Forget about inbox zero - email sanity is now filter or bust

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 20, 2015
Email management tools were supposed to make our lives better, but it's getting worse. Here's a freewheeling guide to reclaiming email sanity.

breakfast club

In the immortal teenage angst flick The Breakfast Club, Asst. Principal Vernon, played by late actor Paul Gleason, says "Those kids turned on me, Carl." Isn't that how most of us feel about email? And how the hell are we going to turn this around?

The advent of email enabled asynchronous (and sometimes synchronous) communication across time zones. It freed us from "manning"/"womanning" our desks. It foreshadowed that Faustian bargain we're in now, where we are no longer tied to our office, but our work follows us everywhere. Somewhere along the way, email turned on us.

Attempts to radically cope with email are legion. "Inbox zero" is one fantasy tactic, but that brings us back to Albert Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, pushing a rock only to see it fall back down each day. Or whack-a-mole if you prefer.

Some have found email relief from messaging tools like Slack and Lua. I also swear by the virtues of RSS, as well as a dedicated email account only for reading, which allows me to divert newsletters from my main email account. What's left is supposed to be a lean, mean communications tool, ideal for global/nuanced correspondence that simply can't be moved to another channel. We're supposed to be doing email hit and run - high-impact missives, and then we're done. So why are we weed whacking our inboxes all day long?

Why are we weed whacking email all day long?

Well, there's a not-small problem, and it's spelled m-a-r-k-e-t-e-r-s. Marketers know that email is the one thing that puts butts in seats. And they are willing to put up with the percentages of annoying YOU to put those butts in place.

The problem seems to be getting worse. My colleague Den Howlett pinged me with his grievances. He is not amused:

One of the most common things happening now - buy a product or service, provide the email address which is then used to stuff your inbox with shit, even though you are likely unaware of that as its purpose. Also happens in store - happened to me recently with Crate & Barrel.

Another: - take an update for a service only to be spammed with crap you didn't ask for. The frequency with which this is happening is alarming as is the frequency of crap coming into my inbox. In some cases it is daily.

His initial note is even more troubling:

I've seen a massive uplift in email crap coming through. Most of it is well targeted but crap nonetheless.

Yep - even stuff in line with our preferences is not welcome. Why? We never opted in. Or if we did opt in, such as being added to a newsletter, it was somewhere in the diabolical fine print.

Ping's Jeff Nolan, who knows as much about marketing do's and don'ts as anyone, recently wrote:

I’ve been on a crusade against my Gmail inbox and am happy to report deleting over 100k unread emails in just a month. 100k unread emails… something is wrong with the state of email marketing when that happens.

And unfortunately for marketers, spam is defined by the recipient, not the sender.

Sigh - it gets worse

Other crazy-makers:

  • A company I bought something from three years ago suddenly decides the world needs one more newsletter. I'm automatically subscribed.
  • You sign up for a webinar. Little do you know that your email will be used by all six webinar partners. You "opted-in" to six email lists simultaneously (a true story from marketing Hades).
  • An enterprise salesperson contacts you based on your webinar attendance to sell you stuff. They conveniently lost your contact preferences in their "data warehouse" porcelain bowl.
  • If you're a member of an airline rewards program, they feel entitled to send you a marketing circular your "statement" each month. Good luck trying to unsubscribe from those!
  • People think vacation auto-responders are useful when in fact they are self-important annoyances.
  • Then there is the endless vomit trail of customer satisfaction surveys. If you buy a piece of candy corn, some company out there wants to know what the chewing experience was like.

These are mind-numbing, but are usually addressable via unsubscribe. Buried in there are a few useful nuggets. But it's like scouring a beach with a metal detector. And on the list of marketable white collar skills, "keeps a clean inbox" doesn't amount to much. Email is a serious enemy of high-value activity, and thus - and I do not think I exaggerate here -a threat to our livelihoods. Deep work expert Cal Newport is definitely on my side.

It gets worse: what happens if you fall too far behind? What if you have 20,000 unread messages? And what about nuisance emails that are almost impossible to unsubscribe from, such as meaningless order confirmations for routine items?

Email filtering - tedious to set up, but a path to email sanity

That, my beleaguered friends, is where filtering comes in. Not all filtering tools are created equal. I'll discuss Gmail - hopefully your email service provides some of Gmail's features. If not, in some cases you can port/forward your existing email client into Gmail.

