Email as Existential Reminder
June 2, 2017 11:22 AM   Subscribe

How do you keep your home email organized? And how do you handle the new-fangled practice of sending daily missives, in everything from event listings to marketing materials? My email has been out of control for a long time, and despite having taken several "measures" to curtail it, I realize I'm finding it a source of stress. In fact, I've reached a point where I'm avoiding it. It's all but nonfunctional.

At any given time, I have 700 or 800 emails in my in-box, and it seems to grow by a measure of a 100 every couple of days. I have taken several steps to curtail the email, including creating rules to color code the most important ones (so I see them), purchasing Mail Butler, so I can delete senders in batches. Several times, I have gone through and purged big groups of email. It slims down for a day or two, and then quickly expands exponentially again. If it's genuine junk, I click the appropriate button on Apple Mail, and I guess it sort of works. It's hard to tell. There's always MORE.

The majority of the mail is not personal.
  • Some are event listings, which I refer to from time to time, and don't want to forget about. I've tried to use bookmarks to keep track of their master sites, but quickly these got out of control — cuz if I don't see it, I don't remember it. So then I tried to bookmark them visually through a Firefox add-on, but this, too, has proved unwieldy and ultimately useless.
  • Some are leechmail, which comes to me because I needed to sign up for something else, and then they started sending me mail or coupons and whatnot. Many of these I've unsubscribed from. Often they keep coming anyway. Shutterstock. Bed, Bath and Beyond. LinkedIn. While still others glom on as soon as they see an opening. I got a food delivery yesterday morning. Now I have three emails from the market in my in-box, one from the delivery company, and another from some faintly related entity.
  • Some are professional items that I follow. I want to keep up with this and that. Newspapers, articles, certain topics. But they, too, insist on writing me every day. Then they spawn.
  • I also have too many email addresses, for no especially good reason, just some odd inspiration or another over time. Some old-fashioned AOL, some gmail, I'm about to get a self-hosted email address too. This seems to compound the confusion, particularly when it comes to noticing what's where, and when it comes to using Apple Calendar, which color codes by mail source.
A few months ago, I took my superunwieldy list of passwords, which were scrambled in a notebook and typed them up in a searchable chart. Ever since, my 31 single-spaced pages — over a lifetime at the computer, eh? — of passwords have suddenly become manageable, soothing, peaceful, quick, easy.

Help me do the same with my email. Please be gentle. I don't seek in-box zero. I'd rather not spend money. I also don't want to spend much, or any regular time "managing" my mail, which seems like a ridiculous waste of a life. Ideally, I'd like to do everything once, in a single blast, and then carry on normally from there. I would define "normal" as a slow inbox-100, say, like the good old days.
posted by Violet Blue to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure exactly how to get from where you are to here, but what works for me is having a sacrifice email that I use to shop and communicate with organizations. It is completely cluttered with spam (I mean, the sort of spam that's from stores you shop at and organizations you give money to), so I don't ever check it, but if I need to find something that I knew probably came in from that kind of source, I can search for it.

And then I have my real email that I don't give to anyone except individual human beings, and mail to that is very controllable.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:29 AM on June 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've started getting ruthless about unsubscribing from sites' emails as soon as they are no longer useful to me. I don't know why they want to send me something every. single. day. Who wants that?

Anyway, I really like gmail's new-ish feature where it auto sorts your inbox into 4 or so different 'piles'. I think you can rename them. Mine are called Primary (for personal correspondance and things I want to see every day); Social (for LinkedIn and Twitter emails); Updates (for random crap); and Promotions (for all the crap from online stores).

You can train gmail to sort what emails you want where. I go through my promotions folder every week or so, and delete the old discount code emails when I have new ones.

I tell myself that I want to only keep about 50 emails or so in each inbox, and for the most part, I have that down. Everything else goes into folders.

This doesn't clean it up automatically, but the sorting gets pretty automated, and it's nice to have a semi-clean 'primary' inbox without a lot of hassle.
posted by hydra77 at 11:34 AM on June 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

One major advantage of GMail is its Archive feature, but you can approximate the same thing by creating an Incoming or Archive folder. Regularly select everything in the Inbox, and move it to that folder. That produces an immediate sense of relaxation which will then allow you to more easily review that folder at your leisure.

