If you're like most people, you have between 1,000 and 10,000 emails in your inbox. And if you keep up with your email, you might only have a few unread emails you've been meaning to get through. That massive archive acts as a comfort blanket. Any purchases you've made. Every work email since the dawn of time. Every ticket confirmation. This monster of information is both valuable and fragile. Let me list a few worst-case scenarios of keeping all your email:
- You get hacked and lose access to everything.
- An angry ex goes in and deletes everything and empties the trash.
- Someone stumbles upon your open inbox and has access to nearly every piece of digital information you have. Angry emails about your boss. Photos you've sent to certain people. Things that shouldn't be seen by, well, anyone.
You get the idea. Your inbox is your digital fingerprint and it's ripe for the picking. So imagine the feeling you would have if you did happen to lose all of your emails today. Now imagine the feeling if you were okay with it because you prepared and properly archived the valuable data. Glorious bliss! Nary a single email to worry about. No loose ends awaiting replies. Just peace of mind. Mmm.
To reach a true zero inbox is a lot of work. It took me a week of frequent sessions to whittle my total email count down to 20. That's right. Twenty total emails. These remaining emails were still relevant at the time:
- Train ticket confirmations
- Rent/utilities payment confirmations
- Work emails for active projects
- A couple sentimental emails
Beyond that, though, there is nothing. An empty meadow of freedom. So how on earth do you parse through a decade of accumulated emails while cutting down on your incoming mail? Here's a quick list that we'll break down step-by-step.
- Unsubscribe from everything to minimize incoming mail
- Mass-delete automated messages (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Groupon, Fab, etc)
- Clear out chat histories (Google Hangouts)
- Save important attachments locally
- Delete clusters of emails from past acquaintances
- Delete work emails from completed projects
- Delete. Delete. Delete.
Now let's go into detail for all of the above points.
Search your inbox for "unsubscribe." This will show you all those mailers that you can easily go into and unsubscribe from. Delete these as you go. Also delete the annoying unsubscribe confirmations you'll be getting in the process. This alone will lighten up your incoming significantly.
2. Mass-Delete the Bots
This is where it gets fun. You can search certain keywords for the junk you get sent frequently. All the main social networks are a good start. In addition, use this search string to pull out a lot of those bots: from:do-not-reply* OR from:noreply* OR from:donotreply* OR from:notification*. The asterisk means it will search for the typed words in addition to anything following. For example, searching for theminimal* would return theminimalminute. This will reveal tons of messages from random forums and lists you've subscribed to over the years. Delete!
3. Chat History
If you use gmail, you undoubtedly use Google Chat/Hangouts on a daily basis. Google, by default, keeps a history of every conversation you have on here. This is usually not a good thing. In gmail, go to the sidebar and select Chat. Click the Check All checkbox then choose "Select all conversations in Chat." Delete! Having no paper trail is a nice feeling. Now the Feds will never no you inhaled back in '09.
4. Saving Attachments
This task can be more laborious than the other steps. It involves combing through all the emails that have attachments and saving them into your perfectly-designed folder structure. By doing this, you not only get everything out of your inbox, but you gain a refreshed knowledge of all these important files that have been emailed around. You'll likely uncover old photos, projects, 3D renders, and videos. To easily find emails with attachments in gmail, simply search has:attachment.
5. Past Acquaintances (and friends)
Old classmates. Lovers. Employers. FWDs from your aunts and uncles. This is where things get tricky. With personal emails, we tend to get more sentimental. We think, "Well if Aunt Petunia passes away, I want to have every message she's ever sent me so I can look back and feel a warm comfort from those words." If that's really the case for you, that's fine. But as you become more and more of a minimalist, you might find these sentimental artifacts less and less important. I'm not undervaluing relationships with family and friends, but your memories of these people should be enough. To live in the present, you must let go of some of the past.
6. Work Emails
Tread slowly here. This is where damage can be caused. Depending on your field of work, you may need to keep more or less work emails. At first, I had 4,000+ emails just from a couple coworkers and my boss. It was scary starting to delete these, but after awhile, I was flying through dozens at a time. You quickly start understanding that you really don't need to hold on to all those old emails from clients making changes. Or intra-office emails planning the holiday from two years ago. Delete delete!
7. Delete the Rest
What you're left with is a collection of random emails from all sorts of one-off sources. At this point, a lot of your progress will be from manually selecting and deleting the emails. I would recommend using the check boxes and selecting multiple items on each page.
Google Inbox (as pictured above) is a beautiful interface on top of your already-existing Gmail inbox. It doesn't replace anything, but merely acts as a new way to interact with your mail. It automatically sorts emails into smart Bundles. It does this much better than the older tabs that Gmail introduced. Google Inbox also encourages you to archive or delete emails when you're done with them, leaving you with the most minimal inbox you could imagine. It's currently invite-only, so leave your email in the comments and I'll send over an invite!
Mailstrom is the premiere tool for rapidly trimming your inbox down. You plug in your email account to it and it scans all your emails, organizes them in categories, and lets you delete them immediately. You can view emails by size, sender, date, title, and more. It also has an included unsubscribe feature to quickly unsub from all your mailers. You can try it for free, but you'll have to drop $5 for a month of the Basic plan, which should be plenty for most people. Once you are satisfied with our inbox, you can unsubscribe from the service anytime. Highly recommended!
Hooray! You've done the impossible and got rid of 99% of your emails. What a relief. Now you can sleep at night!