Uncategorized #6 – The road to inbox enlightenment is paved with newsletters like this one

February 9, 2020 in Uncategorized

Hola! I’m sitting here in my apartment in Brooklyn, which is where I’ve lived for the past 10 years. The apartment has a nice view into an alley that overlooks the subway tracks. You get used to it.  But, whenever the MTA decides to do construction on the tracks, they like to park a train right outside the window all weekend. It’s idling, loud, wasting energy, wasting away.  Every once in a while it honks an air horn, I guess to warn me that it will still be there when I get back from brunch. We have a special relationship. I know it will be gone soon—heading out to cart passengers all over town. But why honk the horn?

Previously

Last weekwe talked about college campuses, working on projects in the open, and encrypting your email. Looking back it all feels a bit frustrating. I like to re-read my posts and try and get a sense of how I was feeling the previous week, or in general “these days.” The last post makes me think I’m frustrated with something, but I’m not sure what just yet. The whole working in the open practice, which I am still very interested in and hopeful for, also makes me wonder…why? What’s the point of that practice? Is there a reason for it other than “sharing is caring?” I still believe there is a good reason behind the glass walls, and the coding out in the open. If anything it may inspire someone else. There’s a really good argument to be made around that idea. But, I can’t help but wonder if it’s also just a little self-serving, dopamine hit kind of thing, similar to the feeling we get when someone likes a photo. Still bending this one around up there. 

This Week

I’ve been on an “inbox zero” kick for some time now. It’s a little disgusting, a little like Marie Kondo, and a little like an obsessive compulsive kind of thing. For those of you who are unaware, “inbox zero” is the practice of not having anything in your inbox. Really. That’s all. It’s a thing I’ve done for a long time actually. My inbox overfills, I reach the 10,000+ emails in my inbox and I begin to freak out, so I do a cleaning.

I use a really good tool called Mailstrom to do most of my inbox zero cleaning. It’s a nice product, created in Baltimore, and it basically just re-organizes your inbox so that you can more easily delete things. Seriously, why isn’t this kind of functionality just already built into every email client?

I’ve used Mailstrom for years now. It’s great, and it gets the job done. But lately I’ve been thinking about what the job actually is, and why it’s important to me to have an empty inbox. Also, what’s the end result, really? I still have thousands of emails in my email archives. 

What is email, anyway?

OK, let’s back up a little. I want to tell you about my relationship with email since it all started back in the 1980’s. I’m old enough to remember sending my first email. I realize most people probably remember sending their first email, but for me it wasn’t just a new account created for me, it was that email had just recently become available to people like me, and I was about to have this Alexander Graham Bell moment. I was about to “talk with electricity.” 

I’m pretty sure it was sent from my childhood home in Maryland via my father’s account on the Compuserve network to my friend’s dad’s account in California. It was like magic. My friend had moved to California the previous year, and I was able to send him a letter, instantly. I called him up right after I hit send to make sure he got it. I learned later that people in offices still do this very thing. “Did you get that email I just sent you??” is a pretty common phone call I’d get whenever dealing with the finance department at my previous place of employment. 

For a long while, we’d send emails like this, back and forth. I didn’t have any other friends with email yet, so he and I wrote back and forth like this for a while. Dad had to notify me when I got a new email, but I already knew who it was from.

Later, I went to college where I received my first official personal email address. It was my initials plus the last 4 digits of my social security number at rit.edu. I used my RIT address to communicate with fellow students, as well as friends from high school who had the same setup at their colleges. The account also got me onto the campus VAXnetwork where I could “talk” with other students via a command line program called [talk](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk_(software))

Pizza changed everything

Eventually AIM would replace “talk” and I’d register for a Yahoo email address—my first web based address. Then things started to spiral out of control. In fact, I think I can trace it all back to an online order I placed with Domino’s Pizza. Domino’s was one of the first stores to offer an online experience. You’d log in, pick out your pizza, place your order with a credit card and receive an email receipt. That was the moment my relationship with email changed.

Before my pizza order, my use of email was pretty simple. I’d use it to communicate with people I already knew. I’d write long winded letters to friends and family members, and I’d get the same in return. My world expanded as I emailed with cousins in Israel and all the friends I’d made along the way who had splintered off in their own directions and life paths. We kept in touch this way for years. 

I don’t blame Dominos. It was all bound to happen one way or another. We went from a world of conversations to a system meant for transactions and advertising. 

