useful, both for work and personally. It's great for regurgitating random bits of info like addresses, birthdays, restaurants you liked, etc.

Sometimes if I find myself digging back in the archives, too, I really like reading old emails. Not mundane stuff so much, but things that remind me of old friends and the stuff we did together. Also every once in a while I will have a hankering to read stuff from old relationships, because I'm creepy like that.
posted by Sara C. at 6:57 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

An analogy from the physical world - I have berated myself for saving photos, including snapshots that didn't really have any artistic merit, so to speak. I mean, an '80s era snapshot of people in h.s. I wasn't really close to? No, my house doesn't look like an episode of hoarders. All my sentimental stuff probably fits in 4-5 boxes. At this rate there may be 10 boxes when I die. Seems managable, but I'm so hyper organized that it bugs me.

Anyway, I was looking through them for a photo that someone had asked about. I found a photo of two high school classmates. I knew they'd gotten married, and I knew that the wife had died of cancer a couple of years ago. I got in touch with the husband, and asked if he wanted them.

It turned out that the occasion of the photo being taken was of their first date.

Not sure if e-mail has the power to be that emotionally valuable. But you never know. At any rate, it will be a long time before you run out of space on gmail...
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:58 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I make filters to add tags to my mailing list emails, since then I can search within, say, the mac-enterprise listserv for "Drivers" and it will not return stuff from the micro--manager listserv that may be completely useless.

other than that, yes! Archive! They just gave me another 3 gigs of storage. Hurrah!
posted by rockindata at 6:59 AM on May 22, 2012

I generally don't delete from gmail because of the large amount of space and the search function. Once it's read it's out of mind, and if I want to find it, I can. Making decisions about what is and isn't worth saving is not worth the time or the effort (see: decision fatigue).
posted by J. Wilson at 7:00 AM on May 22, 2012

I never delete my emails. A few years ago I lost someone very dear to me. After a few months had elapsed I found it immensely comforting to find their emails to me still stored in my Gmail; it was like hearing their voice again. So I do think emails can be of value.
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:03 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Echoing everyone who never deletes. Storage is cheap enough. After reading all of James Fallows' accounts of his wife's email problems, I started POPing off my Gmail account weekly. I used Thunderbird for this, and the local copy of all my e-mail gets sucked up into my normal backup routines here at home. On the off-chance my Gmail account is compromised and wiped, I still have everything, plus or minus what I've gotten since the last backup.

Yes, most of it is minutiae and crapola, but a good bit of it is forwarded stuff from my parents, relatives who are elderly, my brother (who died last year), and so on. I really don't want to get rid of any of it, and the cost of keeping it is basically nil.
posted by jquinby at 7:21 AM on May 22, 2012

One additional worthwhile thing might be to use some kind of simple marker — gmail's "star", or a tag, or whatever – just quickly to identify "good" emails before you archive them

I don't get it: why would you star and archive them? Why not just do nothing about them?
posted by John Cohen at 7:36 AM on May 22, 2012

Just a minor disagreement:

1. The Outlook Philosophy: Sort all the stuff you want to keep and reference back later in folders--be hyperorganized, spend a lot of time sorting through email, and you'll know exactly where email X is when you need it later.

Almost all mail clients these days support rules, tagging, and smart folders. The only sorting I do is marking messages for follow-up.

On the other hand, I will prune my back catalog of email using searches to do so. So things like old listserv messages and opt-in newsletters get kicked to the bit-bin as a group.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:36 AM on May 22, 2012

I delete a LOT. If I don't need it, then I get rid. I only generally keep stuff like "you just opened a new account, here's your password" emails. I don't keep stuff just because I can.
posted by Solomon at 7:48 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I delete if it was not a message personally addressed to me. If it was, no matter how inane, I save it. Gmail has tons of storage space, and I find it easy to just archive. It's sometimes fun to just flip through old emails to see what I was doing at the time.
posted by Night_owl at 7:55 AM on May 22, 2012

First, you can run out of space on gmail. I had effectively done it a month ago when they added more space. Even when I run out of space, I will not delete. I have every email sent to me other than spam and a few "deal of the day" type offers. When my email gets full, I use Thunderbird and move them from my primary gmail account to a secondary one at my own domain that uses google apps. If you get enough pdf's, files, photos, etc. you can and will run out of space. I use (I think) "Find big mail" to know which files I need to move first. Admittedly, I have rarely ever gone looking for an old email for a specific purpose. I have gone browsing through old emails generally looking at ones from specific people or a specific time period of my life. It is sort of like looking at pictures or reading a diary.

In the beginning of GMail, I made lots of folders and had lots of filters to send things to the proper folder, but I slowly came around to the fact that a simple search does that and more anytime I need it. I now have 4 folders and the rest is simply archived to "All Mail". Works great if you know what words to search on. Ultimately, I see myself getting to just the inbox and follow-up as my only two folders with everything else just being archived.

