The Digital Detox Project: Reducing Email Anxiety

Friday, February 21, 2020
Like many people in this modern life, I've struggled for a long time with email. I'm tired of being stressed out over email. Over the past week or so, I've taken some decisive steps to take control of my inbox.

Just to give some background on my personal mission at this moment, right now I going through my own version of a digital detox. Unlike the movement to unplug and reduce screen time, the goal of my detox is to eliminate every part of my digital life that I do not enjoy and hurts my overall well-being. I want to embrace the reality that more and more we will be spending time in front of screens to get things done. But I want that reality to serve me, not work against me.

It's so easy to use apps and online services that don't bring any joy or value to real life. It's also easy to get caught up with online services that bring moments of joy but ultimately lead to feelings of guilt. Neither is good for emotional well-being. So I started my digital detox by asking myself, "What would make my digital life more enjoyable?"



I'm sure everyone has different views on what would make their digital life enjoyable, but here is a list of what I want.
  1. Nice aesthetics. Apps with appealing and intuitive design only, please.
  2. Speed and simplicity. Nothing overly complex and slow-moving. I don't want to spend a ton of time learning how to use an app, especially when I have to try so many applications to find what I like.
  3. Apps that use timeless file formats. Txt, Markdown, PDF, JPEG, PSD and Doc. I'm avoiding overly specialized formats as much as I can because if that app goes away, I won't be able to open my files. Unfortunately, this is what happened to me when I upgraded to the latest version of Manga Studio. Even if I do need to work in a specialized format, I want to keep backups of my work in a format that has stood the test of time.
  4. Application to Reality. I want to pick apps and follow social media accounts that encourage me to work out, start a garden, improve my mental health, or learn something new. I want to better myself through technology, not just consume.
  5. Boundaries. This means that I can set what is private and what is not. Unfortunately, the current state of the internet encourages weak boundaries. However, by using services with encryption so strong that not even the owners can read your info or by using services based in Europe, you can create a dividing line between what you want out there and what you don't.
So this is my overall goal with my digital detox. Now to my first pain point: email.

Slaying the Email Monster

I knew that my email was out of control. Most of it I didn't even read. Although my Gmail account has more than enough space for me not to delete stuff for years, knowing all that junk was there was taking up mental space, even if I couldn't see it. Plus, I was getting tired of receiving all of those email subscriptions that I didn't care about. It made my daily email check up more tedious than it needed to be.

Also from an environmental point of view, there are servers out there working hard to store emails that I don't read. By deleting those hundreds of unnecessary emails, I'm reducing the environmental impact of online digital storage.

So here are the steps I took to bring my email back under control.

Delete

Step one of getting email under control is deletion. The majority of your emails can be deleted.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I actually had emails from 10 years ago in my account. And most of them were notifications of sales from retailers. I've found that the majority of my emails are just notifications. I have an Amazon package coming. There's going to be a sale on an item next week. A blogger is putting out a new course. I got a new Twitter follower. These notification emails aren't worth keeping. Once my package arrives from Amazon, that email is pointless. I don't need to save emails that tell me that I've ordered something. Once I read them, I don't need them. Send all notification emails to the trash the moment they are no longer needed. Usually, that's once you receive them.

Deleting unnecessary emails manually can take a long time, especially if you have thousands of emails across three different accounts like I did. Fortunately, I discovered Cleanfox via the blog Minimal.plan. I tried using Unroll.me in the past to solve this problem and all it did was generate more email in my inbox. But Cleanfox is great because not only does it help you unsubscribe from all the junk, but it also gives you the option of deleting all the emails associated with that subscription. Plus, Cleanfox is GDPR compliant, so your personal information is handled responsibly.

Cleanfox easily saved me hours of work. Plus, I could see the impact that my clean up is having on the environment.

As awesome as Cleanfox is, I still had to roll up my sleeves and do some manual cleaning of my inbox. I filtered out all unread emails and deleted them. If I didn't read it last year or 10 years ago, that means I am never going to read it. Deleting unread emails is a great place to cut down on the email clutter. Another thing that I was able to do was focus on which senders were big offenders. For example, Facebook sends tons of the most pointless emails. In Gmail, I was able to filter out all Facebook emails and delete them.

To Declutter Emails:
  • Use Cleanfox. 
  • Trash unread emails and notification emails. 
  • Once an email has served its purpose, delete it. 

 

Organize

After deleting, the next step is to get organized. In Gmail, I decided to Star urgent items only. Those are items that I need to take action on as soon as possible. Emails that aren't urgent, but that I need to save, I mark as important. I also created three different tags: Personal, Professional and Email Subscriptions. I haven't done this yet, but I'm probably going to end up creating another tag called Receipts for online purchases that are tax-deductible. All other receipts can go in the trash because I can look up those purchases on the retailer's site.