These days email is a big problem. It’s become a thing to deal with. At work, in offices, it’s supposed to be a communication tool, and some kind of oddly designed project management system. Just think about Microsoft Outlook, and how it combines email with contacts and calendar and tasks. Everything you need to “get things done” is all right there in front of you. But to me, it’s one of the worst ways to be productive. In fact, in my experience, I’ve found that most email systems prohibit productivity, add disorganization and confusion and distraction, and are one of the single biggest sources of stress for employees.

Email is so gross that there are whole giant companies dedicated to lessening the amount of emails you receive. There are companies who specialize in blocking spam, the inevitable darkness that comes with a direct line of communication into ones brain. Would there even be spam if we only used email to converse with a known list of contacts? There are products like Slack that aim to move your communication with colleagues to a chat room, because somehow that feels better than endless emails. 

Now we think of our email inboxes as a giant task list. But it’s not. We leave emails in our inboxes because we don’t want to move them out of sight until they are dealt with. But, simply replying to an email, or filing it away, doesn’t mean the task at hand is complete. It might not even warrant thinking of it as a “task.” 

If you are using your inbox as a task management system, you’re doing it wrong. Your inbox is a place where literally anyone with your address can put something at the very top of your list of tasks. There’s no way to prioritize anything in your inbox, and it’s constantly getting bombarded with non-actionable messages.

Someone once told me that the greatest thing about email marketing is that you have to “read it to delete it.” This was pretty profound at the time. I can scroll past ads on Twitter and IG with ease, but if you send me an email about your new offer, I need to click delete, or it will just sit there, festering in my inbox, waiting for me to take action. I can set up filters and blockers and auto-unsubscribes—all defense mechanisms for this kind of thing, but no matter what, I still need to know about your email before I can get rid of it. It’s a marketing manager’s dream come true and it’s still an enormous business, despite our perceived notion of email’s role in our social media focused world these days.

So I do the inbox zero thing. I use Mailstrom to unsubscribe from unwanted marketing emails, and to delete all the notifications I get from all the services I use. I turn my actionable emails into actual “tasks” in my task management software, and then I either archive the email or delete it. I deal with my inbox a few times a day, and try my best to leave my email client closed for the rest of the time. It’s not a perfect system, but it keeps me sane.

People are working on this

Last week the folks at Basecamp announced a new product coming out in April called hey.com. You can read the intro letter for yourself, but reading through the tea leaves, it sounds very much like this new email service is aiming to get us back to a place where we are actually using email for what it was intended for—communicating with the people we care about.

I’m hopeful for hey.com. It sounds like the thing the doctor ordered. I mentioned last week that I recently signed up for an account on Protonmail. I really like Protonmail so far, though I am really only using it for financial accounts and secure messaging for those times I need to send my personal info to someone else. It’s really focused on privacy and security, but other than that, it’s just another inbox to deal with. 

Hey.com at least sounds like something different. We will have to wait and see what it actually is, but if we can get email back to a place where we actually like using it, I’ll be pretty happy. 

Playlist

Sorry, no playlist again this week. Things have been pretty hectic as we head into finishing up some big projects at work, and I’ve been doing my best to focus on all of this. One thing I know about myself is I use music to relax when I’m happy and stress free, and I also use it as a distraction when I’m procrastinating the inevitable. Right now, I’m sort of in head-down mode, trying to push myself to wrap up a whole bunch of things that have been brewing for a really long time, and so no music this week.

But, I have a couple of three hour flights coming up this week, so if you’ve heard anything good that I should check out, please send me some links!

Reading List

Same as above, I didn’t read much this week. But Severance by Ling Ma, is still what I’m working on. Hopefully I’ll find some time this week to get through it a little further. 

Epilogue

It’s not lost on me that I’ve been writing a lengthy email about email. That I’m using a tool meant for email marketing to talk to you about how I wish we were just using email to chat with one another is something I can’t really rectify.  I know the email service I use for this list (Mailchimp) might seem a little creepy to some. It uses a pixel-based tracker to let me know when you’ve opened my emails, and I’m not 100% ok with that, but I don’t really know what the alternative is. But, I think this discussion is worth having, and I’m curious how you all deal with your inboxes and how you feel about privacy, so please, feel free to send me an email!

Until next time, have a good week!

-micah


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