Advisor: Deleting emails could make you happier

If people were just more aggressive about deleting irrelevant things and relevant things aren't that important, they would probably be happier. Because I'm happier. So there must be something to it.

Emails only take up virtual space, not literal square footage, so it's easy to let them pile up. But have you ever scrolled through your inbox and realized what a monstrous mess of random messages you've accumulated? It can be pretty overwhelming. I, for one, have been terrible about keeping things in order, even with dozens of folders and subfolders in my Apple mail.

And then there are people like Rob Beschizza. Despite the barrage of work emails, publicity junk, and miscellaneous crap he gets emailed to him every day as Boing Boing's managing editor, Rob manages to keep a completely empty Apple Mail inbox and no permanent folders.

His organizational system is so simple that it's almost impossible for most of us clutterers to fathom: he deletes everything.

"I used to have loads of folders, date-based folders, even. I did the whole Dave Allen GTD-in-email stuff, but for me all that amounted to was this elaborate procrastination system," Rob says. "I realized that if something can't be dealt with immediately, it needs to stay right in front of you. So it's either in my inbox or it's deleted. And if it sits in my inbox, then it has to be turned into action."

Basically, he immediately deletes every message that comes into his Inbox. Either that, or he replies to it and then deletes it. Nothing stays longer than a day or two. Sounds like something easier said than done, right? It's a system he launched when he began covering tech full time at Wired, when email morphed from a fun, convenient way to communicate with others into a virtual slave driver. Rob's email address is now on the list of hundreds of companies wanting to send him gadgets to review, and they're all demanding his time. Most of the time, he just doesn't write back; he hits Delete. "The more I delete, the happier I am. It's about learning to say no — learning to refuse things that aren't contributing to my work or to my life."

Similarly cutthroat rules apply for personal emails. "If it's conversational in tone, I delete it. It's not that I don't value or enjoy the communication, but the fact that all my work is done by email makes it harder for me to appreciate the humane stuff."

Here are some other smart tricks that Rob uses:
* backs up all his email, so if he really needs to refer to it, it's there
* takes screen grabs of important clippings and downloads all needed attachments to folders on his desktop
* for stories he's working on now, creates a folder, puts photos and one neat text file with source contact info, contents of important emails, and specs.
* prints out one copy of emailed bills for tax purposes and deletes the email notifications

The most important thing for him is that his Inbox is empty at the end of the day.

But where do we newbies start, Rob? I still have 1,113 messages in my inbox, and that's after hours of reorganizing and putting things in Apple mail folders. "If you can't just sit down and kill an email by working on it, then you should just delete it, even if it means flipping someone off," he advises. "Once you've done everything, you can think of a system whereby you turn emails into actions on an ongoing basis quickly and efficiently."

Rob's system isn't just about email — it's about life, and the way we choose what belongs in it. The more proactive we are about removing the junk that filters into our minds, the more clarity we have, and the deeper we breathe when we go to sleep at night.

Advisor is a column about how to juggle technology, relationships, and common sense. Got a story to tell? Email me at lisa [at] boingboing [dot] net. Image via Mixy's Flickr


  1. You know, there should be a “mark it for automatic deletion in 30 days button” in email programs. There’s alot of stuff that I don’t delete immediately because it’s difficult to tell whether it’s truly DONE or not. But for most of it, if nobody has asked about it for a month, they’re not going to.

  2. In my Engineering role I receive 200-400 emails per day, and have done every for the past 10 years or more.

    I have never deleted a single email. I have also never filed a single email.

    My solution is Google Desktop Search (although any high-speed search solution would do just as well, if not better). My inbox is useless to me, but a focused, filtered search on a particular topic is key to my success.

    Is Rob happier than me? Who knows. Is Rob more effective at doing his job than me. Again, who knows, but it’s unlikely.

    “Immediate action or delete” may work for Rob, but for me I rely on half a million emails as my critical memory system. The complexities of the facts and concepts communicated to me in some emails are as essential as the mundane, forgettable manufacturing status reports in others. Both ends of the spectrum are essential when it comes to resolving engineering issues, and neither can be summarized, stored or remembered easily.

