Kristen Arnett’s Lifehacks: How to Get to Inbox Zero
Trust a Librarian to Get Your Digital House in Order
Welcome back, friends! Today we’re having an intervention about digital hoarding. Yes, grab a drink. We’re gonna be here for a hot minute.
Got an avalanche of emails in your inbox? Probably. Listen, I know this is a thing. It’s an internet meme at this point; an image with “there are two types of people” written on it with a gmail icon attached that either has 1 or 738,273,812,937,128 attached. Certain personality types sit better with a flood of chaos in their inbox, but buddy, I am not one of them.
Part of it is my librarian’s brain, right? I like information to be organized, easily accessible. Cataloged and traceable. I want it stored in such a way that when I’m ready to utilize it again—one week, three months, several years from now—I can find it immediately because I’ve developed a system that lets me know exactly where I’ve placed it. I’ve basically curated my email. I’ve cataloged it and made it work for me.
There’s an impulse in all of us to just keep every little email that floats our way. It doesn’t take up physical space in our homes, so what’s the harm? Imagine thousands of unread bits of mail strewn all over your living room. How could you find the bill you need to pay? The birthday card from your Grandma with five bucks stuffed inside it? Those tax forms you probably should have looked at three weeks ago? No, the internet has allowed us to believe that because something is digital we can forget about it, or let it drift there, hanging out in the cloud, whatever the hell that means. We all keep things we probably don’t need. Digital information that’s redundant, or legitimate junk mail, or stuff that doesn’t matter to us.
Like I discussed in my previous column on tech hoarding in the library world, librarians are notoriously bad at getting rid of physical minutiae, but we are wonders at organizing digital repositories. Part of the reason for this is we understand that information needs pathways to flourish. We’re all about access, baby. How can we answer questions if we don’t have reasonable ways to look up the answers?
So let’s get down to business. This librarian is gonna teach you how to get your digital house in order.
First of all, let’s figure out WHY. Why do we feel like we need to keep every single email we ever receive? Why don’t we just hit delete right away? Some of it is just plain laziness, right? Instead of dumping that pizza coupon email in the trash, we move on, because we’re in the middle of something, or maybe we have other shit to do like feed the dogs or actually make it to work on time. Other emails are trickier. Maybe we need them for a minute—they’re an invite to some kind of event we don’t wanna forget about, or there’s a question we’ve gotta answer but we don’t know what to tell them just yet. Then there are the bigger questions, emails about work projects or bills or pictures and video clips or that first email you ever got from that woman who was cute that you met at the party and you think maybe it’s gonna turn into something so why not hold on to it, just in case?Everything good requires a little bit of elbow grease, does it not? So devote a day to this task.
Listen, I’m not saying you have to throw any of this stuff out (even though you absolutely should throw out expired pizza coupon emails, you dummy), I’m just saying you need to assess it. Lots of times we wind up keeping digital information because we think… why not? If we stuff our phones and computers full of emails we can always purchase more storage. It’s that easy.
The problem: if your inbox is filled up to the brim with things that are sitting unopened or unread (shoutout to Kayla for sending me a screenshot of over 1,000 unread emails—I am completely in awe of your non-linear brain) then it means you need to devote some time to going through that list and getting rid of stuff you don’t need. TOSS IT OUT. Things that have already been answered, or spam, stuff that’s a reply-all email to a reply-all email about a joke chain you were sent six month ago. Delete that shit, friend. Remove the burden from your life!
After that’s done, you get to do one of my very favorite things. You are gonna curate folders to put all the mail you’ve gotta keep. Think about these emails as your own personal stack of books you need to catalog and shelve correctly. You wanna be able to find one when you need it, right? So make folders for all the basic areas of your life. One for your job, one for family, one for friends, one for writing, etc. Now, here’s where things get interesting. Because much like call numbers, these folders are gonna have defining folders inside them that house further information. Like when it comes to LC classification, we know that the alphabetical letters up front tell us where something is specifically located: K is for law, right? P is for literature, N is for art. But it’s the numbers that come after those letters in the call number that tell us more specifically where information is housed. So in your main folders, you’re gonna have subfolders. By that I mean in your BILLS folder you’re gonna have different folders for like, say, your credit card, one for your tax information, etc.
Does it sound like a lot of work? That’s because… up front, it kind of is. Everything good requires a little bit of elbow grease, does it not? So devote a day to this task. Grab a beer or five and delete to your heart’s content. But then save some stuff. Because guess what? During that boring nonsense you are going to discover things you’d completely forgotten about. Emails you never answered. Pictures you’d thought were lost. Drafts of your own work you emailed yourself? LONG LOST ESSAYS AND PET PICTURES. It’s going to be an information smorgasbord!
No one’s saying you’ve gotta detonate the mess. This is about respecting your data. It’s about treating the things you have with respect and knowing you can use them effectively if you know where they live. Digital stewardship is ultimately about accessibility! Take it from me, you want to be able to use the things you have. Nobody wants to be that person emailing for the 50th time because they can’t remember what they talked about in the last email they sent, buried at the bottom of the queue.
And at the end of the day, your inbox will be cleaned up and you’ll know exactly where things live. You’ve lifehacked your email like a librarian. And it looks goddamn great.