I have never been an inbox zero type of person.
Pretty par for the course with how I’ve always saved a lot of physical things in my life, I save emails thinking I’ll need them one day. (Isn’t that what we always say?) I don’t organize my inbox either—that’s what the search function is for.
For the last twelve years or so, that’s worked out pretty well for me. I have everything I need. If I need to find it in a particular moment, I just search for a sender or a keyword and voila, I’m in business. And if I don’t need anything, I know it’s relatively safe in the Google cloud somewhere. If I’m only seeing the first 50 every day, having 15,000 emails stashed in my account doesn’t really bother me.
Especially helpful has been finding out that you can organize your Gmail inbox into four different tabs, which I’ve now done for a couple of years, and that helps. All news goes into one, all promotions and discounts into one, all LinkedIn and neighborhood notifications into one. And because I don’t read or delete most of those emails either, I periodically go in to clear them out and delete everything in the tab, freeing up my storage.
I did this the other day, and for the first time in more than a decade it…did not go as planned. I accidentally, yet officially and permanently, deleted my entire inbox.
As you’re probably doing right now, I basically had a total panic attack at first. My eyeballs bugged out of my head. My neck started sweating. I frantically started clicking around and checking my phone app to see if it had really happened. I wandered around my house a little bit talking to myself. And then, of course, I Googled immediately to see if I could somehow get everything back. Which, just FYI y’all, you can’t, due to data privacy. I also did this fairly late at night, and I was instantly like, OMG, I’ll never sleep again.
And then, in my little conversation with myself, I just thought, well, what’s done is done. There is literally and absolutely nothing I can do about this. There’s no use in continuing to worry or stress about it. And at the end of the day, they’re just emails.
Too, I realized that the whole reason I saved everything was because “I might need it one day,” and when I really paused to think about it, I could only think of two emails I needed. I’ve already asked the senders to re-send, and all is well. Beyond that, there’s nothing I can’t track down if I really “need” it “one day.”
Finally, for me, there was an element of “I think maybe this was supposed to happen.” I started this email account when I got married and changed my name, and I’m now in the process of a divorce. Perhaps it’s the signal of not only an IRL new start, but a digital new day too.
Sometimes, the things you can’t see or don’t look at often are the heaviest weights.
I met a friend for a hike the morning after I did this, and after I told her the story, she marveled a little at how remarkably calm I was about it all. To which I countered that, of course, I did spend some time freaking out. (She referred to that part, the holy-shit-I-made-a-huge-fuck-up moment, as a cold rush of shit to the heart, and I’m now going to use that forever and ever amen. You know the feeling.) But after the freakout, what was I going to do? I could continue to freak out about something already done, which would accomplish exactly zero for me other than unnecessarily increasing my anxiety for no reason with no positive outcome, or I could move on. I chose to move on.
Listen, a decade plus and more than 15,000 emails is no small amount of history and documentation. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a blip. It’s just bits and boops of digital data and communications, most of them not all that important, probably about ten percent that were actually really meaningful and I’m very sorry to lose. It all just helped me to see that there’s so much in life these days, especially online and digital life, that we’re taught to assign so much meaning to, when really, we’re directing that meaning in the wrong places.
Emails are great and can certainly be important, but spending quality time with a friend on a hike is way, way better, and I didn’t lose that.
Emails are helpful for exchanging information, but deep, open, and honest conversations with the people who matter most is way, way better, and I didn’t lose that.
Emails can document history, but so can memories, and I didn’t lose that.
Exchange “emails” for whatever other digital thing you hold onto or focus your on—your social media account that stresses you out more than it feels like self-care, that text chain from your ex you just can’t delete. It doesn’t matter exactly what this is for you. It only matters that you entertain the idea that, well, it might not really matter nearly as much as you think it does.
It’s all an exercise to be sure, and I still would not wish unexpectedly losing your entire email history on anyone. I’m also not suggesting you go out and delete your inbox in one fell swoop. After my own experience, I’m just here to share the nuggets with you:
Stop assigning more meaning and overblown freak-outs and misplaced anxiety to the things that don’t really matter than to the things that do. It’s easy to place weight and attention on relatively meaningless shit in order to avoid putting the focus, vulnerability, and effort into the infinitely more meaningful shit. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that emails (or whatever else) are most pressing and more deserving of your presence than anything else. They’re not.
When you truly know you can’t do anything about something, accept it right away. Don’t lose another second over it.
Pause to consider what you’re actually freaking out about, and whether it’s deserving of a freakout.
You pretty much always need way less than you think.
Fresh starts and blank slates come in many different forms, offering all kinds of possibilities and opportunities.
And “a cold rush of shit to the heart” moments and experiences are often the biggest gifts we can ever hope to receive.
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