    So delete or don’t delete… just don’t bother with anal multi-folder filing systems. It’s filing that makes people less happy and less productive!

  3. Yes – delete is the key.

    I see it like this – a pile of emails in a folder is the same as a pile of old sweaters in the garage – the existence of them and the bookmark they have in my mind is enough to bother me, enough to take up a little bandwidth in my mind (thus, self-deprecatingly, rapid network collapse). Physical or not, clutter is a psychological issue.

    Yes – downloading critical information. But you must then not think about it until needed again.

  4. Organizing your inbox is so overrated. Get Gmail, delete nothing, search your e-mails as needed. I cannot count the number of times that I have done a quick Google search of my inbox to grab old copies of my thesis, lookup the time for a party, or find an old recipe. Once I’ve marked an e-mail as “read”, it’s all but deleted in my mind anyway. That is, until I need quick easy access to it.

    And I think that printing off a copy of a bill and then deleting it is possibly the most ridiculous idea in the whole article. But maybe that’s just me!

  5. I got my e-mail inbox down to about 150 messages a little while back. I don’t delete the e-mail – I just archive it in Gmail. I’m trying to get it pruned further, and this is good motivation.

    1. Backup and search is still important, even when it’s been deleted/archived. It’s really about the psychological influence of the “inbox,” maybe. If it’s been pushed on into the archive, it doesn’t need attention any more.

      Gmail’s searchable archive offers a lot of peace of mind. But the backups are there because you just can’t trust the cloud completely.

      Thanks, Lisa! I had no idea I would be the STAR INTERVIEWEE for this. Next: how I organize my hats.

        1. Organize you hats by time period Renaissance, Georgian, Regency, Victorian (Early,Middle,Late), Edwardian, etc
          Male and Female in separate rooms, of course, with their outfits.

  6. What you described here, seems basically like the Gmail web interface (just replace “delete” with “archive”) – irrelevant or processed mails are out of the way, but still available. The inbox is clean and empty at the end of the day. Seems easier to me, with the same effect.

  7. “backs up all his email, so if he really needs to refer to it, it’s there”

    So he’s not really deleting it, just moving a copy to a folder that’s a bit harder to get at.

  8. Don’t ‘organise’ them. That’s what search is for.

    Look at them once, act upon them or don’t, then throw them in a huge folder that you never look at. In future search for things in them if you need to.

    I have every piece of e-mail sent or received going back to 1997. They do not weigh down my soul.

  9. I agree with LSK,

    The archive function in Gmail is key. I keep no more than 10-15 e-mails in my inbox, only items I have yet to address. Everything else I delete (reminder of dates, events, or other such material) or archive (if I might want to review again). Once you get to the point where you never see a scroll bar on the right-hand side of your e-mail client, you’ll feel better. Believe me!

  10. I love this idea. I’m reasonably good about deleting emails, but I still have the habit of marking ones as unread when I think that I’ll want to do something with them later. The thing is, later never gets here. I may as well just delete them to begin with and not have them hanging out there. *Eyes the 35 “unread” emails in Gmail right now*

  11. I completely utterly and totally agree with this plan, mostly because I follow it myself. Ruthlessly delete and delete and delete. Try not to even archive if you can, as that is a little bit like (though not the same as, true) cleaning one’s physical desk by putting all the papers in a drawer: they are still there! About once every other month I feel the need to search the trash or archive to retrieve something. Clip out key contents and file in Evernote or somewhere if you must, but delete delete delete! And you are even doing the planet a (tiny) favor… I wonder how much carbon is being generated keeping alive some email from 2003 about which restaurant to go to for lunch that day! (grin)

  12. I work in federal gubbmint. On occasion, we
    get FOIA’d. I can delete the chatter, but there is a lot job specific mail I can’t delete and so let it lapse into the system archive. Still, my goal is to have an empty inbox at the end of the day.

  13. My problem isn’t email, it’s RSS. If I had simply “marked all as read” after skimming the headlines, I would have missed Surprised Kitteh.

    Would life, then, have been worth living?