Some 50-100 emails per day can be overwhelming. It is good to remember that email is the servant and not the master.
posted by yclipse at 11:36 AM on June 2, 2017

Adding: If you have a ton of email addresses, you may want to port just one or two of them into gmail, and start to use its sorting abilities. Keep checking your Apple Mail, and see what's important to keep. Resubscribe as needed with whichever email you like. But weed down the number of email addresses you have. There are plenty of ways for people to find you, even if you don't still have the email address you had when you were 20.
posted by hydra77 at 11:37 AM on June 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you are willing to make the switch to Gmail, and funnel everything through there, it's worth it. It has a very aggressive spam blocker, plus the filtering system hydra77 mentioned. If you want to take the time to personalize the filters, you can do additional pre-organizing.

It's going to take some initial time and energy on your part to set up your filters, but once that's done, there is very little maintenance. Heck, the spam folder auto-deletes anything that's left it after 30 days, so you don't need to bother to remember to dump it.
posted by RhysPenbras at 11:41 AM on June 2, 2017

I'm going to get all GTD on you here, but it sounds like part of your problem is that you're using your email as a to-do list. One of the big ideas of GTD is that you need to capture events and information as they come in. Once you read an email, you decide what needs to be done with the information in it, you file that somewhere, and then you remove that email from your inbox. It's a waste of your time to read that email multiple times or to have to search through your inbox to find it.

For instance, event listings. If you get an event listing, decide whether you're going. If yes, you capture that event by putting it into your calendar, then archive the email. If you're definitely not going, archive the email. If you might go, put the event in your calendar and have it send you a reminder email or other notification at some point so you don't forget to decide about it. Then archive the email.

In addition to this and similar tactics, I will star an email (I use GMail but probably your email program has a similar feature) if I still need to take some action based on that email. Anything that's sitting in my inbox without a star is just something that I haven't archived yet.

I realize that this is the exact opposite of

I also don't want to spend much, or any regular time "managing" my mail, which seems like a ridiculous waste of a life.

However, if you're getting on the order of hundreds of emails a week, it seems to me that failing to manage it in some way is also a ridiculous waste of a life. There's no way to solve this in a single blast because the email is just going to keep accumulating.
posted by number9dream at 11:57 AM on June 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have several email addresses.

My personal email addy never ever ever gets distributed except to friends or certain business interactions - I do not use this to sign up for anything commercial, do not have it linked to any social media. It's private and that's that.

I have an email that's for buying things. A fake name and FB profile to easily sign up for other things, I use this persona almost like an assistant. I love that one!

My true business email is a completely different email provider.

I check what I want, where I want. I do not use my smartphone Mail app, I login to email via internet browser. My phone is not my electronic leash and my email addresses don't directly track me, although I know technically gmail or whoever technically knows these emails on the one provider are related, I use the use of particular addresses to pre-sort what comes in. I only check that I am interested in, I stay stress-free. Some addresses I use to sign up for things I never ever want to interact with again - that email I rarely check! You can do this, too!

Create some new email addresses, do not associate your very most personal ond with any social media or commercial interests. Go forth happy.
posted by jbenben at 12:02 PM on June 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another Gmail user here. I do all my organizing through filters and am ruthless about adding email to the Commercial filter, which skips my inbox and goes directly to the appropriate label/folder, where I can deal with it (mostly deleting unread) at my leisure. If I unsubscribe from something and it keeps coming, after a complaint to the company, it gets its own filter which goes direct to my trash and does not stop at my inbox. I do not trust Gmail's decision about its own piles, and don't use them.

My numerous other email addresses that all forward to my inbox each have their own filter that adds them to their own label/folder for easy sorting, although most of those do go to my inbox.

