Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Declaring Email Bankruptcy (or How to Clean Out Your Inbox in Under 30 Minutes or Less)

If you have AD/HD and look at your email inbox with dread, or if you just loathe email's demand on your time even without all the poor attention spannie bits, then I have some tips for you.

'Junk Mail' by Ken ChristI send a lot of email. I receive a lot of email. It may surprise you to learn then that I hate email. It's not that email isn't important to me. Ideally, it is communication with others and that is always important. The problem is that email isn't just about communication. It's more like looking for important letters stuffed inside the daily pile of ads and grocery store inserts you find in your real world mailbox. Who has time for that? In fact, the more cluttered and backlogged my inbox gets, the lower on my priorities email becomes. Why do it at all? Why not just never check my email again?

Why? Because of guilt. Oh, the terrible guilt. You can't throw away that email filled with photos your Mum took during her trip into the mountains. They have your kids in them. You can't toss those emails from contacts from three years ago. You might need them. You can't throw out that draft you've been avoiding since March 2004. You really need to write that letter. Email isn't just spam or links to web pages filled with dancing leprechauns. It's also ideas, roughs, possible clients, letters from old friends, and a cornucopia of internet information and entertainment - potentially important data.

There are two aspects of email, however, that make me loathe it. The first is that it is work. It takes time to filter, sort, read, and reply. Time taken away from other more important things. For me that is drawing or writing or family. Instead of working on my novel, I find myself configuring new rules to manage the incessant flow. Instead of drawing, the spam filters need tweaking. The wheat must be sorted from the chaff, but which email is the wheat? This is the other problem for me. Each random link somebody sends me is a distraction waiting to happen - a virtual AD/HD time bomb. Besides being easily distracted, I'm an information addict. One little link can lead me on a merry chase across the internet for hours.

And there I waffled for years torn between wanting to chuck it all and feeling compelled to reply to it all. A lot of email was sent. A lot was read, and I was always behind. There had to be a better way.

Enter Loïc Le Meur. Loïc is a successful blogger from France who has set up shop here in America for his new venture, Seesmic can best be described as Twitter with video, but that doesn't mean much to those who don't understand Twitter. Instead, imagine Seesmic is a conversation people have by posting video clips of themselves talking. It is Reality TV mixed with AOL chat rooms, and it's big. So big that Loïc is drowning in email. He has 7000 backlogged emails in Gmail, 800 in Seesmic, 900 in Facebook, and 100 in Twitter. This is the price of success, but how does he manage it all, find time to run a company, jog regularly, and spend time with his family? Let's join Loïc below as he declares email bankruptcy.

Loïc outlines several ways of managing the flow.

  1. Make rules to filter your email
  3. Change your email address
  4. Get an assistant to read your email
  5. Tag emails
  6. Receive no email
  7. Don't let email manage you.

I've tried most of them. I have rules galore, both in my Gmail account and my Apple Mail app (which manages half a dozen email addresses). I've changed my email address and created throw away email accounts that I kill when they begin to receive spam. I've deleted mailboxes before, but usually save some of it because "I might one day have time to go through it". As for number four, I don't have an assistant to read my email. If could ask my wife to be my assistant, though, but then I'd be worse off. She's so bad at email I get warnings from the server that it's about to implode from the weight of her unread mail. Loïc recommends tagging email, but he admits that is a lot of work. Having no email is a bit extreme, but still an option. In fact, the best way I could implement that approach would be to tell everybody to reach me at my wife's address.

His final point, however, really struck home. Don't let email manage you. By being a slave to the inbox, everybody in the world who has my email address can dictate what I do with my time. That is not the path successful people take. The ease of email makes for easy communication, but the flow can be overwhelming for anybody. People with ADHD especially find the onslaught of email either terribly distracting or assaulting.

After some deliberation I opted for number two: DELETE IT ALL. I spent 30 minutes deleting and archiving everything in my gmail box. The point was to chuck swiftly and almost indiscriminately. I needed to reclaim time, not spend more of it. Here are the results.

I declared Gmail bankruptcy today

I will be applying this same solution to all my other accounts. I'll also consolidate many of them into one. Then I will implement some of these tips to manage my accounts better. If there's interest I can go into greater details. Creating my own Ground Zero may seem like an extreme solution, but for now the nuclear option is the best for me.

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