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
I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.