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 personally coach me through some of the techniques he lays out in his book. (If I’d taken him up on the offer, I probably would have found time to write a few books of my own by now.)

I found my copy of Bit Literacy and went to the chapter on managing incoming e-mail, which Mark believes is the first step toward overcoming the stress created by all those digital bits hanging over our heads all day long. “Bits are heavy,” Mark writes. They “weigh people down, mentally and emotionally, with incessant calls for attention and engagement.” The chapter’s basic commandment is simple: get your e-mail inbox down to zero messages at least once every work day, no matter what.

To do that, Mark recommends following a few rules. First, he suggests responding immediately to e-mail from your family and friends, who, after all, matter most in your life. Second, he urges people to trash all spam and “FYI” e-mails. For each work-related e-mail, he advises dealing with it—if this can be done in two minutes or less (a practice borrowed from the original Getting Things Done guru, David Allen). All the remaining e-mails that can’t be handled in two minutes or less should be turned into to-do items on task lists and saved for later. In every case, once you’ve dealt with a message, you delete or archive it.

The task-list step can be tricky. Not from a technical point of view—there are plenty of good Web-based to-do lists, including Gootodo and the new Tasks feature in Gmail itself. Plus, there’s always the good old index card (aka the Hipster PDA, the brainchild of Merlin Mann, publisher of the wonderful personal-productivity site 43 Folders). The issue is that if you’re going to start storing important to-dos on a task list, you have to be disciplined about actually doing some of them. Otherwise, you’re just moving bits around. And sadly, if you allowed your inbox to bloat to 15,000 messages in the first place, it might be a sign that you lack such discipline.

I am happy to report, however, that I’ve been able to zero out my inbox every day since my e-mail bankruptcy, except for one day when I let myself off the hook after a breaking news story necessitated one of those 16-hour work marathons. And my task list hasn’t grown too long in the process—right now there are only 13 items on it. Even if I have to resort to clipped, elusive responses like “Let’s nail that down next week” in order to dispose of some of my messages, the new method means I get to go home after work feeling like my evenings belong to me, not to Gmail.

So, Stever and Mark—and all of the time-management experts on whose shoulders you stand—a big thank you. You have made me a free man. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have 48 messages waiting in my inbox.

Update, March 5, 2009 (from the Imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery Department): Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times has published a nice column describing his own variation on declaring e-mail bankruptcy. Empty is the “optimal state” for your inbox, he writes. “Your goal, from now on, will be to keep this space as pristine as possible, either empty or nearly so. To realize that goal, live by this precept: Whenever you receive a new message, do something with it. Don’t read your e-mail and then just let it sit there—that’s a recipe for chaos.”

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

Trending on Xconomy

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

14 responses to “How I Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy, and Discovered the Bliss of an Empty Inbox”

  1. Tracey says:

    Check out Fusion-io if you haven’t already- Steve Wozniak stepped up recently and tech is intriguing…might not be around for long before its acquired by the likes of Dell (an investor) or EMC.

  2. Hi Wade,
    Great discovery, and I’m glad you found success in taking that inbox to zero every day.

    To tag on to your learnings, it is helpful to view your going into your inbox as a “sort” effort rather than a “handle ’em all” effort. Just like you handle paper mail, not all must be handled immediately. The triaging is what helps you get things done.

    So I like to sugggest that anything you decide requires more work is dragged and dropped into another folder, called “Action.” Then, set a diary for it, either electronically or in your planner.

    Then, once a day, view all your tasks, including your diaries, and plan that day. You find the tasks in that “action” folder. This actually works. Might be worth a try.

  3. Great idea, to respond to personal messages first. And if you include the text of the message, it still stays in your “Sent Items” folder, and you can delete it from the inbox.

    I used to use my inbox as a humongous database combined with a (badly organized) todo list. I tried Mark’s web page for six months, and it was pretty doggone good but then I got what for me was a simpler program for my Mac and iPhone called “Things”. My life at the moment doesn’t depend on email followups enough for mark’s webpage to be the best thing, but if you do, then yes!

    I still keep on deleting that email, though, as it comes in. I love getting it down to zero.

  4. Charles Hill says:

    What I do is never let my inbox so big I have to scroll or flip the page. If it get close, I stop and dedicate time to cleaning it out.

    Then I follow similar rules.

    1. Family first. These are almost always quick.
    2. Trash all chain letters and FYIs
    3. Delegate or answer others.

    My inbox IS my to-do list. If it isn’t filed, it is a to-do. Once done, it is filed.

  5. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Charles, I used to do the same sort of thing, but I wound up with 15,000 to-do items. Something had to give. I guess you could just as easily say I declared to-do bankruptcy.

    Also, my inbox gets so big that I have to scroll or flip the page about 3 times a day. So I have to be relentless about cleaning it out.

  6. I do the same as Charles. Never let the inbox grow so I have to scroll or flip page. The inbox seems to never get tired :)

  7. Heather says:

    Good work. Now dump your Blackberry and all other cell phones, and go back to a simple land line and answering machine, and see how sweet life was intended to be. Cell phoneless Gen X girl (and loving it), Heather

  8. Rob says:

    I would HIGHLY recommend using the “labels” function in Gmail….it can be a life saver for sorting and organizing mail. Just using half a dozen or so can help you screen out and prioritize mail on the fly….allowing for much faster “down to zero” time on your email inbox purge every day.

    Who knows, maybe it will even help you sort out those 15,000 “dead” emails you put in the “All Mail” graveyard?!?!

  9. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Rob: Sure, I already use labels for many categories of mail — I have filters set up to put labels on e-mails from family or from Xconomy colleagues, for example. But can you say more about how you use labels to speed up e-mail management? Ideally I’d love to do what all the gurus say, and “touch” every e-mail no more than once. I guess labels would help me decide to trash some e-mails without even looking at them — but do you have something more complex in mind? Thanks.

    Good piece by Scott Kirsner in the Boston Globe about all this, incidentally:

    Avoiding Inbox Overload: Advice on Better Managing E-mail