My inbox has been a bit of a mess lately. In fact, it’s been a lot of a mess. I get so much e-mail everyday that I hardly glance at most of them – I simply scan through to see if there’s any e-mail from someone I actually know in real life and leave everything else to collect.
And once it started collecting… well it was easy to let it keep collecting and not attempt to sort it out.
I got up to 1,300 e-mails which is easy to ignore when you’re using Gmail’s Priority Inbox – and even there I had about 45 unread “priority” e-mails.
I decided to tackle my inbox today as a ‘productive’ action – I’ve had to stay in sick today and I’d been feeling listless from not being able to do anything productive – when I try to concentrate earlier today I tired myself out in about half an hour and had to take a nap! But cleaning out the inbox doesn’t take too much concentration…
…one thing I did decide to do to cut down on the mess however was to start unsubscribing from lists. This was pretty easy for the corporate ones – Amazon, EBuyer, Sainsbury’s, PopCap and Opodo all went (well, as soon as I could find their ‘unsubscribe’ link – some of which were much harder than the others to find). It was a bit harder to get rid of Groupon – but to be honest I never read those either. But then I got to the Charity/Good Causes ones: Oxfam, AllOut, Avaaz, Compassion in World Farming, Care International, Libel Reform, Hope not Hate… to be honest I hardly read any of them but at the same time I would feel guilty unsubscribing from any of them. Then intention is always to read every single one but the reality is my eyes look at the sheer amount of unread e-mails and glaze over.
So I came to the conclusion that I will have to prioritise – I’ve decided to toss the ones I probably joined for a single campaign and then never read again and keep the ones that I actually care about on a day-to-day basis. But even that was difficult. Is it worth keeping BOTH Oxfam and Care International? I don’t really care about Libel Reform on a day to day basis but if I stop to think about it, it’s a really important issue that could set precedents internationally and will help the democratic process… and etc etc etc with all the other good causes!
Then I realised this is actually the problem with how I live my life. I realised recently that I’m very good at filling up my free time – with online courses, a resolution to be fluent in a new language in 18 months, a new programming project. I want all of these things, of course – to be able to access new opportunities with a new language, to understand more aspects of this world by learning game theory and model thinking, to be a multi-millionaire with the next viral mobile phone app. And I want more, some very specific mores, but I haven’t yet found the free-time to plug up yet.
But all of this destruction of my free time is stressing me out. I hate feeling unproductive but I also hate the feeling of things hanging over my head. I also hate feeling that I’m not getting as much as I would like to out of the online courses because I’m rushing through them and feeling like I “don’t have time” for things. It’s a sad revelation for me, but maybe it’s time to start prioritising. I may be able to get to do all of these things I want to do in the time that I want to do them, but I don’t want to just do them for the sake of doing them. It’ll be wonderful to have that sense of accomplishment at the end, but I don’t want to be stressed out for the next couple of years in order to achieve that.
Luckily, both my online courses end this week. I’m of course behind on both of them, but once I’m done with them I should probably avoid the compulsion to put something else in that free time gap and start examining my priorities.
If you’ve read down to here, I’m sorry if this blog post didn’t really tie together so nicely – did I mention I’m sick? But it would be nice if you could give some general thoughts or answer some questions. Like, how do you prioritise your charities in terms of time/mone/e-mail subscriptions? How do you prioritise the things you want to achieve in your life?
I think we’ve all been there.
Charities: Honestly? I keep it extremely simple: 5% of my income goes to Oxfam each month. That’s the same amount every month, regardless of whether there’s been a natural disaster or other catastrophe. Why 5%? Because that’s what I can afford without it biting into my savings or my lifestyle. Why Oxfam? Because based on my limited knowledge of charities, they’re the people who do the best work on the issues that I care most about. Any other charitable donations I make are on a one-off basis for projects that happen to catch my eye.
Life: You’re asking the wrong person there, though maybe it’s about time to start prioritising…
Email: There’s probably no one system that everyone would agree on, but I’ve had a lot of success with the ‘empty inbox’ system. It’s simple: Empty your inbox at least once per day. That doesn’t mean that you have to deal with every email: I’ve got two Folders, Later and Reply. When it’s time to empty my inbox, I only have to make a quick decision: Move to Later if it’s something I need to deal with, move to reply if it’s something that only needs an email in reply, delete if it’s unimportant/spam, or file in one of the project-specific subfolders if there’s nothing I need to do. I find this system frees up mindspace, because when you deal with the messages in Later and Reply, you don’t have to sift through all the spam and emails you’ve already dealt with. In addition, I have some filters to put things from mailing lists I don’t necessarily need to read as they come in into specific subfolders.
5% of your income is very generous! You seem to be much more organised than I am.
Your system sounds nice, but I’m worried I’ll just end up with a ton of e-mails in ‘later’ and ‘reply’. How long have you been running your system? Did you/Do you ever get that?
I’ve been keeping a clean inbox for years, but I only started using the Later and Reply folders about six months ago. Before that I emptied the inbox of everything except those emails that I still had to take some action on. That worked fine as long as I got around to taking said action within a few days, but when I started getting so busy that I couldn’t do that anymore, I had to find a better system.
I don’t usually have a problem with these two folders getting too full, the only problem tends to be that some emails stay in there for a long time. But that’s procrastination more than anything For me, the main advantage of a clean inbox is that I can concentrate on incoming messages that are truly urgent, and don’t get sidetracked by re-reading old messages or trying to figure out if I’ve dealt with something already.