    1. pah, chinny racoon. 17297 and counting.

      i think i’ll archive and delete right now. all of them.


  14. I too like GMail’s archive system than just deleting. It has the same effect — the inbox is completely empty at the end of the day (if you can do it — mine is far from empty) — but all the emails you ever need are just a search away.

  15. I think the key is to understand that we human beings have limited attention span and can only attend to a fixed number of things over the course of a day. As a result the critical concept for any self-organizational scheme is to reduce the number of things that require your attention.

    A zero inbox policy, work batching, and e-mail prioritization can help reduce what you attend to and can make you much more productive and thorough in terms of e-mail follow-up.

    My philosophy:

    1.) Goal at the end of every day is to have a zero inbox. A less-than-zero inbox is an indicator that you are not being efficient. E-mails are either A.) deleted immediately, B.) responded to immediately, C.) added to my calendar if there is something to do later on (and then delete e-mail).

    2.) All non-essential e-mails (think newsletters) get routed to a “non-essential” folder that is quickly reviewed and deleted as needed in a batch at the beginning or end of the day.

    3.) I also unsubscribe aggressively from newsletters and other incoming sources the minute that I think the e-mails generated are low value.

    Pretty simple stuff but you have to be aggressive. Clutter dulls your focus and makes you less effective. Eliminate the clutter.

  16. Unread email counts are (with a nod to the new movie, “Up In the Air”) the frequent flier mile counts of the 1990s. Somehow people feel a perverse pride in having an astounding number of inbox emails… must show they are important? But like frequent flier miles there is a price being paid to run up such impressive totals.

    1. I get a lot of group emails where people are emailing back and forth at different times with different bits of information, so one email never has all the relevant info in it. I tend to keep the entire email chain until the event has passed (etc.) and then delete it. Sometimes, I forget, and it ends up not being deleted.

  17. I don’t get it. If it’s still there (backed up or “archived”), then how is it deleted? Why is it so important for the inbox to be empty if you have the emails stashed elsewhere anyway? I don’t really care if there are other emails in my inbox since I just deal with the newest, unread ones, and the others I can search easily — which I would have to if I archived them anyway.

    To me, my inbox is “empty” if there’s nothing unread in it, no matter how many emails are actually there. If I need to deal with it later, I simply re-mark it is “unread” as a reminder. That way, it motivates me to deal with it quickly before it gets shoved off the first page with something new.

    I don’t get anywhere close to hundreds or thousands of emails a day, though, so maybe this only works for some. I find having to sort and categorize and selectively delete emails actually takes up more time for me than it’s worth.

  18. I think it’s funny that his hardcore delete-everything rules include ‘and also save everything’. I’m an email hoarder, not for any reason useful now but because most of my old email is personal correspondence. I am trying to keep more of it archived than not.

    It does make a (slight) difference. In Gmail, I have labeled emails all over the place. Just archiving the labeled ones makes me feel a lot better.

  19. “Organizing your email is like alphabetizing your recycling.” – Merlin Mann

    His Inbox Zero talk:

    I haven’t done everything he suggests for instance I still dump emails into project-related folders, but then I never go back through them again. I’ve got an @Action folder and a @Waiting folder at the top of my list that I review for actions when I’m ready to do things. My Inbox stays empty after I’ve processed it.

    The iPhone is great for doing inbox processing. Read it then decide what you need to do.

  20. Years of playing RPGs and FPSs has conditioned me to be a pack rat. I do not delete anything that I think might be remotely useful or isn’t in some way backed up and I still haven’t used the BFG on anything other then the last boss.

  21. Archiving rather than putting in folders is certainly wiser. I don’t know if it would still happen, but in the past I’ve lost quite a few e-mails because I was saving so many on my computer in folders in my Mail app and eventually they corrupted.

  22. Yeah, I mean what if the boss has a second stage and you need your BFG ammo for that?

    My mail is just chucked into folders or left to rot in the inbox if I don’t think it warrants it’s own folder. It’s archived every 6 months, so it get’s pruned quite efficiently.

    If you can afford to delete all your emails then you are either:

    1) Not doing anything of any consequence. Get a real job, hippy!

