7 days in email hell
The author vows to read and reply to all email for one week. Can he tame the wicked beast?
Hi, my name's Dan and I've got an email problem. (Hi, Dan.) It's not that I'm addicted to email so much as shackled. Burdened. Deeply dependent, yet resentful. I've got a monkey on my back and it comes with bcc's and attachments.
At this moment in time my Gmail inbox has 34,235 messages, 22,342 of them unread. I've lost track of how many email addresses that are forwarding to that account (at least 6 -- no, wait, make that 8). That doesn't include emails addressed to my various pseudonyms, which I track separately, or all the spam that's caught by Google's excellent filters.
At any moment I expect FEMA to declare my inbox a disaster zone and send in the National Guard. So I've decided to do something about it. For one week, at least, I vow to:
1. Only check my email at three specified periods per day, to minimize email-induced procrastination.
2. Read every message in my inbox and scan all the spam for false positives.
3. Deal with each message -- either by replying, filing, deleting, or unsubscribing.
It seems eminently doable. I feel good about this. I think I can lick the email monster.
I am, of course, totally, utterly wrong.
Day one: Did I say three times a day? I meant six.
I'm off to a bad start. I vowed I wouldn't crack my inbox until I reached the office. I'd spend just 30 minutes combing through my messages, and then not look at them again until after lunch. But I haven't even finished my morning coffee and I've already read three Facebook alerts and responded to someone who wants to rent our vacation home (a stylish loft on the coast of North Carolina -- call now, operators are standing by).
Still, when I get down to curating my email for real, it feels good.
A press release time-stamped 12:01 am announcing the T-Mobile HTC Sensation 4G. Delete!
A reminder from a to-do list program I used once at my wife's insistence nine months ago and never looked at again. Delete!
A Groupon discount offer for teeth whitening. Be gone, pestilent viper!
I merrily unsubscribe from 40-odd e-newsletters I never read, at least half of which I never signed up for. I cannot bring myself to unsubscribe from my Babeland Briefs daily digest, however.
I quickly realize I need to check my email more than three times a day, because many people (notably my editors) need responses faster than once every four hours. I also come to the sobering realization that I cannot simply delete every email after I've read it.
My inbox is a vast searchable database -- much of it dreck, some small percentage of it really useful. I know in my heart 10 minutes after I delete a message I will need the name and number of a contact contained within it. I briefly consider sticking them in a folder called "email I already read and don't know what to do with but better not delete in case one day I really need it." But then isn't "inbox" just a more elegant way of saying the same thing?
At the end of the day, I have read or otherwise dealt with 117 emails and deleted 101 pieces of spam. I am exhausted, but my inbox and my conscience are clear.
Day two: And then after lunch I went into a coma
Now I remember why I never used to read all my emails -- booooorrrrrrrriiiiiiinnnnggg. I can't drag myself to the end of most of them, so I vow to read at least the first three sentences of each one. That vow survives for almost 12 minutes. Then I decide to read at least each subject line before deleting. This proves more manageable.
FengShui for Architecture?
TiVo's Father's Day Survey Results Reveal America's Most Brilliant TV Dads?
Red Cross Peoria (@RedCrossCIC) is now following you on Twitter?
Delete, delete, delete.
Part of my initial plan was to track where my all email comes from -- how many Facebook notifications, Twitter followers, press releases, messages from actual friends, etc. -- to create a kind of sociological portrait of my inbox. I abandon this plan almost immediately. I cannot keep up with the volume of messages, let alone their taxonomy. By the time I am finished going through all the new emails that accumulated overnight, there are at least 20 more waiting for me. My productivity has ground to a halt.
The good news? I am now being followed on Twitter by an Australian SEO guru calling herself Llama Pants. My life is now complete.
Emails read: 179
Spam deleted: 151
Day three: Unsubscribe this, $#$@%!
Barack Obama is starting to really irritate me. Not the man or his policies. (I'm not one of those people, but if you are, please go somewhere else to complain about him.) It's the friggin' email newsletters from Obama for President. I have tried unsubscribing using every known email address at least three times. Each time I get a confirmation that I've unsubscribed, followed shortly by another plea for money. These guys are the most tech-savvy administration of all time? Hello?
Not that they're the only ones. At least half a dozen newsletters simply aren't letting me go or are claiming it will take 10 days to get me off their lists. And some unsubscription options don't work at all. For example: I try to unsubscribe from Trove, the personalized news service published by the Washington Post. But hitting the Unsubscribe link brings me to this attractive logo:
Maybe they should spend more time getting unsub links to work and less time on 404 error page design?
Half the time when I unsubscribe I get an email response confirming my choice and/or begging me to please reconsider. But this one from SafetyWeb takes the prize for dumbest non-confirmation of all time:
We have received your request to unsubscribe from unsubscribe. However, you do not appear to be a member of unsubscribe, so we have taken no further action.
