Confessions of an Email Hoarder (and 4 Tips to Tame an Inbox)
This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post. (Posted 10/22/2014)
I am the cyber equivalent of the lady who's rescued too many cats, collected too many tchotchkes and saved years worth of newspapers and magazines. That's right. I am an email hoarder.
I love my technology. I just don't know how to tame it, and most of what I'm getting is from virtual strangers -- literally and figuratively -- and these strangers aren't sexy and intriguing like Scarlett Johansson in Her.
While a 2011 study (Frost, Steketee and Tolin) found 18 percent of hoarders actually have OCD -- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder -- I believe mine is caused by FOMO -- Fear Of Missing Out. What if I miss a two-for-one offer on pears or chocolate covered strawberries... or the chance to win dinner with the President if I donate today... or worse, the latest celebrity breakup?
My email got this way because I can't say no. Sign up for our newsletter? Sure! Receive our weekly specials? Why not? Stay up to date on the political issue du jour?Absolutely!
What's in your email? Mine is mostly full of stuff I don't want -- not unlike the mailbox in front of my house: sales pitches, pleas for donations and coupons I'll never use.
My inbox reached maximum annoyance recently when a political organization which shall remain nameless, sent me eight, fear mongering missives in a single day. I unsubscribed. They ignored my request.
It's no wonder the little red bubble over the mail icon announces I have more than 2,000 unread emails in my inbox because I can't seem to delete anything. When I do, I let the messages pile up again. I was somewhat cheered by photos on a friend's Facebook page of other people's iPhones. One had more than 11,000 unread messages... another had 24,152! My inbox isn't so bad after all, I comforted myself. I was in denial. While the little red bubble over my mail icon flashing a mere 2,205 may pale in comparison, I had to admit it was too many for me.
But how to tame it? Go to a hoarding expert, of course! Usually if you have pileups in one area of your life, you may be likely to have other pileups too," Dorothy Breininger told me. Breininger has appeared on A&E's Hoarders, The Today Show and Dr. Phil, has co-authored six organizing books and produced an award-winning documentary.
"You might wish to ask yourself, 'where else do I have pileups in my life?' Do you tend to let mail pile up? Laundry? Voicemail messages? Dishes? Items on your 'to do' list?"
I surrender, Dorothy!
Breininger, was kind enough to share four expert tips to help tame unruly inboxes.
1. Be daring! "We keep so many emails out of fear," she says, "that we seem to keep nearly all of them!" Be brave and become willing to delete those emails by attacking the inbox with grit and determination -- not nostalgia or fear. (Same goes for the magazines that are piling up by the sofa.)
2. Put a cap on the number of emails in your inbox. Do you want your inbox completely empty? Or are you satisfied with 25, 50 or 100 lingering emails? Set a goal, let that number be your guide and don't panic. When you hit your cap, deal with your messages. "Then you can release the anxiety around them," Breininger says.
3. Make an appointment with yourself and use a timer. Checking email throughout the day and night invites interruptions. Breininger suggests using a timer and establishing a set amount of time to read and return emails. "It sets the stage for a bit of an adrenaline rush knowing you need to beat the clock!" Additionally, Breininger suggests using an "accountability partner" if you don't think you'll follow through on your own.
4. Be polite, but short and to the point. One of the reasons it takes so long to clear our inboxes is that we get sidetracked into responding to a message. We feel obligated to write a long, proper, well-written response and we lose track of actually doing the clearing of the box. "If you do intend to return those emails as you clear your email box, always be polite, but challenge yourself to be short and concise," Breininger says.
I put out a Facebook plea wondering if any of my friends had successfully corralled their inboxes and got some more good tips: Make folders and name them for easy reference: Writer's Group, Kids' School, Travel, etc.; create separate email accounts for shopping, work, friends and family; unsubscribe to the businesses and organizations that are overwhelming your inbox; and my favorite -- delete, delete, delete.
It's important to know our own patterns, says Breininger, who dubs herself a 'Weekly Wanda" who tackles her email on Sunday evenings.
"It's okay if you don't clear out your entire inbox each and every day -- or every week for that matter. What matters is know how often you will clear it and when."
I've been slowly incorporating Breininger's advice and it's empowering to delete so many emails. My goal is to clear excess messages every day. This morning, the little red balloon over my inbox says 220. I'd be more comfortable keeping it below 100, but I'm making progress -- it's a far cry from the 2,000-plus I had before asking for Breininger's advice.
She's right -- if there are pileups in one area of my life, there are likely pileups elsewhere, too. So now that I've begun to get a handle on my email, I'm feeling daring enough to close some of the tabs on my Internet browser... and maybe even throw in a load of laundry.