Rethinking Email

James Duncan Davidson, in a piece titled “Effective Email Bankruptcy”:

What I had to do was establish that my relationship with email was broken. Once I did that, I had to figure out how to fix it. Watching Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero talk helped immensely as did reading his Inbox Zero series. Somewhere in all of that, he states that the way you deal with email has had to change over the last decade. And, he’s right. I just missed the boat and, as a result, got way out of whack.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I silently declared effective email bankruptcy. I moved those 8000+ messages off to their own DMZ folder and started practicing the whole Inbox Zero thing.

My situation was so similar to Duncan’s that I could have written almost the same piece. When I switched from Mailsmith to Mail at the end of June (so as to start using IMAP with my iPhone), I had about 6,500 messages in my handful of inboxes in Mailsmith; about 3,500 of which were marked unread. Not mailing list traffic or spam or automated messages — those are all personal messages.

I’d been using Mailsmith continuously since version 1.0 shipped in 1998. I’ve been using email since my second year of college, in 1992.1 Pre-Mailsmith, I used the Unix terminal app Elm and, eventually, Eudora on the Mac.

My habits and message filing strategies had more or less remained the same for the entire 15 years I’d been using email. My problem, as with Merlin Mann and Davidson, is that I now receive far, far more email than I could possibly deal with using my long-established strategies and habits.

So when I switched to Mail, I used the opportunity to establish a new system for dealing with email. In a nutshell, my old strategy was based on the belief that I ought to respond to most of the messages I receive; my new strategy is that the only thing I should do with most of the messages I receive is read them and archive them.2

Another way to look at it is this: I can classify all incoming personal email into three broad categories: (a) messages that are either very important or very interesting; (b) messages that are utterly non-interesting; and (c) those which fall somewhere in-between.

The vast majority of my email falls into the last category. Under my previous “system”, I let them pile up in my inboxes, under the assumption that some day I’d get around to answering many of them. Under the new system, if I don’t respond immediately after reading them, they go right into my archive. Out of sight, out of mind.

I don’t consider what I’ve done to be a declaration of email bankruptcy on those old messages that had been in my Mailsmith inboxes. Rather, in one fell swoop I’ve done with all those messages what I should have been doing to them all along: archive them.

I’m not following Mann’s Inbox Zero advice to a T, particularly his edict to reduce all inboxes to zero messages each day. (I’m going for weekly.) But his basic premise is sound: if you’re not reducing your inboxes to zero on a very regular basis, your system is broken.


  1. That I didn’t have an email account during my freshman year of college sure makes me feel ancient. 

  2. The designers of Gmail deserve some credit here. I don’t use Gmail regularly, but I very much appreciate the way that its design completely breaks with the conventions established by all popular mail clients that came before it. Previously, mailers were optimized for the pattern of filing messages into a hierarchical list of (typically) category-based mailboxes. Gmail strongly encourages you to simply throw everything from your inbox into one archive. This is both simpler and more effective when dealing with high volumes of mail. 

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