The only way to win the fight against e-mails that won’t stop piling up

By Sam Grobart


For nearly as long as there’s been e-mail, virtual organization evangelists have pushed various management services promising to clean up your in-box and change your life. Their mantra is “In-box Zero” — that nirvana-like state when nary an e-mail resides in your in-box — and their followers exhibit all the self-righteousness and smug superiority of non-TV watchers and juice cleansers.

They use apps such as Mailstrom, SaneBox, Alto, and Xobni, which was just acquired by Yahoo! for $48 million, and they all work in similar ways: They try to scan your incoming e-mails and sort them into categories so you can prioritize the flow (or, in my case, flood).

This strategy got a big endorsement recently when Google updated its Gmail service and incorporated a similar approach. Now a Gmail in-box can be divided into tabs. Messages from your friends, family, and colleagues, for example, are segregated from retailers’ sales announcements. Social media notifications get their own bucket, as do updates from banks, airlines, and other businesses.

I am a ridiculously neat and organized person, and smugness suits me just fine, so the idea that my in-box could be as tidy as my closet has great appeal. But I’ve tried all the big services, and I’m here to preach a new gospel: the Gospel of Not Caring. My in-box has more than 16,000 messages in it. And unlike a remote control that’s out of position on the coffee table, this doesn’t bother me. You know why? Because e-mails aren’t objects. They have no mass. Who cares if my in-box has 16,000? Who cares if my “All Mail” folder has more than 100,000?

I actually like that I have all these messages, because in an age of effectively limitless cloud storage, my Gmail account has become my second memory. With a quick search I can find e-mail addresses and phone numbers — it’s like my own private Wikipedia. I don’t even bother with folders or labels anymore, as a search gets me to what I’m looking for without any groundwork on my part.

Now I wouldn’t be true to my low-grade OCD self if I didn’t have some habits in place. For starters, I don’t get e-mail updates from social networks. If someone has responded to a Facebook post of mine, I’ll see that on Facebook. I’m also a ruthless unsub-scriber. Ideally, I uncheck the little check box before completing my purchase at or wherever I’m shopping. But if not, I’ll flag it on the first e-mail, where any retailer worth its Better Business Bureau listing has an “unsubscribe” link at the bottom.

I’ve also become more efficient with my words. I used to worry that text on the screen was too emotionless, so I’d do linguistic somersaults to convey how pleased I was to hear from somebody. Which made my e-mails longer. Which made me less likely to write them. Then I realized that instead of writing “Dear Bernard, That sounds fabulous. Let me think on this, and I’ll bring some ideas to the meeting that we can discuss,” I could just as easily write “Sure.”

And so the in-box stays in disarray: My shirts are hung according to color and pattern, and the dishwasher can be filled only a certain way, but my e-mail is messy by design.


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