    3) Batman. With your photographic memory and ability to visualise complex ideas without writing them down, you should be out there fighting for justice!

    I know I need to keep a record of important stuff, how else am I going to remember the correct layout of a TPS report?

  23. If you’re just deleting, then you’re saying you’re more important than your colleagues who are counting on you for a reply. But otherwise, yes, you have to deal with each incoming on the spot. Extract a to-do into your master file and put the note in a folder; reply and delete-or-archive; or if you must wait for something to happen, flag the note as read-but-waiting and let it stay.

    Best of all, get some fellow high-volume users together and draft a corporate guideline that will reduce volume and/or change expectations. Intel did it a few years ago.

  24. Despite the barrage of work emails, publicity junk, and miscellaneous crap he gets emailed to him every day as Boing Boing’s managing editor, Rob manages to keep a completely empty Apple Mail inbox and no permanent folders.

    I suspect that not being raised in the US would be one of the reasons. I never delete anything because I expect (with no cause whatsoever) to have e-mails subpoenaed at some point and it looks bad if they were deleted. If you live in the US and have ever worked in a corporate setting, you develop a ‘due diligence’ mindset.

  25. I say delete, with extreme prejudice.

    I earned my Inbox Zero badge earlier this year, and it was a great feeling (the empty inbox, I mean, not the badge!)

    The key for me was realizing that 90% of my incoming mail could be deleted without consequence. About another 9% could be acted on, archived for my records, and deleted within moments of receiving it. The 1% left over would accumulate until I either had time to deal with it properly, or could admit that I was never going to deal with it at all.

    The resulting lack of clutter has kept me sane. I’ll never go back to my old ways.

  26. Ditto on ‘archive not delete’. But here’s a tip to speed things up for thunderbird users: install the ‘TB Quickmove Extension’ add-on. It lets you bind keystrokes to specific moves. eg when you’re reading an email, cmd-1 (or ctrl-1 in linux/windows) moves the email to a folder I’ve created called ‘archive’. It makes that initial process of triaging mail so much faster.

    For folks taking the plunge and trying to clean up an inbox with thousands of emails, ignore the default sort by date and try sorting by sender, sorting by subject, and/or turning on threading.. You’ll quickly find big chunks of mail can be identified and archived/deleted.

  27. Is there a add-on that will display “DELETED” in large pixelated letters on a blue background and sound a klaxon?

  28. I deal with them as fast as possible. Parse any relevant information out (attachments into project folders or .txt for a message body) and delete. Since Yahoo/AT&T mail seems to keep about 3 years worth on their servers the occasional “whoops” is easily rectified.

  29. My inbox is not my ToDo list. My ToDo list resides elsewhere. Hence my inbox is simply an archive of communications to be searched when appropriate. Never delete, never archive, just drop of the front page.

    The key point of the article is actually even better: Don’t keep todo lists. Do things immediately. Move on. If it’s complex and takes time, disconnect from the internet and focus.

    I’ve heard of Professors who’d ignore communication for weeks at end. As utterly annoying this is to those few whom actually need to contact that Prof in an emergency (very rare in academia unless you are in very well specified situations), I can see the appeal of that. Actually thinking about research without the idea destroying constant interruptions! Imagine that.

    1. What I say to those professors: Don’t give out your email then. I know a lot of profs who list their email without revealing that they never intend to check it at all, leaving students in a bind when they politely wait days for a reply. I’m only in your class for a few months; can I really afford to spend days in-between responses?

      If you want some kind of filter to ensure that people contacting you really need to, make people show up to your office (AND BE PUNCTUAL ABOUT BEING THERE, argh) or offer a phone number.

      Putting your research above your students’ needs — however trivial you think they are — is unprofessional as well as incredibly inconsiderate when a large part of your job consists of *teaching.*

      It’s a common habit of professors, and far from being some kind of high-minded quirk, it’s a smear on the academic world, characterizing scholars as isolated and selfish.

    2. Oh, and right … I don’t know why people think email is somehow different from answering, say, your snail mail.

      Are you going to tell your electricity provider that you were just buried in research and that opening your bills promptly just detracts from your ideas?