I made my original decision not to delete anything after reading that Marc Cuban has every electronic correspondence he has ever received or written. (I cannot find that article right now.)
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:09 AM on May 22, 2012

I don't intentionally delete the old email, but every few years I wind up having some sort of computer problem which kills the old queues, and I lose it anyway.
posted by Rash at 8:12 AM on May 22, 2012

"Organizing your email is about as useful as alphabetizing your recycling."
I don't even waste the time to archive, delete, tag, star, whatever. In the spirit of GTD, everything gets read, and stuff that needs an action gets sent to my GTD "to do" inbox. Everything else is just there waiting to be pulled out later if required.
posted by roofus at 8:17 AM on May 22, 2012

I delete the crud I don't need immediately, but everything else stays. I don't really feel like expending energy on deciding what goes and what stays.

Besides, keeping your email account spare and clean doesn't have any of the same tangible benefits as keeping a physical space clean and uncluttered. You're not eliminating dust or saving money or cutting down on your future landfill waste or keeping things simple for the movers or cultivating a tidy room for entertaining guests.

Delete if it pleases you, or not. No one's going to end up on an episode of Hoarders for having fifteen years of messages in their inbox.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:22 AM on May 22, 2012

I delete nothing and archive everything.

- It's not in my "inbox" so I maintain the spartan inbox that I like
- Google's search capabilities are nothing short of miraculous, so I never worry about losing stuff
- I've used GMail since June of 2004 and I've never come within a light year of my storage limit.

I briefly spent some time judiciously deciding what to archive and what to delete. Then I had a moment of clarity, decided that the time and mental energy were better spent elsewhere. FREEDOM!
posted by DWRoelands at 8:32 AM on May 22, 2012

Actually, as I continue reading all the answers, it reminded me why I started saving everything remotely useful (i.e. as many have said, those addressed to me personally) - it was a former colleague/mentor back when I worked at the university in Admissions who triumphantly dug up an old exchange with a potential student years later when said person claimed X for some purpose but my colleague wished to prove Y (for regulations and reasons to do with student services). He then turned to me and said, "and THAT is why I don't delete a single exchange of email"
posted by infini at 8:43 AM on May 22, 2012

I've definitely used old e-mails. Not a lot, but the cost of keeping them is so low that they're very cost effective. I keep it filtered into a few very broad folders on a regular basis and archive it all once a year. I still sort into folders because modern search is really good for finding something specific, but not so great if you want to casually browse through all of the "personal" e-mail (which I definitely do occasionally). I love the idea about starring pick-me-up e-mails!
posted by anaelith at 9:04 AM on May 22, 2012

I've never deleted anything in Gmail. I don't organize or archive any of it either. I do star actionable items and sort by "starred" when I have time to reply to personal emails, but that's it. If I need something, I search for it-- and that happens often.

On the other hand, I actively sort everything in Thunderbird, which I use for work email. I have folders and subfolders and every item that gets dealt with is moved over to its relevant folder. I've always done this with work email and I really only do it because I like having it all organized, despite the fact that Thunderbird's search function is quite good. The primary reason I sort work email is that I use my inbox as a to-do list, so that I can quickly see what needs to be replied to or followed up on.
posted by mireille at 9:14 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I delete sale flyers, news feeds and crap like that, but nothing personal or anything that has any information. I use Mac Mail like a database, especially helpful since I have such a terrible memory. I constantly looking to see if I’ve already bought some software and forgot, if I ever responded to someone, etc. I have emails from the 90’s.
posted by bongo_x at 9:26 AM on May 22, 2012

Husbunny is an archiver, I am a tosser (insert joke here) this goes for computer storage as well as regular storage.

Husbunny doesn't archive well. If I left it up to him, he'd have everything in huge piles that the cats would shred to bits for amusement.

I bought some stylish boxes and just cram it in there. I've been doing this for 10 years. This weekend will be the time when I force him to sort through it and to ditch anything that has become irrelevant in the intervening time. My philosophy is, you don't even know what's in there, let alone if you are going to ever need it.

Why I let it happen. One of the things he likes to archive is checks. Sure, they may be 5 years old, but you get a letter from the bank and you can deposit them.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:26 AM on May 22, 2012

"Organizing your email is about as useful as alphabetizing your recycling."

The analogy is slightly off, since recycling is stuff you are getting rid of. Rather: With Gmail, excessively organizing (putting everything into folders, for example) or selectively deleting are both similar to tagging or "marking as read" (if you could do such a thing), every website that you go to. You can find anything you want online by Googling; you can find anything you want in your Gmail through search — just learn how to specify search terms and how to use the advanced search features. Use labels/folders only for special projects where you want quick access to a bunch of stuff you need to organize into a report or publication, for example. Use stars and Priority Inbox to prioritize. Think of Gmail as a giant filing cabinet with literally everything you need in it. When you hit the storage limit, pay the very small fee for extra room. For all the reasons given in this thread for a zero-deletions approach, it's well worth it.
posted by beagle at 9:30 AM on May 22, 2012

Storage is basically free and search is nearly foolproof. I don't waste time organizing email. I regret deleting things far more than keeping them, you never know what might come up and the storage cost is nil.

