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The War on Email

Author’s Note! This article has been imported from my previous website. I wanted to preserve all of the old content as many people have found some value in it. There may be some broken links and or formating issues. If something isn’t right, please let me know and I’ll do my best to make an update.

I recently returned from a wonderful trip through northern South America, traveling through Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. I had planned to make it to Brazil, but decided to cut the trip short. I’ll do a separate post on the trip, because this one is about a dark war: The war on email.

For the 32 days during which I was traveling, I put a vacation responder on, and then dropped off the face of the earth. When I got back, my inbox was under siege, filled with email waiting for me. I knew I would have to wade deep into the fray and thought that it might be worth sharing my war stories, doing some analysis on the make up of these attackers, and provide a walk through about my email processing process.

So many people complain of being “buried under so much email,” but I don’t really have much of a problem, in fact, typically I have zero emails in my gMail inbox. This is due to a battle hardened system that I’ve honed over a few years, and continue to hone when I get a chance to do some analysis of all the email I have received.

Enemy at the Gates

So, as I plopped down to write this article, my gMail inbox contained 224 messages; basically those already not caught by my powerful army of filters. If we include all the emails I had received (excluding any spam caught by gMail), then between May 28, 2014 and July 2, 2014, I was inundated with 598 emails.

I’m proud of my current filters, which basically knocked out half of email from invading my consciousness. In this analysis, I’ll consider all the emails I received, but also focus on the 224 that were not processed by filters to see how I can sure up my defenses.

Why So Defensive?

If you wonder why I’m writing with the language of war, it is because, unfortunately, each of us must wage a constant battle for our own peaceful sanity against a never ending onslaught of advertising, marketing, notification, and sensation. The fact that I have to devote the larger part of a day of my life to sorting through this muck makes me slightly distressed.

Sharing this analysis and tips for prevention with you all is my consolation that at least something productive has come out of the exercise. My hope is that with some new insights I can further strengthen my filters so that the next time I disappear for 30 days, I return to, let’s say, 30 high value, relevant communications.

The Intelligence Report

All told, I received 598 email messages. The vast majority of these were either bounces from my vacation responder, or caught by my filters which I’d set up to auto archive various newsletters, account notifications, and spam from which I just simply could not unsubscribe.

After that first fusillade, only 224 emails were left standing. I then went through the excruciating task of sorting through what was left, improving my defenses along the way (I’ll cover this below).

What was left? About 21 emails that actually had some value that I needed to think about and respond. That is a number I’m comfortable with after 32 days in the bush. Here’s the breakdown visually:

All emails received to relevant ones

Bolstering the Defenses

Wow, so only about 10% of the email I got was relevant!? What even was all that other garbage? Well, it’s what we all have to deal with every day:

  • That web app we signed up for feels like we give a flying fuck about its new partnership or the capital it just raised.
  • Someone thinks we actually care about changes in terms of service.
  • Some family member wants to show us a picture of a cat to the whole extended family.
  • A recruiter refuses to stop emailing you C# cloud services positions despite repeated, impassioned pleas for them to stop.
  • Some other web app did something automatically, but you can’t turn off the notifications.

The list goes on. And so, as I trimmed down my slew of emails, I took the opportunity to organize a new set of filters and label categories, that I might apply to each new threat. Typically, a rule would be used to automatically read, archive, and label emails as they arrive. For example:

A gMail filter rule for Amazon

In the above, anything from “” is archived, marked as read and placed in the notifications/shopping bucket.

Here, is a snarky break down of my bucket hierarchy:

Breakdown of label categoriess

I used gMail’s label feature to create these nested hierarchies, with these basic intents:

  • Reminders - This would be any email, I’d manually tag that I might want to look at later, but don’t want stared and bothering me all the time. For example: “Next time you are in NY, let’s get lunch…”
  • Garbage - This is where the garbage goes. Newsletters that won’t unsubscribe me. Ad emails from horrible car dealerships. Notifications from some project from ages ago. Particularly bad offenders not only get sent here, but automatically receive an automated response, bothering them back as much as they bother me.
  • Family - This is for those group emails of something mundane that I just don’t want to see. My rules for this are top secret and potent ;)
  • Newsletters - Here is where newsletters go that I actually do care about, but would rather read on my time. So, I’ll browse this on occasion. I have the label show in my sidebar if there are unread ones, so certain filters will alert me to a new message. The next step here might be to forward the newsletter to something like Readability via IFTTT.
  • Tax - My accountant emails go right here, not marked as read or archived. I just like to have a record.
  • Finance - Stupid student loan bullshit, bank updates, bill statements, all that stuff I’ve automated gets tagged with this and spirited away.
  • Account - Many filters send things here along with anything to the address For example, yes I do want a TripAdvisor account, but I never, ever want to see reminder emails to post reviews. Sorry.
  • Shopping - Similar to account notifications, this is where all the Amazon orders, UPS delivery notifications, and what not go. It makes it easy to quickly check, but in general, if there is not a problem I don’t want to see the emails.

Mission Debriefing

So with the new filters and buckets in place, I took a look at how the bulk of those non-relevant 224 emails were categorized. Below is a break down:

Types of emails filtered into new categories

About 40% are notifications of various kinds, the other 60% is miscellaneous stuff; all of it I don’t want to see, but it’s interesting to see the split. It doesn’t surprise me that a full 50% of the email I filter is horrible trash that I can’t stop. I guess this is just the world in which we live.

Battle Plans

I’d like to end with a simple description of my personal email process, which I hope may inspire some of you to adopt a similar strategy to reduce your email load and improve your mental well-being.

  1. Email launches its sinister attack.
  2. Filter defenses are activated, typical casualty rate is 90%, email is distributed, archived, and marked as read to the buckets as described above.
  3. Once a day or so, I go through what is left. If it deserves death, I unsubscribe, and often also create a filter as a second defense. If I can respond quickly, I do so. If it’s something I just need to read and be aware of, I do so, and archive it. Finally, if it will require some thought or work, I’ll mark it with a star (take it prisoner ;).
  4. At least once a week (when not traveling), I’ll interrogate the prisoners (starred emails), and actually respond to them. You may notice the influence of the Get Things Done system in this process.

Check out a screenshot of an email sortie, in progress, and best of luck fighting the good fight!

My gMail inbox process

Jason Foxproductivity