Strategies to declutter email

Tonight, I made a very interesting observation. I checked my inbox at about 10:45 pm or so, and found that i had zero messages in my inbox.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made the observation, but it’s only now, in the context of what I’ve been experiencing and reading, that I realize that this has been many months in the making. I used to look forward to notices and newsletters being delivered into my Inbox. After realizing how disruptive it was to my creative practice (as a graduate student researcher, that is), I began on a decluttering experiment that started from decluttering my email, and is still ongoing into other areas of my life. (After all, it’s less physically laborious to declutter information compared to physical items.)

The journey was long, but here are some of the strategies I have ended up using to declutter my email.

Ruthlessly unsubscribing from newsletters

Apart from Children International (a child sponsorship organization), MIT mail, and a few mailing lists of interest, I basically unsubscribed from everything else, even the things I loved to follow. For example, as a Apple/Mac/iOS fanboy, I had signed up for daily or weekly digests from Macworld, Macrumors, AppleInsider… One afternoon, I had the epiphany that following up on that many news sources was becoming a time drain. Therefore, I unsubscribed form all but Macworld… which I eventually also ended up unsubscribing from, once I realized that without those newsletters in my life, I was doing just fine.

Switch mailing lists from individual messages to daily digests

For the few mailing lists of interest that I’m on, I found that most of the discussions were not particularly interesting, except for a few (which is why they were “of interest” to begin with). Therefore, I switched from individual messages to daily digests. I had the benefit of all the messages, without the mental overhead of seeing 56 new message threads.

Respond to email at fewer and fewer times of the day

Over the past few months, my lack of timely responses has conditioned most of the people I contact with to not expect a timely response from my emails. I have begun reserving email only for communications for which a day or two response time is acceptable. In addition, I have begun to plan things such that last-minute responses are rendered unnecessary. This includes pre-scheduling meeting times and sticking with them. The few exceptions where I keep email close at hand include our BE-2011 class lunches, where we have an established norm of sorts to use rapid-fire emails to check where each other are.

Use a (paid) service to get messages out of sight, out of mind.

I use SaneBox, which uses Machine Learning algorithms to classify my messages as Later, Bulk or News, which basically keeps them out of my Inbox. At my break times, when I login to Gmail, and most of the time, I’ve got nothing new inside there, thanks to the ML-magic of SaneBox and other filters. To really keep them out of mind, I do a quick “is:unread” search in Gmail, skim through the non SaneBox-labeled messages (I have other filters for MIT mail, for example), and mark the rest as read and delete them. Alternatively, Gmail also has Tabbing that one can enable, which also does a similar thing to SaneBox, if SaneBox’s other features don’t really appeal to you.