How I Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy, and Discovered the Bliss of an Empty Inbox

I’m not one of those people who thinks you can measure a person’s power, talent, or importance by the number of e-mails or phone calls they get every day. So it’s not a boast—indeed, it’s more like an embarrassed confession—when I say that by early January, my Gmail inbox had swelled to almost 15,000 messages. And that was before we at Xconomy decided to tack our e-mail addresses at the bottom of every story so readers can contact us more easily. I don’t regret that policy—it’s brought me quite a few good story tips already. But it did mean that unanswered messages started to pile up even faster, threatening to smother me in guilt and anxiety.

It was finally time to do something about my e-mail problem. For help, I turned to two trusted sources. The first was executive coach Stever Robbins, aka the “Get It Done Guy,” who I met last July at Podcamp Boston (read the interview here). Stever records a weekly podcast full of great advice about staying sane, and even having fun, as you strive to be more productive and accomplish your goals. I remembered that in one of Stever’s early podcasts, he’d responded to a listener who was desperate for tips about dealing with his backlog of e-mail.

So I went back and listened again. For serious cases of e-mail constipation, Stever suggested the radical action of “declaring e-mail bankruptcy.” Specifically, he told the listener: “Delete it all. Then send a form letter to everyone who wrote saying, ‘My backlog was too big to manage. To cope, I’ve deleted everything. Please resend anything important.'”

Something about this idea really scared me; it seemed awfully close to thumbing your nose at everyone on your contact list. But it also seemed to offer me a way out of my personal e-mail morass. There was simply no way I was ever going to work my way through a 15,000-message backlog—not even if I devoted several weekends to the task. The idea grew on me when I found out that some pretty distinguished figures, like Stanford law professor and free-expression guru Lawrence Lessig and venture capitalist Fred Wilson, had gone through e-mail bankruptcies and survived with their careers intact.

So, 11 days ago, on January 26, I took a deep breath and sent this note to my heaviest e-mail correspondents:

I have waited far too long, but tonight I’m going to clean out my Gmail inbox—which has nearly 15,000 messages in it!!—by archiving everything (in other words, moving it into the “All Mail” folder). Apologies in advance, but if you sent me a note recently that requires some immediate response, please ping me again, because all of my old messages are going into the archive. It’s the only way I’m ever going to get my inbox cleaned out.

Then I did what I was threatening to do, and archived all 15,000 messages. Of course, as my boss, Bob, immediately pointed out, all I was really doing was changing the way these e-mails are categorized in Gmail, not truly euthanizing them. I would never just delete all that mail, because for better or worse, Gmail has become one of the main storehouses of my digital life. (Which is obviously what Google wants, or they wouldn’t be giving me 7,292 megabytes of free online storage.) The messages are still there, still searchable, if I need to reconstruct a conversation later. So, in a way, it’s all semantics.

Despite the sleight-of-hand nature of my “bankruptcy,” though, emptying out my inbox brought an immediate sensation of lightness and freedom. Safely tucked away in the archive, those messages were no longer pleading in 15,000 whiny electronic voices for me to do something about them. I’d discovered the sweetest three words in the English language: “No new mail!”

Of course, the feeling only lasted about two minutes, until the next message popped onto the screen. Clearly, declaring e-mail bankruptcy was only half of the solution. I also needed a way to keep my inbox from overflowing again. And for that, I turned to another trusted source, Mark Hurst.

Mark is the founder of Creative Good, a New York-based user interface design and consulting firm, and the author of Bit Literacy, a primer on handling information overload. I first talked with Mark a few years ago when I was writing about Web-based time management tools; he has written a particularly effective one called Gootodo. He’s an incredibly nice guy, and even offered to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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