I'm naturally suspicious of people that make it a habit to clean out their records, including emails.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 9:54 AM on May 22, 2012

Best answer: How do you manage not drowning in stuff?

The honest answer is I don't manage to do that.

FWIW, I do many of the same things as others. In principle I'm an "Inbox Zero" guy, though I often fall off the wagon. But I aim to not have things just sitting around in the inbox. Stuff that I'm sure I have no interest in seeing ever again gets deleted, stuff that there's a remote possibility of me taking action on someday gets put in a particular folder, stuff that I am definitely going to act on in the near future goes into another particular folder etc. If necessary, those definitely-will-be-acted-on things will also go into my calendar or task management system as well.

The aim of all this is that somewhere there is a single, relatively short list of stuff that is important for me to get handled in the immediate future.

For the most part I delete things that are automated notifications ("New follower on Twitter"), marketing mails ("Hey, did you know we brought out another iPad?") and things that are content-free or of completely transient interest, ("I'm running half an hour late"). Although it costs practically nothing to store all that junk, it clutters up search results if I do ever want to check if Twitter or Apple or friend X told me anything important that I skipped over.

Things that have any non-trivial content at all, I tend to keep. Back in the day I used to organize it all into folders, but now I throw most of it into a few big buckets. I even have a folder called "Bucket". Because you never know when you might want to catch up with someone you haven't seen in years, and it might be nice if you remembered their kids names. But those buckets are not for anything that is going to need my attention in the foreseeable future.

All that is the theory at least. The practice is that while I'm better off for having a system, if I fall off the wagon at all it quickly spirals out of control. Then at some point I make an effort, get everything in its place again, and everything is good for a while.

On the plus side, if I find myself drowning in stuff as you put it, at least I have some idea that the next thing I should do is clean out the places I've been capturing stuff and get my systems back up to date.

Probably the hardest thing is accepting the basic reality that there is no actual way to do all the things I'd like to do, and no way to keep up with all the things I'd like to keep up with. Of course the more I get on top of stuff, the more it seems like maybe I could do some of those things, and so the whole cycle starts again.
posted by philipy at 10:20 AM on May 22, 2012

John Cohen: I don't get it: why would you star and archive them? Why not just do nothing about them?

This was in response to the OP's focus on browsing through old memories at some later date, rather than on finding specific pieces of information via search. It's not easy to use search to locate, amid thousands of emails, the ones that gave you a "warm glow", so it's a nice habit to get into if you think you might ever want to treat your email the way we treat boxes of old photos, trinkets, memorabilia etc.
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:03 PM on May 22, 2012

I'm an inbox zero person, but after I've dealt with each item and brought the conversation to a close, I save it in archive. It's unbelievably useful.

I don't make many determinations about what to save/not save, except one: I don't save stuff from mailing lists. I only save personal communications with individuals that I know. But I save them all. After 10 years on GMail (just about), I've only used 18% of my storage.

Every now and then I go looking for something. "Remember that band you suggested we hire for the festival three years ago? Who was that?" "What month did we go to Key West?" "Did your cousin say anything to indicate a divorce was on the way?" And I can always find it.

It's to the point where I have the archive of many relationships past, and my courtship with my now-life partner, and lots of correspondence from people who have died. Few things bring back the memories of those times with such clarity as correspondence - and that in turn helps me understand, forgive, learn, and grow wiser.

BEcause GMail's All Mail search is so solid, I don't fuss too much with stars and the like. I do use labels, but I'm not perfect about them.

IF it helps to parse this, I also have four shoeboxes stuffed with all the snail mail I've ever received, and a box of the journals I've kept since adolescence. This is my life and this is the record of my existence, my relationships, my historical times as seen through my eyes. My survivors can chuck it if they want, but on the other hand, my field has been incredibly enriched by the dailiness of other people's lives. What a great way to reconstruct something of the experience of living in other times.
posted by Miko at 6:59 PM on May 22, 2012

I forward all of my gmail to my ISP mail and save it in Outlook. I've made folders for my husband*, family, friends, subscriptions, purchases, etc. Everything gets filed away daily. The original email that got sent to gmail is deleted from gmail. Keeping stuff has been useful at times (especially purchases), but it's mostly for sentimental reasons.

*I've saved all the emails I've ever received from my husband, even from when he was "just" a friend.
posted by deborah at 7:34 PM on May 22, 2012

Those of you who save all your gmail on Google's servers: aren't you afraid that one day you'll want to leave gmail -- they turn evil, they start charging, some better company comes along -- and not be able to take it with you? Or am I the only person who loses sleep over things like this?
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:38 PM on May 27, 2012

I can see that they possibly could do that one day, but it's not high on my list of worries. If I start to worry more about it, maybe I'll print them all out, or get another external drive.
posted by Miko at 7:48 PM on May 27, 2012

As long as they have IMAP access it is simple to download all of your mail (still organized!) from GMail. Actually I lean the other way, I almost always use Thunderbird to look at my mail--but I make sure it's backed up in the cloud in case I lose a hard drive or something. (Also it's handy for when I'm somewhere without my laptop.)
posted by anaelith at 3:39 AM on May 28, 2012

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