Emails read: 154
Spam deleted: 162
Unsubscribe confirmations received: 27
Day four: Spam I am
Part of my new email regime is going through my spam folder to see if Gmail is flagging legit messages by mistake. About once or twice a day it does. Mostly, though, it's the most effective spam filter I've ever used. And though I know Gmail automatically deletes all spam after 30 days, I find hitting the "Delete forever" button intensely satisfying.
That's because spammers are the most stupid bipeds on the planet, exceeded only by the people who actually believe the stuff they spew. This one, however, wins the award for both most illiterate and most frequent article of spammage:
My name is Elza, im From Russia
I like to internet meeting.(i find you mail in google)
If you are interesting to chat, meet, change photos, hot webcam talk wit me
please visit my page on site:russwoman.ru
simle find "Elza"
Thanks for writing. There's nothing I like better than engaging in webcam chat with a hot gal who's dumber than paint and in reality probably looks like this guy. Regrettably, I am not interesting to chat or change photos.
Emails read: 54
Spam deleted: 116
Invitations to internet meeting from "Elza" deleted: 20
Day five: So this is what Hell looks like
I can see the light at the end of the email tunnel. Then again, it might just be The Light, coming to spirit me away to the afterlife. At this point, I don't care which.
I am delayed getting online this morning, so by the time I check my email in the afternoon I am looking at 132 new messages. Oy gevalt. Mind you, I do find stuff I want to read. But most of it has little relationship to the work I need to get done each day.
For the first time, I end the day (at 1:22 am) without having cleared out my inbox. FAIL!
The contest for Twitter douchebag of the week, though, is getting exciting. Here's the leading contender:
Mysterysh**ter is now following you:
@mysterysh**ter: How rude! Some guy sneaks up to the restroom on our floor every day to drop a foul pipe. Haven't caught him yet. Who are you?!
Yes, this person really does tweet about what people leave behind in the office toilet. I am really sorry I checked.
Emails read: 98
Emails unread: 52
Spam deleted: 141
Twitter douchebags deleted: 1
Day six: The inexplicable relationship between excrement and email continues
As a techno-journalist, I get email from strangers and near strangers all day, every day. I'd guesstimate about half the messages cluttering my inbox are press releases. Most are excruciatingly boring; the rest, exceedingly strange. This week, for example, I got releases for four-foot-tall greeting cards, pumpkin preservation products, and varicose vein cures (complete with before and after photos -- eeww).
But today's batch may contain the worst press release of all time, for a toilet bowl deodorizer called "Poo-Pourri":
You've just finished a delicious meal and moved on to talks of wedding planning with the future in-laws, when suddenly the call of nature comes a-rumbling. No need to panic. You've planned ahead and armed yourself with Poo~Pourri's line of humorously named, yet ultra effective toilet bowl deodorizers.... Just spray the bowl before going to the bathroom and let sweet, clean scents be the only things left behind.
Worse, it comes with a personal endorsement from the PR person herself.
Ok....I hate to admit it...but working in an office and drinking a lot of coffee there are times when "nature calls!" Instead of nervously hoping that no one walks in after me I use poo-pourri! I just spritz the bowl before I go..and no one EVER knows!!! Seriously...one of my new favorite everyday products....you can thank me later! :)
Well, I would thank you, if I had not already vowed to spend the rest of my life trying to avoid you. Still, through an heroic effort I manage to read all of my email for the day, as well as those I could not get to yesterday. I feel exhausted but vindicated.
Emails read: 96
Spam deleted: 89
PR persons added to blocked sender list: 1
Day seven: Free at last!
One more day. Lord give me the strength. For reasons unknown, my last day in email Hell produces more email and spam than any other. And yet I manage to slog through it.
My totals for the week: 860 legit emails and 860 pieces of spam. A perfect 50/50 split. Given that more than 90% of all email messages are spam, according to Symantec, I should be grateful. On the other hand, this is the spam that made it past the filters at my ISP, my Web host, and the various corporate entities where I maintain an email address. It's superspam!
I ended up with 250 messages left in my inbox for the week, all of them read (or at least marked read). Compare that to the previous week -- where I had around 650 messages left in my inbox, 85 percent of them unread -- and I'm doing great.
It's been a few days now since I completed this regime, and my inbox has returned to its chaotic state. But I've gotten rid of easily 50 newsletters I never looked at -- and, even better, all the guilt that came with not looking at them. I have confirmed that most of my email is dreck, most of my Twitter followers are D-bags, and I'm not missing much by not scanning my Spam folder. I've also gotten just a scosh more disciplined about keeping up with my mail and deleting stuff with extreme prejudice. There are fewer messages screaming in boldface to be read.
Also: No more emails from Ms. Poo-Pourri. That alone qualifies as a victory.