One year of e-mail freedom

They say to fix a problem you have to first admit you have one. A year ago, I finally admitted that my e-mail inbox was a problem. I had three different addresses, tens of thousands of email in my global inbox with countless unread. I am sure I am not alone. From November 2014 to November 2015 it has been one year since I regained control and freedom.

No matter how many rules and tabs I had in order to keep my inbox clean I could not get away from two frightening stresses:

  1. I was stressed at seeing unread email. I felt guilty about an e-mail I had received three days ago which was now in page 2 of my inbox.
  2. I was stressed about not getting back to people. What did people think of me? Are important tasks slipping out of control?

I admired people like Charles Garcia who had the discipline to return email immediately, a discipline I obviously lacked. I tried all kinds of solutions over the years starting and usually ending with all sorts of rules to reduce inbox overload. This seems like such a good idea until some rule took an important email from an investor or customer to the wrong place and I didn’t see it for days if not weeks. Rules and folders, I realized, were there to ignore the problem not deal with the root cause. I tried reducing e-mail, I would actively disengage with stuff to reduce my mental overload. I tried setting aside time just to deal with e-mail. That worked very well, until I missed a couple of days due to travel or something. The overwhelming number of e-mails meant I fell back on bad habits. You see, I am a fantastic procrastinator, heck I learned programming to help me procrastinate.

About a year ago, a friend and colleague (Sampsa Vainio) introduced me to Mailbox. At the same time, another friend (Nithum) espoused the idea of an empty inbox and using email as a task list. Since that point I’ve been hooked. Here’s my experience:

Initially I had to take the ice-cold plunge into deep water:  I marked all my email as “read” and archived it all. I had to start from an empty inbox. Next I installed mailbox on my mac and phone. I removed all e-mail rules. I disabled Google’s attempt to mark e-mail into four different tabs. Then the great experiment started.

That first month was incredibly difficult. I had no idea how many newsletters I had subscribed to over the years. I found email from all over the place and often simply because I had been lazy about unsubscribing, after all Google just hid it from me after a while. I was now forced to deal with the email. I could swipe to archive and keep, delete or keep for a later date. With many newsletters I went ahead and unsubscribed. Every email to me became a game. Do I read it, answer it or acknowledge it or delete it. Do I deal with it later?

Immediately I started seeing some changes.

  1. I lost some of my email stress: I was no longer dreading Monday morning going through my email.
  2. I was actually reading some of those newsletters. Heck, I even started reading my Slashdot email again (woah).
  3. My stress of seeing tasks and emails about things that I didn’t need to deal with was gone. All I did was to delete the email and get it out of my mind.
  4. Emails became a great todo list by having them re-appear in my email inbox at a later time.
  5. Best of all: People started noticing that if they sent me an email, I acknowledged it fairly fast. They felt appreciated and acknowledged.

In total, the amount of time I spend dealing with email has been reduced. I don’t always get to an empty inbox everyday. I can do it probably once every week though and wow does it feel good. I have regained my sense of being the master of my own destiny and now I read almost every e-mail that is sent to me (unless the app screws up, which sadly it does once in a while). And while I now read more email than before, it has actually also reduced stress as I deal with issues at the time it happens which allows my brain to move on rather than have issues fester in my mind. Need a file? Either I deliver it now, set it to remind me in an hour when I have more time or I respond that I cannot and archive the email.

Feeling stressed about e-mail, I strongly suggest you give an empty inbox system a try. E-mail has actually become fun again!


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