Digital EcoMinimalism – Email Inbox Declutter

Yesterday I attended a webinar by Gerard McGovern (author of World Wide Waste) about digital waste and the contribution of digital data to the carbon in the atmosphere. It was fascinating and, while I have been aware that data and digital media has a real energy use and carbon footprint, I was shocked at the actual figures he presented. No better time to engage in a bit of Digital Decluttering!

I always have this vision of an ideal digital lifestyle, where I have everything streamlined; no unread emails, no forgotten website accounts lingering unused for years – totally unachievable, absolutely. But it isn’t for want of effort that I don’t have a streamlined digital life, it’s down to the inefficient design and limited practicalities of the tech. Why does every website and service require you to set up an account, generating more useless data to sit on a server somewhere out there for an unknowable amount of time? Why do you have to have 6 different apps on your phone to communicate with slightly different groups of people? I’m feeling especially put upon at the moment because I was given another email address by UCD when I started my course, which is inundated with emails from various UCD departments that I can’t unsubscribe from…

Well I went ALL IN and I deleted over 20,000 emails! 3 of my e-mail accounts are now COMPLETELY EMPTY! I’ve vastly reduced the volume in my main email account although a bit more work needs to be done. I’ve set up new practices for dealing with my emails and promised myself I won’t get into a situation like that ever again.

Unsubscribe, then Delete

When it comes to emails, a real treat for me is unsubscribing from mailing lists while I’m on the toilet or waiting for the bus. If you start by deleting before unsubscribing you’ll have spent your time and energy and before you know it, it’ll have filled back up with spam.

But to get really, properly organised I first have to get rid of All Those E-mails. The backlog of emails from decades of internet use which are still there, taking up space on a hard drive somewhere in the world. It’s easy to forget that anything stored “in the cloud” is actually stored somewhere physical, in a data centre somewhere out there. And the result of those data centres buzzing away is that they use up energy and contribute to climate change. A single e-mail produces between 0.3 and 50g of Carbon Dioxide so minimising your sending of e-mails and your inbox can have a fairly significant impact on your carbon footprint!
You can read more here at Carbon

I have a very messy email situation, split between SIX E-MAIL ACCOUNTS (can you actually believe?) on both Outlook and Gmail. My long term goal would be to reduce down to one (or two) email accounts that I can keep reasonable control over and keep working towards minimising and streamlining my inbox.

Steps to Clear your Inbox

1: Get organised:
Choose which account to start with if you have multiple accounts; I chose to start with my oldest account because I didn’t think there was much there I would actually want to keep.
It helps to log in on a PC browser so you can access Filters and Rules, mass delete functions. It’s also much easier to deal with the sheer volume of e-mails if you’re using a PC instead of a phone.
Set up folders for sorting anything you’re keeping. For my main email I set up folders for Payslips, Online Orders/Receipts, Work, College and Bookings.

2: Unsubscribe, then sweep away!

The Unwanted Subscription:
Find the first subscription email in your inbox – this is probably a newsletter from an organisation or a blog, or a weekly summary of the news. When was the last time you actually read one of these? Do you actually look at this email newsletter, or did you just “intend” to read it? All of these emails should have an Unsubscribe button (thanks GDPR!). Click through and you never have to worry about seeing your morning new report again.
To get rid of the backlog of subscriptions and newsletters, you can set up a Rule in Outlook, or a Filter in Gmail.

In Outlook, go into Settings in the top right corner and then click ‘View All Outlook Settings’. Under “Rules”, you can add a new rule and apply it to your inbox.
You can add what ‘Condition’ for how it chooses the emails, and the ‘Action’, for what it will do with them. You can ask it to put emails from a particular sender into a folder, or delete any emails with a particular word in the title.
In Gmail, go into Settings and under the heading “Filters and blocked addresses”. If you click “Create new filter” you can create a filter in a similar way to in Outlook above. You can add conditions for selecting emails based on sender, recipient, subject and body text and size. Hit Create Filter again and it will come up with the various actions you can apply to those messages.

Setting up a new Filter in Gmail

Anything over X years old:
I determined that there could potentially be some piece of valuable information in my inbox from about 2017 onwards. That would cover my last year in college and any work I’ve done since then. It’s safe enough to say that I don’t want anything from before then.
You can set up a rule to delete anything older than a particular date. If you go back to ‘Rules’, you can add a new Rule to delete anything before a particular date (I’ve named mine “Cleanout”).

