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What I Learned from Reducing my Email Inbox from About a Million* Messages to Zero

By Dave Stuart Jr.

*More like 500 per inbox, but it felt like a million.

For pretty much all of last school year, my inbox was a nightmare. Every time I’d open it, I’d get this messed up chemical cocktail released into my brain: one part excitement, one part anxiety. I became addicted to checking it on my phone, tapping the little mail app a dozen or more times per day, and I became really good at pushing down the gut-squirmy feelings that came when the little Red Numbers of Death floating over the email icon kept growing.

By May 2016, there were over 500 emails in my “personal” inbox (everything but school) and about the same amount in my school inbox. At the time of this writing, both of those babies are back to zero and not running my subconscious life, and both of them got that way through different strategies.

Strategy 1: The Nuclear Option

I used this on my school email. Essentially, I answered anything that required my answer (most emails don’t, especially at school) and was near-ish to the top, and then I selected everything in my inbox and hit “Archive.” It was so gratifying that I just got a thrill from writing the preceding sentence.

The thing with school emails is that I get the daily announcements and I get the FYI emails and this and that and when you fall behind on processing that stuff (or just auto-archiving it) you end up with this mosh pit of useless information in your inbox.

If there’s anything satisfice-worthy in a teacher’s daily life, it’s probably email. Email is crazy, and few of the emails we receive every day will actually help us get our kids closer to long-term flourishing.

But Dave, you’re saying, there must have been some emails in your inbox that needed a response but got nuked instead, right? What about those?

Those, my friend, got satisficed. But since you’re making me feel a little guilty, let’s take a look at and excerpt from John Freeman’s The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox:

The most important thing you can do to improve the state of your inbox, free up your attention span, and break free of the tyranny of e-mail is not to send an e-mail. [Apparently I’m writing email wrong when I leave out the hyphen.] As most people now know, e-mail only creates more e-mail, so by stepping away from the messaging treadmill, even if for a moment every day, you instantly dial down the speed of the e-mail messagopolis. Your silence doesn’t just affect your inbox, it has a compounded effect on the people to whom you didn’t send messages: not getting your message will release some time for them to deal with something besides e-mail; and the less time they spend on e-mail, the less e-mail they will send; and so on.

In other words, yes, I probably missed a few emails that needed responses — but then again, if I still have my job and there aren’t any parents or students egging my house this summer (yet), did those emails really need responses?

(Leaves open-ended question and walks away from computer for a minute.)

Summary of Nuclear Option:

  • Benefits: Very quick. Takes about 10 minutes.
  • Drawbacks: You probably archived some important stuff, but was it really that important if you were somehow managing to exist without having read or dealt with it?

Strategy 2: The Merlin Mann Purge Option

For my “personal” inbox (which also contains everything that comes through my blog), I didn’t like the nuclear option for a few reasons:

  1. There were lots of earnest emails from readers, and I love those emails and appreciate the time people took to write them.
  2. There were lots of things I wanted to read (newsletters, article recommendations from readers, articles about parenting or marriage that Crystal had sent me).
  3. There were probably some business-related things that I needed to handle (invoices to send for past speaking engagements, customer support things for Teaching with Articles, etc).

So for this one, I used something I maybe should have used the first time that these 500+ emails came in: the Merlin Mann approach [1].

I decided that, over the course of 48 hours, I was going to use every spare minute — those not dedicated to teaching or parenting or husbanding — to getting my inbox down to zero, and I was going to try dealing with the emails in the following waves, with a bias toward trying to reduce the number of emails as quickly as possible while still maintaining my conscience as a person who cares about the emails I receive from people.

Wave 1: Delete or archive as many messages as possible. I would estimate that at least 100 of the 500 emails I had accrued really had no business being there — things akin to the Daily Announcements emails in my school inbox. The fact that they were there was simply evidence that I wasn’t managing my inbox, but was instead kind of playing around with it.

Wave 2: Forward what can best be answered by someone else. There were some emails like this.

Wave 3: Immediately respond to messages that can be dealt with in two minutes or less. A lot of the reader emails could have been responded to in two minutes or less when I had originally received them, but I hadn’t done the two minute response because I had felt like their email was worth more than two minutes of response. Here was a classic case of self-sabotaging perfectionism: in waiting for the “right time” to sit down and write what I felt was the appropriately long response to a reader email, I had actually just not responded at all, and in some cases this not responding had been going on for months. Note to self: in the future, people would probably prefer a two-minute response today over a twenty-minute response never.

There were a lot of emails in my inbox that could be respectfully treated with a two-minute response.

Wave 4: Write tasks on an index card. My inbox, like many inboxes in the world, was partially screwed up because of my lack of clarity around its purpose. I was using it as both a chemical fix (checking for new messages on my phone) as well as a to-do list (marking messages that I checked on my phone but needed to do something about as “Unread”). So I took out the to-do list-ish emails and put them on an actual to-do list index card.

Wave 5: Dealing with newsletters, articles, and stuff I did and did not want to read. Basically, I realized I was subscribed to more newsletters than I wanted to read. So anything that I didn’t genuinely want to read every day — I could figure out a strategy for reading things more consistently later — I unsubscribed from. Things that I did want to read, I went old school and printed them out.

Wave 6: Mop up the rest. This brought me down to very few emails, and for these remaining bits I did whatever work was required to get them taken care of — I sent invoices, managed customer support issues, fixed a few broken links in WordPress, etc.

Eventually, I saw this:

inbox-zero

And I felt awesome.

What now?

Here we are at an important question for another time: how the heck can email become a sane, non-addictive, non-anxiety-producing, regular thing? According to John Freeman’s The Tyranny of Email, this won’t happen all on it’s own.

My two-word plan: Discipline + Dignity. Also, some rules. See you next time.

Footnotes:

  1. If you’re coming to NCTE 2017, look in the program for a session by the same name: we’re doing an encore, thanks completely to our fearless leaders Beth Shaum and Kevin English.
  2. I’m pretty sure Merlin Mann invented Inbox Zero, but then again, with the whole multiple discovery thing, maybe he didn’t.

Thank you to MaryBeth Hills for coaching me into the deadline that made the personal inbox purge happen.

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2 Responses to What I Learned from Reducing my Email Inbox from About a Million* Messages to Zero

  1. Kim S July 9, 2016 at 9:57 am #

    I have also seen this link at the bottom of emails. Another tactic.
    http://five.sentenc.es

    • davestuartjr July 12, 2016 at 6:43 am #

      Kim, that’s very cool — thank you for sharing it!

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