I have MANY other labels/folders for organization, and Gmail lets me do subfolders as well, so for example I have an umbrella label for "Travel" that contains "Japan 2014", "Seattle 2017" and several other trips.
posted by telophase at 12:02 PM on June 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Never give Google/gmail or any other provider your phone number for identification purposes. You will get bombarded with unwanted tracking and contact. Keep that practice forever.
posted by jbenben at 12:05 PM on June 2, 2017

Oh, yes, I have tried putting together several folders with names both specific and broad enough to contain a lot of archives in a more structured manner. But then I forgot about them. This happened the last time I tried to do that, too. Mail Butler is supposed to learn from what you put where, and mimic you over time. I've never used Gmail enough to experience its wonders, and I've found its folder options to be too plentiful. Outlook at an old job started using its own presorting formulas in my work inbox, and I liked it though. It seemed to do so automatically, and was nearly always right. Plus they sent reminder emails explaining what they'd done so you could check up on them, which built algorithm-to-human trust

@number9dream, I don't know what GTD is, but you're right about using emails as reminders sometimes. In my dreams, I would be so decisive as to figure out where I want to go and when and mark it down immediately. In real life, that doesn't happen so much.

@jbenben, I'm awed by your faux FB assistant idea! Does that mean no email is exchanged ever, but if you need to join something, well, your assistant does it on your behalf?

(Also, I agree about phone numbers, though gmail finally broke me. In general, however, I prefer to stay away from gmail. Google got rid of its "don't be evil," motto a long time ago, and for more than one reason, I'd reckon.)

All this is very helpful anyway, to see both the options and the consensus. Keep sharing please.
posted by Violet Blue at 12:42 PM on June 2, 2017

"How do you keep your home email organized?"

"I also don't want to spend much, or any regular time 'managing' my mail"

These are contradictory statements. It's like asking "how do you dress nicely without buying clothes?" or "how do you lose weight without changing diet or working out?". You don't. If you want to stay organized, some managment is required.

This is just like housework. You can go through a do a massive cleaning marathon one weekend where you scrub every surface in your house. But if you don't keep doing routine stuff - dusting, taking out trash, wiping down your sink, etc. - your house will become a shithole again pretty quickly.

I'm going to mix my metaphors here, because the best advice about email I've ever gotten is to treat it like snail mail. You most likely get a ton of snail mail, almost all junk, every day. Personally, I get at least three coupon books, various individual store coupons, 300 cable company offers, a handful of credit card pre-approvals, a couple utility bills, and probably 5-10 things for previous tenants in the mail every week. Every once in a while, I actually get something I want - a wedding invitation, a Christmas card, a book from Amazon. What do you do with your snail mail? Simple. You throw what you don't want in the trash immediately. Unless you're a hoarder, there's no reason to leave those cable TV and credit card offers sitting on your table for months. Just get rid of them.

Do the same thing for email. If it's junk, move it to your trash folder as soon as it comes in. You can unsubscribe as much as you can, but it won't always work. No worries; it doesn't work for snail mail, either. Just hit the trash. Meanwhile, for stuff you want to keep, you keep it, just like snail mail. But just like most snail mail has an expiration date (no need to keep that wedding invitation after the wedding), so does email. Keep it in your inbox until you're finished with it, and then delete it. Some things you'll never throw away.

The more advanced level is to use folders and automated rules to sort your mail for you. If there are things like LinkedIn who keep sending you email even after you say not to, or you can't figure out how to unsubscribe from them, set up a rule to automatically send anything from that sender to the Trash folder. If you have stuff you do actually want to read, but doesn't actually need to be in your inbox, create folders for those things and then set up rules to move emails to those folders. Two examples: I get a bunch of coupons from stores I shop at via email. I actually like getting these coupons, because occasionally they save me money. But I'm not going to leave them in my inbox, because who knows when I'm actually going to place an order? So I have a Coupons folder, and every email from Lands' End, LL Bean, etc. gets sent there without ever hitting my inbox. I also subscribe to daily emails from DailyLit and GermanPod101, which are really cool, but I don't have time for them every day. So I have a Reading folder and a German folder, and those emails go there automatically for me to check out on my own schedule.

It's a good idea to set up folders for things you keep, too. So I have an Order Receipts folder for order confirmations from online shopping. Every time I place an order on Amazon, I immediately go to my email. There's a confirmation email, and I move it to the Receipts folder.