      Of course most social emails are neither important nor urgent. But when you share your email in a professional capacity, you have an obligation to treat it seriously.

  30. I can think of few things one can do with one’s clothes on that are more pleasurable than destroying excess Email. I get hundreds of Emails most days, and about three of them are of any real purpose.

  31. “I used to have loads of folders, date-based folders, even. I did the whole Dave Allen GTD-in-email stuff, but for me all that amounted to was this elaborate procrastination system,”

    I’m the exact same way. It’s always been that way for me.
    I tried a few ways to get organized, but even after maintaining a version of the Getting Things Done system for a year, I realized it just wasn’t helping me.
    Different people work different ways should be obvious, but it took me that much time to realize it.

    That said, I do archive my email. It’s all there if I need to get to it. But my inboxes are either empty, or contain one or two messages that I’m acting on immediately.

  32. Surprised no one mentioned Google Wave. Not that it’s current incarnation is even reasonably useful for day-to-day work. I use Gmail with a handful of tags. I put my todo’s and biz dev stuff in Highrise and everything else goes in Evernote. If I get more than 25 emails in my inbox my skin starts to crawl. I’m an independent consultant so less email than the engineer with 400 emails a day (something is broken there) but I found deleting the sample sale/politico/bands around town stuff cut my daily emails by a large margin.

    One thing is clear, GTD stuff doesn’t work for most people except for the premise of if it takes less than 5 (not 2) minutes stuff, do it immediately and move on. More folders is never the answer.

  33. If you are freaking out about the amount of stuff in your inbox, then you’re probably too performance driven and need to learn to relax. Have a nice cup of tea, and stop sweating the little stuff. Life’s too short to get stressed about something like email.

    1. Yeah, I’m with you, Daemon. Maybe it’s a personality type thing or something, but of all the stuff I feel psychically burdened by on a regular basis (and I’ve got quite a list of trivial and less trivial triggers,) e-mail is not one of them. I just search it. It’s just e-mail. I refuse to think there is any moral aspect to how cluttered my inbox is. The only thing that stresses me out is when I approach the limit and then have to deal with deleting stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I read/reply/delete on a regular basis, and actually stay on top of it pretty strictly, it’s just not really a big thing to me. Having all that junk around (right now about 1500 msgs) has totally saved my ass on more than one occasion, and I also like keeping messages from friends and loved ones, at least for a while until I go through and weed out the more trivial stuff. It’s like keeping a box of letters.

      1. Indeed, no need to stress.

        I just let stuff accumulate on my gmail account: At the current rate, it’ll probably never fill up. They have an excellent search function for finding old mails, and I get the newest 50 on the first page. Mailing list posts are tagged and archived, but the rest just stays in the inbox. And why not? One less thing to even think about.

  34. That’s how I operated from day one. When I first started email it was just how I went about things. I never felt the need to hold onto any emails and if I did have something that could not be dealt with immediately it would stay in my inbox until I did something. The longer it sat the more I felt the need to take action. I’ve always felt stressed having an inbox full of emails so deleting them is like clearing my head. Gives me space to think. I couldn’t imagine myself a person who keeps emails. It’s just never been how I’ve done things and I like to keep it like it is now.

  35. How apropos… I just noticed today that my gmail unread count crossed 10,000. Not that it bothers me a bit! I have become a GDS addict. If I can remember a snippet of the topic or a keyword that might have been mentioned in the message, I can find it — no matter if it was chat in one of 3 different chat clients, email (corporate Lotus Notes GDS plugin), or personal (gmail).

  36. Hmm. I added up the contents of all the folders and I have about 38,000 e-mails saved. Maybe it’s time for a purge.

  37. For those who may not be aware, “archive” in Gmail is functionally equivalent to delete, but gmail keeps it it so you can pull it out using search if need be. But it’s still out of mind.

  38. An old friend of mine always deleted all of her e-mail after she had read it.

    Then one of her best friends died–one who had been sending her e-mails filled with wonderful stories and pictures over the years–and now she was gone, and they were, too.

    Myself, I save a lot but periodically back it all off to CDs; it’s there if I need it, or just want to rummage in the past.

