Despite Google’s best efforts, my inbox was turning into a crime scene. I enjoy decluttering my home and the same goes for my digital life.

There’s a great podcast by a couple of lads who call themselves “The Minimalists”. I found them one day while rummaging through Netflix, and it was like running into an old friend. They make a great case for living with less, and the freedom it brings.

A lot of my friends would reel in horror and the very word ‘minimal’, as though it means living without furniture or setting fire to all your books. The central message on offer is not to live a life without possessions, but to live a more ‘intentional’ life. I have always done this myself, I just never had a framework of language around it.

It’s about asking yourself if you really need stuff. One by one. Each time you go shopping. Each time to declutter the living room. Each time you open the wardrobe. Each time you open a cupboard of plasticware in the kitchen.

And, I realised this week, same goes for your inbox.

Google does a great job of making my life easier as a self-employed creative. I still use the “priority inbox” feature of gmail to let their algorithm separate out the critical stuff from the not so critical. It’s not perfect but it has made a big impact on my sanity. Most of what appears ‘above the line’ are real people and real emails. Most of what appears below the line are email lists, press releases and other stuff that I actually don’t need to read. Most. Not all.

Some important things still end up below the line, and it’s easy to get lost down there. Google calls this section “everything else”. And it really is full of things that I don’t need to read at all. Things I *might* want to read if I had more time, but in reality won’t change my life one little bit if I delete. And mostly I click the checkbox on those emails and archive them without even opening.

My inbox is the digital equivalent of hoarding clutter.

Empty the Bucket

There are a lot of worthy causes that I donate to, but right now I need to donate a little something to my own peace of mind. The time spent ignoring those emails is time wasted and it makes me less effective at my job and at my life. It also adds to my stress being constantly reminded of the things I am ultimately going to ignore.

Seeing a headline for a refugee campaign and deleting it doesn’t make me feel good. It does not bring me joy to know that I am not responding to people in need. But I can’t respond to every issue that happens on the planet, or every campaign in my city, or every email in my inbox. I give myself moments in the day to engage with Twitter and put my awareness outside of my world. That’s usually how I end up donating a bunch of rice to a food drive or signing on to support climate science in Australia.

My inbox is not the place for that. My inbox is my job, my career, my employment.

I do all my social chatting on other channels. WhatsApp. Twitter. Facebook sometimes. Facebook is essentially a spam service for junk news anyway so I tend to post something and run away in horror at what Zuckerberg throws at my screen. I never loiter on Facebook. It was great once, when I could actually get updates on what my friends are doing and experiencing, but those days are long gone.

My inbox is for work. And I have plenty of pressures in my work without being drowned in emails that may not be junk, but may equally not be worth my time.

Time out to opt out

Minimalism is about being intentional, and that means I want my inbox to serve a particular purpose instead of being an open bucket. So I made a conscious choice to start unsubscribing from pretty much everything. That takes more effort than ignoring the junk, initially, but in the long run it removes a weight from your shoulders and makes the inbox a lot more friendly again.

One by one I started removing myself from lists. I was getting stuff from hotel chains I once stayed at, from PR people I’ve never met, from survey companies, from a needy robot at Facebook pleading for attention, from another needy robot at LinkedIn, from airlines I never want to fly with again, from some company I bought a light bulb from in 2007, and from Google themselves.

Yes, Google were actually one of the most common sources of emails that fall into the gap between spam and non-spam. Google want me to verify if I visited a ramen joint two days ago, remind me to post more photos to feed their crowd sourced content and complain that I’m not running any Adword campaigns.

I went through about 100 emails and just unsubscribed to almost everything. I don’t need to know when someone at Twitter has posted a new comment. I really really don’t. And I don’t need to waste my time deciding if I need to know that someone has tweeted.

20 20 Rule

The Minimalists have a great rule to help people negate the “just in case” scenario. We have a tendency to keep stuff just in case we might use it one day. It can sit on a shelf for years doing nothing, just in case. The “20 20 Rule” says that if you can replace that items for less than $20 and in less than 20 minutes then you probably don’t need to own it right now.

Email is the same. If you are on a list and you haven’t read any of the emails in the last 12 months then you definitely don’t need to keep dealing with the traffic through your inbox. I like the idea of a lot of lists, and writers and blogs. But I haven’t got time to read most of them in a standard working day. When I do have time, they’re just a Google search away. Or maybe I’ll crash into the website again via my Twitter feed.

They’re not lost forever if I don’t want them to be. And actually for most of them my life would be a teeny little bit better if they were lost forever.

At the heart of enjoying a decluttered life is the idea of letting go of things. Hanging onto to too much is what causes us grief. Letting go is not a loss. Letting go is a gift to yourself. Less is invariably more.

This page was last updated on July 19, 2020

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