Setting up a new Rule in Outlook

3: Recurring Rules
The Weekly Newsletter Update:
After getting rid of unwanted newsletters, the next hurdle is the newsletter that you genuinely want and enjoy reading on a daily basis (Mine are The Stage magazine and Happiful magazine). There’s no need to unsubscribe from this, but it’s extremely likely that you’ll only ever read the most recent email. The news from 2 weeks (or 2 months or 2 years) ago is of no interest and it’s time to delete them from your inbox.

By setting up a Rule, your email program can automatically delete older versions of these newsletters – for example, you can ask it to keep only the most recent 3 emails from a particular sender, or say to delete any of this newsletter more than 10 days old.

4: Folders and Archiving
As you come across e-mails you want to keep, sort them as you go into your folders. The goal? Inbox Zero. The price? Your Sanity.
Use as many folders as you like; it made sense for me to separate my Payslips from my Work emails because I’m regularly trying to look through my payslips from different jobs and constantly forgetting my payslip pin codes! I might even separate Job Applications from actual work emails, because they have a very different function, depending on how many emails I end up keeping.

5: Establish new practises
Next time you see an e-mail newsletter arrive into your account, evaluated then and there whether you want it. If you want to read it once, read it then and there (or set aside a specific time to read it) and delete immediately afterwards. Next time you sign up for an e-mail newsletter to avail of a 10% off deal, unsubscribe immediately after receiving the discount code. Not only will your inbox thank you, but so will your bank account – when you stop getting bombarded with shopping ads, it’s easier to live a minimalist, intentional lifestyle.

6: Absolute Legend Pro Move: Associated Media Accounts
Every Gmail and outlook/hotmail email account comes with a hefty price – free access to cloud storage. The amount of lost files on One Drive and Google Drive, Google Docs, Sheets, Powerpoint online, it stresses me out just thinking about it. Consolidate your cloud storage into one place (if you need it at all) and vow to never use the other accounts again.

I shudder to think of how many shops, half-used apps and websites I haven’t used in 10 years, still have functioning profiles for my email account, buzzing away storing data on their servers. It’s impossible to know for sure, but any accounts you can think of that you don’t use, you should try closing them. A massive weight will be lifted from your shoulders!

[One area I encountered enormous problems with was my Xbox account. Because these accounts are intrinsically linked with an email address AND have purchased content tied to them, I found it nearly impossible to separate them from the e-mail address I signed up with. I couldn’t move my Xbox profile onto my current Microsoft account that I regularly use, so I would have had to choose between keeping using a superfluous old e-mail account, and keeping hundreds of euros worth of purchased games. ]

11: God-Tier: Closing Superfluous E-mail Accounts
The stage I can only aspire to – one single email address. I imagine people who only have one e-mail address to be living like the Enlightened, at once at peace with the world and themselves. It’s a pipe dream for me, but after this intensive deletion process, I managed to delete* TWO of my e-mail addresses!

*Some complications arose due to my Xbox purchases, but I’ve managed to find a work-around. Unfortunately, the workaround ties me into using at least one of my other email addresses, so…

Inbox Zero

While the notion of “Inbox Zero” might be largely aspirational for most people, the first steps are in taking hold of your inbox by the reins and unsubscribing from lists you never read. The rules and sweep setting in Outlook and Google are well hidden, but they make it really easy to maintain your inbox. Once you go through your e-mails you’ll realise how little you ever look back on them and you’ll wonder why you ever thought it was important to keep amazon order receipts from 2011.

Is there anything more distracting than seeing the red notification pop up on your phone, saying how many thousands of unread e-mails you have to deal with? Having your inbox under control seems like something small but it does positively effect your life and make you feel less swamped and more in control. Within searching for minimalism, it is easy to focus on the physical space something takes up, and thus overlook digital tidiness. But technology can get so messy very easily and it often impacts directly on people’s work life.

While this post focuses primarily on the topic of Minimalism, there is a very real environmental side to emails and excessive data storage. Most importantly, don’t lose heart; for every e-mail you delete, a little less data is being stored on a server and a little less energy gets used. Every small difference will add up and effect the planet.

Further Reading:

Marie Kondo’s Digital Decluttering Tips

Five Sentences Movement

Carbon Footprint of a Useless Email

One thought on “Digital EcoMinimalism – Email Inbox Declutter

  1. Wow Izzy this is excellent! Since I realised that my digital world has a real carbon footprint I too have tried to reduce my subscriptions, reduce the number of emails I have and delete old emails! Thanks for all the suggestions!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *