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.

[ 5 tools to protect you from e-mail slip-ups ]

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:

Hello dan.tynan:

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  

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