Results? I took two email accounts, each with about 15,000 emails in the inbox, and reduced them both to about 15 each. It took a couple weekends of dedicated filtering. I use my email inbox as a priority task list, so I don't care about getting to inbox zero. 10 to 15 at any one time is workable for me.

Now the only nuisance is PR emails for articles; most are impersonal and clueless. But with effort and mean-spirited filtering creativity, a good chunk can also be filtered. LinkedIn is a beast unto itself. Unless you are prepared to block all LinkedIn emails, I recommended pushing them into a folder and then, sorry to type this, go onto LinkedIn and opt out based on your notification settings. It's hard rowing, but you only have to do it once. LinkedIn simply will never stop spamming us, no matter what bullshit platitudes they've been offering up lately. Taking a razor to their marketing beard is the only way.

I've been discussing these tactics with some of my fellow Enterprise Irregulars. Jeff Nolan, who does not suffer email fools, is well underway a successful email filtering project (see his blog post, Operation Email Purge, for more on how he did it).

To make use of Gmail filtering, you'll need to play around with filters as well as labels (which can be used as folders). Remember you can have many folders you never see, or that you see only when there is a new message.

Ideas for highly effective email nuisance filters

The key to filters is making them specific enough to filter out the emails you don't want to see but surface the ones you DO want. You can accomplish this by tweaking senders, subject headers, and keyword combinations. Examples I find powerful:

  • I filter out my Verizon monthly statement they insist on sending me. It's marked as read and routed to a folder. I can check it as I need it, but I'm on autopay anyhow.
  • I filter out order confirmations for routine/cheap services I use, such as transcription. They are marked as read. I never seem them unless I need to search them out.
  • During a cleaning binge, I sorted all the messages in my inbox that had the words "unsubscribe" and unsubscribed from them all. I could have filtered based on that word combination also.
  • I receive five to ten newsletters from companies I don't care about reading right away, but I want them on file later. They are filtered into a newsletter folder and in some cases, marked as read.
  • All my frequent flyer statements and reward program triviata are marked as read, filed in a folder, and I never see them unless I want to pull them up.
  • Most of my web analytics and stats reports are filtered into a folder. I don't mark those as read, but the folder goes away once I've read them.
  • Keyword "webinar" all goes into the same folder. "Webinar" plus "reminder" is marked read and mercifully buried with other nits and nags.
  • I've got all "out of office" and "vacation" combos filtering into a folder and marked as read - I never see those useless things anymore. It took some work to make sure I got only the bots - but keywords like "auto-response" did the trick.

Now, what could I do about that PR example, to take one sticky wicket? How can I preserve the genuinely thoughtful pitches and eradicate the clutter? Well, I could play around with a filter that combines the words "interview" and "unsubscribe". Or that has the words "for immediate release" in the subject header, with, or perhaps without, an "unsubscribe". Or I could filter out anything that combines "invite", and "game changing" (I'm half-kidding about that last one, but I do monitor the junky stuff. Keyword combos like "exciting" and "unsubscribe" almost always lead to a useful filter).

I have a folder called "crap - unsubscribe" where I will manually put messages that I either want to unsubscribe from or create a filter for. See Nolan's post for more smart email tactics.

Final caveats

If you undertake this, you do run the risk of filtering out the occasional important email. That is a downside I am willing to accept. It is well worth the email sanity I have reclaimed. If it's that important, you'll be found another way. But you can hedge against that by being rigorous and precise, and occasionally searching on terms like "important" "cancelled" "help" "vacation" "fired" "exclusive" "fuck you" etc to see if you missed anything or could be filtering better.

You can do a weekend binge like I did, or take it on more gradually, creating a bulk folder of messages you want to eventually filter or unsubscribe from. Yes, you will still need to click on your share of unsubscribe links, but I see that like a daily shave - perhaps not convenient, but way better than a bad case of the email runs.

Good luck in your quest to reclaim your high-value time, and let us know what's worked.

End note: this piece is part of my semi-regular diginomica series on productivity, filtering, and beating the noise.

Image credit: screen grab of actor Paul Gleason - "don't mess with the bull young man, you'll get the horns..."

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