If you don't need to save receipts from online retailers for business tax deduction purposes, they're not worth saving. Delete them.

To Get Organized: Create tags that relate to different areas of your life. Ideas for tags: Personal, Professional, Shopping, Receipts. Use tags as general buckets for your emails. If you get too specific, your organizing system can quickly become too confusing to be practical.

 

Dealing with Sentimental Emails

I have some fantastic emails from friends and family that I want to keep in my life. But I know it's not practical to keep those emails hidden away on a server forever. So here are the steps that I've taken to deal with emails that I want to save.

Export

Exporting sentimental emails makes it less likely for you to delete them by mistake while cleaning your inbox. I like saving emails as plain text. To save an email, just copy it, and then paste it into your favorite note-taking software (for me, that's Workflowy).

If you're super nerdy like me and use Thunderbird to manage your emails, you can also install the extension ImportExportTools to export all of your emails in plain text. Then you can store them on your computer. Once you export your emails, there's no reason to keep them on the email server. Just delete them from your inbox.

Print

After exporting, you can print out your favorites and make a scrapbook out of them. This turns your sentimental emails into a display piece that you can enjoy over and over again. Yes, we live in a world that's increasingly more digital. But analog still matters, and technology allows us to make more selective use of paper. Print what is important and meaningful.

To Deal with Sentimental Emails:
  • Copy and paste them to your favorite note-taking app. 
  • Print them and create a special keepsake book. 
  • Delete them from your email provider.

 

Protect

The last step is to protect your squeaky clean inbox from future clutter.

Be picky about what you subscribe to. If you want to subscribe to a blogger's email list just to get the freebie, then get the freebie and unsubscribe right away. You may also want to try ten-minute mail or another temporary inbox service. Temporary inboxes are especially good for retailers who offer coupon codes when you first sign up. You could also run Cleanfox again after some months go by to clean up any new and unnecessary email subscriptions.

Try using a separate email or an email alias for subscriptions. Then it will be easier to get rid of emails you don't need and separate them from emails that are meaningful to you.

Bloggers, do everyone a favor and reduce how many emails you send. According to Cleanfox, 60% of emails go unread. I know as bloggers we want to feel like our emails are appreciated by subscribers, but honestly, most people won't read them. Sorry, but it's math. Plus it takes a lot of work to maintain an email list.

Currently, I don't have an email list for this blog. I made the decision to kill my email newsletter because I noticed that I barely read the email newsletters that I get from other bloggers. Why subject readers to something that I don't even do myself?

But before the year is over I hope to start a new email list that notifies subscribers only when I publish a new book. Not only will that be more useful to subscribers, but it will keep my email list low maintenance. Plus I won't feel so bad when people unsubscribe because I didn't spend forever crafting this intricate newsletter that no one will read. Looking at the big picture, my writing skills are better spent on my blog posts and publishing projects.

Use instant messaging at work. On my job, my coworker and I noticed that we were clogging each other's emails with temporary conversations. Things like, "I'm stepping out for lunch," or "Do you know where the folder for the such-and-such project is?" So we decided to start instant messaging with each other on Skype instead. Now, not only do we have less email to deal with but now our email is used for more meaningful information. We also tell each other which emails we wish not to be copied on.

Switch accounts with extensive personal info to an encrypted email provider. In my list of things for a happy digital life, I mentioned having boundaries. I know that Google scans my emails. That's just how it is. And with some communications, that's okay. However, I don't like the idea of them scanning my medical emails, my tax-related emails, or emails from places where I shop regularly, like Amazon.

So for emails where I want more privacy, I use Tutanota. Their free version offers a lot compared to similar encrypted email services and the pricing for their upgraded version is reasonable. As a result, I'm able to create a barrier between what I want to be public and what I want to be private.

Protect Your Inbox!

  • Be picky about what you subscribe to. 
  • Turn off all notification emails from social media sites. 
  • Run Cleanfox regularly to clean up new, unnecessary subscriptions. 
  • Build boundaries by using an encrypted email service for more sensitive emails. 
  • If you work at a job that relies on email, try switching to instant messaging or at least tell your colleagues which emails and messages you don't want to receive anymore.
  •  And if you're a blogger, be kind and send less (and short) emails. Respect the time of your readers. 

The result of my email detox is that now it takes less than 5 minutes to review and sort my personal email. I don't feel anxious about the backlog of old emails because they're gone. And I had thousands of them! So don't feel like you have too much email to clean up. It may take hours, but you can do it. I hope some of my tips will help you build a happier digital life, especially when it comes to email.

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