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How I destroyed email

Published Aug 22nd, 2013 11:15AM EDT
How To Solve Email Overload

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Email was destroying my life, so I destroyed email. I crushed everything about it that I hated, leaving only what I absolutely needed. I tore apart my entire workflow and upended the way I deal with digital communications. On my computers, on my phones, everywhere. What remains shouldn’t even be called email; it’s something entirely new and significantly less painful. I used to do things the old way — flags, folders, leaving things marked as unread, reminders, alarms and worst of all, hundreds of thousands of emails sitting in my inboxes, never to be looked at again. It had to stop, so I stopped it.

Email has been a big part of my life for more than a decade. I worked in marketing at a private telco and relied on email to communicate with my team and with our partners. Then I moved into business development at another telco and email became my primary means of communication while working out new deals and partnerships, and for maintaining relationships with our existing partners. But even though email was so central to my job, it was still never much of a burden because that volume was always manageable.

Then I joined BGR.

The jump from working in the industry to covering the industry as a writer was a big adjustment in a number of ways. Email was definitely among them. The sheer volume of emails I would get was daunting from day one. Now, many years later, BGR has grown to become a leading technology news site and I can easily get 100 emails, 150 emails or even more in a single day. It’s too much.

In the past, I have used many of the standard tools people have used for years to try to manage email: folders, flags, reminders and so on. But over time, I came to realize a plain truth: most of the email I receive each day is completely useless after I look at it once. Even the overwhelming majority of the emails I flagged or moved into folders for later reference would sit there forever, never to be looked at again. When I need something, I search for it. It doesn’t matter what folder it’s in or what color flag it has.

So a few weeks ago, I decided it was time to make a change.

My old email setup involved Outlook on my computer, the Mail app on my iPhone with push enabled and notifications turned on, and the Gmail app on Android phones, also with Notifications enabled.

My new email setup uses Apple’s program on my computer, Dropbox’s Mailbox app on my iPhone with push enabled but vibrating and audio alerts disabled, and the Gmail app on my Android phones with audio and vibrating alerts disabled. From the moment I finished setting it up, I knew my life was about to improve.

Here’s how I got from A to B, and why my life is better because of it:

First and foremost, email notifications were the bane of my existence. I could rarely go even a few minutes without my phone buzzing. Constantly. Incessantly. Always.

My main phone is an iPhone 5, which is a great handset but also one that gives the user no time- or location-based controls whatsoever. Whereas I can configure an Android phone to stop alerting me to the arrival of new emails during the day while I’m working, there is no such solution for the iPhone unless you jailbreak your handset. And so as I work each day, despite the fact that I’m staring at my computer screen most of the time so I can see new emails as they arrive, my iPhone sits there on my desk buzzing away as new messages arrive, often several times in the span of a minute.

Needless to say, this is very annoying.

But beyond the annoyance of these constant alerts and the fact they were killing my battery lies a simple truth that seems obvious in hindsight but that so many people fail to realize: It just doesn’t matter.

There is absolutely no reason that I need to be alerted the instant an email hits my inbox. None. Push is an addiction, and it’s a stupid one.

So now, I have recognized the problem and I’m on the road to recovery. I have completely disabled audio and vibrating notifications. Then I did the same thing in the Gmail app on the Android phones I use.

But how will you know when you get new emails on your phone?!

This is a good question with a simple answer: I don’t care.

While I’m at work, I see a pop-up on my screen as new emails arrive so I certainly do not need my phone dancing around on my desk. When I’m not at work, my phone is always on me and even late at night, rarely does a half-hour go by without at least one glance at my phone. With or without push notifications buzzing constantly, I’ll see any email I receive within 15 or 20 minutes while I’m awake.

So the first thing I did was disable all alerts other than visual notifications, and then I switched from Apple’s Mail app to Mailbox.

Mailbox, now owned by Dropbox, is a pretty basic email app with one main function: clear out your inbox. Mailbox works with Gmail and encourages users to play the “inbox zero” game — but instead of just getting your unread count to zero, Mailbox wants you to push all of your emails out of your inbox and into Gmail’s archive folder.

