I recently had an email inbox become corrupt on me. No David, it did not start taking bribes, it jammed up and refused to reveal anything I searched for. I use Apple's Mail.app, and have done so for many years. It made me very nervous. Email itself can be a source of anxiety, and there is a study shows some people suffer from email apnea, they stop breathing whilst dealing with email! As I understand it, modern email programs hold everything in a big database, and there is nothing harder to unpick than a large, corrupt database. I had cleared out my inbox a while ago, but still it had 20,000-ish messages. Gulp.
Using the rebuild mailbox feature of Mail.app I managed to get it stable, but it started me thinking that having 20,000 mail messages in my inbox is a bad idea. How do I achieve the ideal of "Inbox Zero" that Merlin Mann espouses, where email is a tool not an anxiety?
I rely on my email to store documents and conversations, but should I? I also have this huge back-log to deal with and this prevents me trying anything, I don't want to sort through 20,000 messages! How do I fix this?
After research, consideration and a trial, I chose my solution:
Starting with an uncorrupt email Inbox:
1. Archive. Go back a few months, decide the cut-off point you are comfortable with, you will have to sort out everything after that cut-off point, I chose 6 months. Make a new mailbox folder and title it with the date range it represents, then move all those emails before the cut-off date into it. Most email programs have an archiving tool, so archive that mailbox, copy it to your back up system and delete the mailbox from your email program. Now you'll have an archive, albeit a messy, bloated one, you can wade through one day should you need to.
2. Sort. Make two new folders, one labelled "Important" and one "Keep". Go though the remaining history you have left in your inbox and decide what to delete, what to keep and what is important. Be rigourous, be cruel. Think of it as a pile of letters to file. I found myself deleting two thirds of the history, and it felt good. The "Keep" folder will get archived when it gets large, but it will contain items you have chosen to archive, the "Important" folder will always be there for you.
3. Keep sorting. Turn your email program's 'auto check' off. Incoming email is really distracting, it will keep you entertained endlessly. When you are ready to run triage on new email, allow it to tumble in. Work through your mail flagging things that need more than 2 minutes respose time, reply those 2 minute messages, delete the deletable, unsubscribe from the rubbish, tune the spam filter, move those you must keep to the "Keep" folder, and those that are critical put in the "Important" folder. And finally, get to the flagged items when you are ready to sort them out properly. Once they are dealt with, choose the 'Keep' or the 'Important' folder as needed.
The secret is in making the decisions when you read the emails for the first time. This is really only possible if you are concentrating when you check your email, so turn off auto check, and be ready to focus on email triage when you are ready.
Phew. It feels good.
Take control of your inbox and stop it from becoming a source of anxiety.