One final suggestion: It sounds like you're using your email inbox for things where other services would do a better job. I'm a bit hypocritical telling you this, because I use my inbox to keep track of events too, but wouldn't a calendar work better? And maybe for the professional news you follow, it would be easier to do that with RSS, or by following the organizations on social media? If you get that stuff out of your inbox and limit email to actual correspondence, it'll be a big help.

This sounds like a lot, but once you get your system (especially the delete habit) up and running, it's really not. I spend maybe three minutes a day, max, on my inbox (currently at 66 items, so not Inbox Zero, but more like what you're hoping for).
posted by kevinbelt at 12:47 PM on June 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

Some good advice upthread. Here are some specific things that help me:
  • Use a good spam filter. I use SpamAssassin, but this is down to platform and personal choice. This alone probably cuts my mail volume by a factor of ten, and improves the signal-to-noise ratio by tens of dB.
  • Have a "real" email address you use with individual living people you know well and like. For everything else, have a throwaway address. (I take this to extremes in that I have my own domain, and will create new email addresses at the drop of a hat. Random site wants signup with email and confirmation? They get a new address just for them. Bonus: This lets me tell who sells/leaks addresses to who else.)
  • If you get unwanted bulk email, aggressively unsubscribe (for non-spam) or adjust filter settings to trash it in the future (if spam).
  • If you get unwanted personal email, send a canned "please don't contact me again" message the first time if you're feeling like it, then block subsequently.
  • As with actual paper, try to handle each email message once. I categorize new messages as: 1) don't care; delete unread, 2) momentarily interesting; read and discard, 3) potential need for future reference; read and file, 4) needs quick reply or other action (do so) or 5) needs thoughtful reply / research / time-consuming action; leave in inbox for when I can do those things. Note that only stuff in (5) stays in my inbox.
  • For things that have been in your inbox a while, ask yourself how likely it is you'll ever actually deal with each one, answer honestly and re-categorize appropriately. Some things (Cool concert! Big sale!) have built-in expiry dates that can make this trivial.
  • Have a good filing system, whether that means a simple directory tree or a set of folders in Thunderbird or whatever. Knowing you can find that picture of mom again easily if you really want to makes it much easier to let it go from your primary inbox.
This isn't "inbox zero", but it is "inbox of only stuff requiring action from me, and new messages".

I understand not wanting to spend time managing email, but the amount of time involved is minuscule compared to the amount of time you'll waste if you don't manage your email. Your attention is valuable, and you need to be a gatekeeper against those who would take it and give you nothing in return.
posted by sourcequench at 2:23 PM on June 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

For me, the secret to dealing with email is to have a very small number of hard and fast rules that I can apply to any email. I've never sat down and written them out, so this is fun! Here's what I've got:

1. Don't keep emails as reminders. This is a big one. The problem is that it basically means that your email gets out of control, at which point it stops really functioning as a reminder system anyway. Ideally, you'd put things that are reminders in a calendar, but even just a google doc is good.

2. Archive mercilessly. If I'm trying to decide whether or not to keep something, I don't keep it.

3. Unsubscribe even more mercilessly - if you ever delete an email without reading it, scroll down and look for an unsubscribe link first. This includes email lists that you opted into - obviously you don't want it any more.

4. This is my favorite - the rolling dmz. Choose a length of time, let's say 2 weeks. Make a folder and throw any email more than two weeks old in that folder. After two weeks, delete the entire folder and do the whole thing again. If anything in that folder were important, you would have noticed during the two weeks. Sure, you've got an email from a month and a half ago that you really should respond to, but c'mon, you're not going to, are you?
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:31 PM on June 2, 2017

Nthing having a couple email addresses. My family has an email address they can contact me with and everything I sign up for goes to my gmail account. I actually used to have a three-tiered system with a yahoo address for stuff I never wanted to get email from at all.

My hundreds of subscription messages a day are so predictable I rarely have to read or open any of my gmail. I try to unsubscribe from a bunch of lists every once in awhile but not often enough. Gmail does have great search functionality so it's easy to look for that one email about that one thing.

I never get personal email, but I have 5988 unread gmail messages.
posted by bendy at 2:34 PM on June 2, 2017

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