At first, this was terrifying. No messages in my inbox? But then, just like I did when I realized I didn’t need push notifications driving me crazy, I had a realization: I don’t need to have anything in my inbox. Why would I?

After I read an email, I either reply it or ignore it. Either way, I’m done with it 99 times out of 100. The remaining emails I need to act on, I flag. But do these flagged emails need to be in my inbox? Of course not. So, these messages can get pushed into Gmail’s archive folder along with everything else, as long as I am reminded when I need to be that there’s an email I need to act on. We’ll come back to that shortly.

Now, the hard part was done. I had completely changed the way I work with email on my phone. The next step would be to realign my workflow on my computer to accommodate these severe changes.

The biggest question I was left with was how to easily archive messages and access my Gmail archives on my computer, and that would involve another big change. Archiving is a key function of Mailbox on the iPhone and iPad, but Outlook for Mac has pretty awful Gmail support and it doesn’t give users any access to their archive folders. So I clearly had to ditch Outlook.

I chose to use over Outlook, my tried and true PC email app, because Apple’s email app includes the “All Mail” folder within each Gmail account’s list of IMAP folders. That said, there isn’t a built-in archive function that works with Gmail out of the box — but luckily, there was a simple solution for those interested in trying it out.

Simply highlight the “All Mail” folder in the IMAP folders list on the left. Then, in the menu at the top of the screen, click “Mailbox.” Now simply click “Use this mailbox for…” and then select “Trash” from the drop-down. Now any time you delete an email from your inbox it will be moved directly into your archive folder.

There are other solutions, but nothing is as quick and easy as simply tapping the delete key on your keyboard. And if you have multiple Gmail accounts like I do — a personal account, a work account since we switched from Exchange to Google Apps last year, a second Apps account for my consulting business, and another old account I still check every so often — just repeat the steps above and will split each archive into appropriately labeled Trash folders.

For emails you want to come back to at a later time, you can set a flag and the flag will remain even after you archive the message. Just jump into your “Trash” folder, which is now actually your archive folder, and sort by whichever color flag you choose. Or, flags can also be separated into their own category in the left-hand list of folders and accounts. And of course if you use a folder-based workflow, you can forget about flags and use folders as you always have.

Finally, I was left with one last problem: Mailbox for iOS gamifies email and you win every time you get the message count in your inbox to zero. So what do I do with emails containing stories I want to cover here on BGR or other emails I want to act on but that I received after hours on my phone? I could leave them in my inbox and lose the game constantly, or I could create a new “list” — Mailbox calls IMAP folders lists — and move these messages there. I went with the latter option.

But I have multiple email accounts and while most emails I want to follow up on come to my work account, several important newsletters come to my personal account. Beyond that, I have many longtime sources who email me at my personal address. While my new list in Mailbox combines both accounts into one list, there are now two separate IMAP folders in two separate IMAP folder groups that I have to go through each time I get back to my computer. This complicates my workflow.

The solution was simple: is a pretty awful app in general compared to Outlook, but it has a great feature called “Smart Mailboxes” that lets you create boxes with functions that are outside the scope of the standard “rules” you might find in any email client. So, for example, it lets you create one “Smart Mailbox” that contains messages from two different folders in two different IMAP accounts.

Problem solved.

For those looking to make a similar move and attack their email problem head on, the most important thing to realize is that there simply is no single solution that is perfect for everyone. There probably never will be. But email is a big enough burden for so many people that there are dozens of companies out there building tools in an attempt to “solve” the email problem.

Of course, there is no way to “solve” this particular problem. Email is a pain in the ass. It will always be a pain in the ass. But there simply is no better way for people at large to communicate while maintaining a full record of those communications. For the time being, email is the best option we have.

The key, then, is to minimize the sting. Think long and hard about what you hate most about email and devote some serious time and effort to exploring the various options out there. Then, destroy email and rebuild it into something that works for you, not against you.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.