It’s funny how things change. I used to hang out on a lot of mailing lists back in the day, some pretty high-volume ones. Two that come to mind were the Belle and Sebastian fan list and an extremely casual chat list for bored young IT professionals. I had my email client of choice (mutt) fired up and checked it obsessively throughout the day.

I could get hundreds of emails in one day, most of the fairly uninteresting. But I read them all none the less. In a way, this was social networking before orkut, friendster and facebook.

A couple of years ago things started to shift. I noticed this at first when going through the inbox of my new email client of choice (gmail). Most of my traffic were just notifications about interactions happening elsewhere. Someone wants to friend you och Facebook. You’ve got a PM on Twitter. Someone endorsed your XML skills on LinkedIn.

(Side note: I never use LinkedIn. The only time I go there is to dutifully accept someone’s network request, and this happens once every six months or so. I suspect I’m not the only one doing this. {“LinkedIn is where social interaction goes to die.”})

Anyway, I realized that my email inbox was slowly being turned into a dumping ground for online services while at the same time most of my actual interactions were moving elsewhere. I found it easier to just fire off a Facebook or Twitter PM than taking the time to compose an email. Which is kind of ironic considering how a decade earlier email had killed off regular letter writing in much the same fashion.

What came next was that I started dreading getting email. I still haven’t figured out the the reason behind this. All I know is that opening my inbox filled me with anxiety. The emails I got were mostly spam for products I didn’t want or sad status notifications from services I no longer used. And there were all the mass mailings about Good Causes (WSPA, Avaaz, Sea Shepherds); well-intended but very depressing. What few actual human interactions I still had got buried in this crap. And it made me shy away from the medium that I used to love and spend every waking moment on.

When Google rolled out their recent gmail changes that split your inbox into separate buckets for the important stuff (Primary) and the rest (Social, Promotions, Forums, etc.) and then applied their strange cloud powers to create an automatic categorization scheme that actually worked, I was delighted. It sounded perfect. It felt as if they built this feature just for me. The wheat got separated from the chaff and it all worked! Well, most of the time anyway.

It’s not enough, though. As long as the other buckets fill up with messages I’ll still feel anxious that I’m missing something. There’s a compulsion to read them all, even though I know I don’t have the motivation or capacity to act on them in any meaningful way. I’m still unhappy and stressed out.

I’ve started a new email regimen:

  1. Unsubscribe mercilessly. Unsubscribe from the product updates, the marketing emails, the service notifications. You don’t need them. Unsubscribe from mailing lists you haven’t read in a while; you can always resubscribe later. Unsubscribe from charity mass mailings; if you really want to contribute there are better ways than sitting at your computer, feeling impotent.

  2. Filter what you cannot unsubscribe. Create rules that automatically mark stuff as read, or send it directly to trash. Train your spamfilter like a rabid pitbull.

  3. Delete what you cannot filter. Seriously. You ain’t gonna need it.