I work for a software company. I travel all over the USA consulting with and training our customers. As a consequence of this, it’s not uncommon that I get a glimpse of someone’s email — usually because they’re connected to the projector and happened to need to go into their email to look something up. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restrain myself from going “you have HOW many unread emails?”
Earlier this week, I was at one such customer site. And one of their staff did exactly what I said above — launched their email while connected to the projector. And right there on the screen, next to their inbox, was the indicator that they had 20,000 unread emails.
Twenty freaking thousand.
And this was otherwise a very competent, intelligent person who was a pleasure to work with. We’re not talking some computer-challenged person who calls the Web “the google” or thinks that everyone still uses America Online.
I wanted to say “you know, it might be an idea to just mark everything older than a month read, and get a fresh start, so you can actually use the unread indicator for its intended purpose: letting you know you have new email.” But I didn’t. Wouldn’t have done any good. There are two types of people in the world: hoarders and non-hoarders. Even in the world of email. A hoarder is terrified of getting rid of anything because it might be important some day, and that includes all those unread emails. The idea of marking everything over a month old — or, heck, over six months old — “read” would be in their eyes equivalent to tossing out the chemical process for turning lead into gold.
Now, if you’re reading this and you have lots of unread email in your inbox, you may not fall into the “hoarder” category. You might just get a lot of email, or you might be one of those people who feels that every email deserves a deep and personal and well-thought-out response.
I try to keep my inbox all but empty. In my personal email, I have Gmail rules to file new emails to folders, and I use the “is:unread” search to review them. If I look at them and go “You know, I can live without that” I just mark ’em read. I recently started unsubscribing to every mailing list I’ve signed up for over the years because, in the sober light of day, almost none of them really added any value to my life. As for personal emails from actual humans, it’s generally not hard to identify those that do need a response from those that don’t. And I just don’t let myself fall behind on those. As a result, the only stuff that ever winds up in my “inbox” folder proper is stuff from people I’ve never heard from before, which therefore don’t hit any of my rules. And I file those, and set up rules if appropriate, and my inbox goes back to its pristine emptiness.
As for work emails, well, I’m terrified that I might miss something critical… which in my job, might mean that I show up 3,000 miles away from where I’m supposed to be. I have Outlook rules that file all the corporate heads-up messages and “we’ve hired a new VP for a region of the company’s operations you’ve never heard of and will never interact with in any way” emails to a folder where I can happily mark them read and ignore after a quick glance. Other stuff gets automatically sorted into folders by customer, so I can quickly review everything relating to a given customer without having to go searching for it all. If I encounter something that’s important that I be able to find quickly, I don’t leave it unread — I flag it using an Outlook category like “Critical” or “Project Code” or “Really Important To Not Forget”. And then I have search folders where I can quickly go to those messages. And when they’re no longer important, I remove the flag.
Marking things unread just because you think they’re important is so … weird. How can you then tell the true unread stuff from the stuff you’ve read before and just need to be able to locate quickly? Which, incidentally, you can’t because it’s all mixed in with several hundred or thousand other real unread email messages?
Makes no sense to me. But on the other hand, there are people out there who eat dirt and people out there who keep sewer rats as pets. It takes all kinds to make a world.