  39. I just switched from POP to IMAP for my company e-mail, and it was like a breath of fresh air to my inbox. I still have all my old e-mail in its own archive in Outlook in case I need to refer to it, but I rarely need to do that.

    1. Err… I’ve switched to IMAP too, but that didn’t magically empty my mailboxes. Instead I just created a new “Archiv” folder on IMAP in which, you guessed it, I place all the mails I processed and did not just delete. Sometimes I tag a message, like “taxes”, when it’s something I’m likely not to remember to look for, but that’s rare, too.

      Sorting mails by hands into hand-crafted folders is pseudo-work, like elaborate todo-list with priorities and alarms.

  40. I work with a guy — who’s computer is not cluttered with old emails…. however he is the same on who shows up at my desk asking me to reiterate all the details that I sent him in the first place… why you might ask? Because he deleted it! So, while deleting your email might make you happy…. not everyone is smiling!!

  41. If I haven’t read that email by the end of the week, and nobody asked me about it, I probably don’t care. On monday morning, I mark the whole damn inbox as Read, and get on with my life.

    I do use a filter to flag emails from relatives in bright red automatically so I don’t miss that email from my mother that she then calls me about 12 hrs later to complain that I’m ignoring her and the worst child ever… other than that, I don’t “file” and I only delete “Spam” and retarded chain letters from my older relatives.

    Every six months or so I move everything older than 6mos to an archive to speed up searching my main inbox for “recent” events.

    Thunderbird only displays “unread” messages. “Read” messages are invisible until I need them and even then I usually Search for them rather than revealing them. I don’t feel guilty for mass-“read” flagging emails I haven’t read.

    Obviously, if you DO feel terribly guilty for doing any of this, if it feels like “work not done”, this system won’t work for you.

    Works for me, though, and when I need something from 3 years ago (which I do at a surprising frequency) I actually have it.

  42. I disagree that deleting every email is the way to go. However, I leave only email in my Inbox when I need to do something about it. Once I’ve done the work, I’ll usually reply to the person and move the original email AND the reply into the relevant mail folder. And in all likelihood, never look at either again.

    However, the policy of not deleting emails has saved my butt enough times that I find this way works just great. Of course, that could just be my office environment, where people love to blame others when things go wrong.

    “Yes, you DID say you wanted me to delete that column in the database, even though I said it wasn’t a good idea. Here’s the email where you agreed to it.”

  43. I have a similar philosophy but instead of back-up and delete, I just leave e-mails that need my attention marked unread so they show up bold in Thunderbird. The folders I have are for my filters that automatically sort most e-mails I get. When I need to find an old message, I use the search function.

  44. I do the typical GMail + archive, unread in inbox for “need START action”, and read in inbox for “pending action”.

    GMail (conversation view, the general UI, labels, etc.) has been God-sent, however my major gripe (and I’m surprised others haven’t noticed it) is how BAD search is in GMail’s web interface. It’ll find stuff, but not all the time. Even when I know a specific sentence is there (in an archived email) verbatim and I use quotes (and don’t worry, I’m an engineer/super-geek so I know how to search: searching for computer part isn’t the same as “computer part”, -label:whatever etc. are second nature). Very often it’ll find some of the emails with my search term, but not others. Drives me nuts!

    Dear Google guys, PLEASE FIX THE GODDAMN SEARCH in GMail. Your core competency is SUPPOSED to be search!

    PS. I don’t use Google Desktop Search, but perhaps I should (not sure if it’ll differ in search results)

  45. “If you can’t just sit down and kill an email by working on it, then you should just delete it, even if it means flipping someone off,” he advises.

    While I’m sure this method works just fine for someone already well established in their career, especially someone like Rob who is being actively targeted for reviews and opinions, those of us who have bosses, coworkers, and clients emailing us all day don’t really have the option of “flipping someone off” just to make ourselves feel better. At least not those of us who want to keep our jobs. I’m just as guilty of keeping too many emails in my inbox and not following through on them as the next guy, but it’s pretty obvious that this article is definitely not intended for the average office worker.

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