The Weigel guide to organizing your email
If you know me, you will know why this subject line is funny.
The best time to be alive is the liminal space between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when Americans make the collective decision to just hang out and do whatever. This is a simple fact, proven last year and proven again this year — two awful Late Decembers where, if you lived in a city, your friends were probably canceling their parties and hang-outs, and your free time wasn’t being used to catch up with them. Not as much as you wanted.
Well: I finished a few small projects during the downtime, and the one I’m most proud of, the one that will probably bore you the least, is making my gmail account useful again.
(Why post this now, when I wrote it in late January? Perpetual indecision about what to do with this substack; a belief that I should have sent this earlier instead of never finishing it; and a stronger, more compelling belief that I should just publish when I have something.)
It can be fun, and reassuring, to make fun of Inbox Zero obsessives. But mocking people for being organized is a bad habit, especially when people on social media psych each other up and lionize it. I’ve been guilty of that before, sharing my unread email total as if it’s a shiny Bored Ape, laughing the Wojack “nooooo” faces splash into my Twitter feed.
But for once, I ignored my instincts and organized my gmail for the first time ever. If I couldn’t solve this small, stupid problem, one that required my eyes and typing fingers and nothing else, what could I solve? Let me share some of the facts I started with, because they’re likely scarier than the ones you’d start with.
I joined gmail in February 2005. Would you like to see the introduction email the company used to send you? Here it is.
Isn’t that quaint? In my first month as a gmail user, halfway through a paid internship at USA Today, I sent or received… 12 messages. One of them was this:
Slow days for Web 2.0. Over the years, knowing that I might not have every job (and its email address) forever, I gave sources my gmail address and used gmail to subscribe to every press list of every campaign I was covering. I used it to log in to most websites, sign up for cable, sign up for newsletters - etc, etc.
The result was a very bad inbox. In early December, when I started my vacation, I would check gmail at least every hour. My home page had space for 25 emails. Every hour, there were at least two pages of emails, even on slow days. I had around 160,000 unread emails, and was using 104 gigs of storage for it all.
After a few hours of work, those numbers didn’t tick down much; around 127,000 unread emails, and 101 gigs of storage. But the inbox is usable. I’m writing this at 6:45 p.m. eastern time, and since midnight, I’ve gotten 36 main inbox emails, reading them all and responding when I needed to.
Here is what I did, in spelled-out letters, because numbers set off that annoying MS Word justification.
ONE: I opened my main inbox and looked at my tabs. Over the years, I had filtered emails into 13 overlapping categories. Some skipped the inbox, some didn’t. Some skipped the inbox and were marked as read, some weren’t. A “Prog” label had been for the hundreds of emails I sent or got related to my book, but other stuff had made it in since I finished that.
I went into the settings and hid all the tabs that seemed pointless. That sliced off some of the bloat and left these tabs, all of which had been there before, except “Newsletters.”
You can probably guess what each folder holds. Social = any emails from social networks, like LinkedIn or Facebook updates. (I don’t really use either, yet the emails come.) Campaigns = anything automated from a campaign, polling firm, candidate, party, etc. Newsletters = come on. Press releases = anything automated but not related to campaigns. Subscriptions = any media I paid for besides newsletters.
TWO: Were there some better ways to start this process? Maybe, but hesitation is defeat. Hesitating and tweaking means leaving this boring project for another day, and I wanted to get going.
I opened the main inbox and began filtering every email that fit into one of my categories. Click the emails that fit into a category, hit the hamburger (the dotted lines) on the banner, and you start creating a filter. Here’s what that looks like.
And here’s the filter I used. Notice the bottom box, allowing you to apply a label retroactively. That’s key, and it chucks them out of your mail inbox forever.
You’ll notice a bunch of unread campaign emails from the past few months. Nothing personal - a lot of stuff people send you just isn’t useful at the moment you get it. At the start of this process there were more than a hundred campaigns cannonballing into the main inbox.
THREE: I repeated this process many times over a few slow hours. I dug into emails from as long ago as 2015 to find the things I’d been unsubscribing to. If you really want to follow along, I was listening to some Bizarre Albums podcasts I’d missed and then the new Weather Station record. (Nothing’s grabbed me as tightly as “I Tried to Tell You,” but maybe I have bad taste.)
FOUR: There’s no step four — you just use this inbox as the new baseline and start living your life. Lots of people are busier than me, but if a 2019 McKinsey study still means anything, I get an above-average amount of email, and must be on the lookout all the time for pitches and updates and responses to statements. For the last few months I’ve been doing that with less confusion and entropy than any time in the last 15 years.
Try it out! Please don’t ask me how to fix Outlook.