Lindy and I have been working our way through Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. We’re not nearly to the point of saying everything we own sparks joy, and I don’t know if our socks are feeling their life force because of the way they’re folded and stored. But I’ve written much and plan to write plenty more in this space about minimalism: not owning more than you need, enjoying what you have and focusing on what’s most important in life.
As an early pioneer of online technologies, I realized pretty quickly that digital clutter is a pervasive threat to a minimalist lifestyle. It’s just like stuffing everything behind a closet door: you can’t always see it, but it’s still there.
Here’s the first thing I do to keep my online life tidy: Inbox Zero.
I have two email accounts, Gmail for personal, Outlook for work. I look at my email inbox the same way I look at my desk or any flat surface in my life: there should be as little as possible on it for as short a time as possible.
At home, I open mail while standing directly over the recycling bin. All mail ultimately ends up in one of three places: recycled, shredded or in the tiny file box I keep for the barest number of paper documents I need to retain at home. I receive 99 percent of our bills by email, so they rarely come in the mailbox. If I need to read or handle it later, I’ll slip it into my bag and deal with it on my way to work or while I’m there. Then it goes to one of the three final destinations. No piles of paper on my desk at home or work, my dining room table or my nightstand.
Same for my email inboxes.
Inbox Zero is a bit like minimalism or mindfulness. It’s an aspiration, or a state of mind, rather than a constant state of being. I have to balance my desire for a clean inbox with my desire to disrupt my life less and less with notifications and responding to email when I should be doing other things. Most of the time, I have between 0 and 10 messages in either inbox at a given time. This system has also helped me remain one of the fastest email responders I know, dating back to the first BlackBerry I owned in 2005 — despite the emergence of Facebook Messenger, Twitter and even SMS as other ways of getting hold of a person.
Here’s a good tutorial on how to start. Basically, you start from the ground up and sweep everything from your inbox into a folder. Next step is to process new incoming emails strategically so they don’t pile up. Only then do you address what’s in that folder of your previous inbox contents.
I won’t offer advice on how to choose an email provider because you’ve almost certainly got one already. I was one of the earliest Gmail users, after a stretch of accounts with different providers dating all the way back to Quantum Link. I like how Gmail integrates seamlessly with the other Google applications and works well on every device I own. It has amazing search and labeling capabilities. But the other providers have search and labeling too. You can do as I’m suggesting with Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, Outlook and all the others.
I use my inboxes as a sort of running to-do list. I deal with the quick responses every time I’m in my email, using the OHIO (“only handle it once”) principle. Otherwise, if I’ve already responded and I’m waiting for someone else to do something, I stash the message thread in a “Pending” folder. Once a day, I’ll cruise through that folder and see if enough time has passed to ping someone about an email thread.
I use an aliased email address (commerce@_______.com) for all things financial, and set up both my Gmail and Lindy’s to pull messages from this account into a Commerce folder. Once the transaction has cleared, the order has arrived or the concert taken place, I delete the message.
I have a folder for all things travel. I immediately stash itineraries, receipts and the like in there. Likewise for messages related to my work for XY’s PTA board.
This diligence is pretty routine for me now, and doesn’t take a lot of time or thought. Still, it only pertains to email you actually want to read and deal with. We all know the vast and overwhelming majority of non-spam email is subscriptions. It’s the newsletter that accompanied the really interesting blog post, or the sales flyer that you get after forgetting to unclick the box before buying the hand cream. It’s also the really irritating fundraising appeal that never seems to go away no matter how many times you unsubscribe. I have a free, simple weapon in that battle.
Inbox-busting weapon: Unroll.me
Unroll.me is a free, ad-supported service that “rolls up” all of your subscriptions into a single daily digest with thumbnail images of the messages. Clicking each one takes you to a full-size version that you can read in a web browser. You can also ask Unroll.me to unsubscribe you from an email stream, which it will try to do 24 hours after you click the button. If it doesn’t work, the service will automatically delete future messages in the stream. Messages are removed from your inbox into a special Unroll.me email folder in case you ever want to view them later.
The best part is how little you actually have to do to get this thing up and running. So many lifestyle or productivity hacks require reading a book, changing a mindset, spending hours organizing this thing or that. Unroll.me takes a few minutes to set up and then does the rest of the work for you.
When you sign up by logging into your email with Unroll.me, it scans all of your email to look for recurring subscriptions. With each, you’ll have the choice of rolling up new messages, keeping them in your inbox or unsubscribing. There’s a link to do this scanning at the top of every daily digest as well. At last count, I have 750 subscriptions rolled up, and 164 unsubscribed. Can you imagine how many thousands of emails have skipped my inbox because of this?
The opposite of Inbox Zero
I’ve known and worked with plenty of talented people who don’t practice Inbox Zero. In fact, they sort of practice the opposite, with thousands or even tens of thousands of emails in their inboxes. Many of these never get read. It reminds me of a colleague who has a massive office with mounds of paper on every flat surface, yet always seems to know where to find something when he needs it. If Gmail’s search capability is so robust, why not just leave things in your inbox and search when you need them? And what if you accidentally delete something you’ll need later?
Fair enough. But I find searching easier when I have folders. The aesthetic of an empty inbox appeals to me in the same way as an empty desk or table. I enjoy the dopamine hit of deleting an email as I do when I’m checking an item off my to-do list. And I find it’s much easier to feel functional, organized… in control, when I’m not staring at a mountain of messages standing in my way.
Next time: a post about all the other tools I use to keep my online life in order.
Also published on Medium.