I’m Marie Kondo-ing My Gmail

Last spring a new foreign owner bought the magazine I worked for and fired our entire editorial team. My staff writing job gone, I plunged into book projects and didn’t come up for air until later in the year. When I did, I noticed an alarming indicator on my work-related Gmail account: I had used up 94 percent of the available capacity. Around the same time I watched — OK, binged — the Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I was predisposed to a digital tidying binge, having already used my copious amounts of free time to attack the filthiest parts of my kitchen with Lestoil and a scrubber sponge. It was time, I decided, to apply the KonMari method to my Gmail account before it clogged up and went into its death throes, like a hooked tuna flopping around the floor of a fishing boat.

Using Gmail for work-related email is a decision I have never regretted. When I started I was a freelance (or as I prefer to say, self-employed) writer. But when one of my clients became my employer, I kept using it. Compared to the company’s awful Microsoft Outlook webmail, Gmail had a less inscrutable interface, more versatile searchability, greater capacity, and the security of knowing that all of my work-related correspondence would remain forever under my control. I limited my official work-related address to interaction with the company’s HR department and employees who didn’t know me well. Whenever I emailed an editorial superior or one of the industry contacts connected with my audio-gear reviews, I used Gmail.

But I used it in a slovenly way. Confident that Gmail would keep expanding capacity — it went from 1 GB in the beginning to 15 GB today — I never deleted anything, even things that had little or nothing to do with my work. Worse, I never unsubscribed to nuisance mailers. I just let it all pile up to the point where only 10 percent of an average day’s mail was even remotely relevant to my work. My bad.

Kondo’s most oft-given advice is to discard anything that does not “spark joy.” As applied to work-related email, this was too drastic a criterion. I needed to keep a record of my professional history but not all of it sparks joy. So I fell back on Kondo’s other suggestion — to discard anything that you don’t want to “bring with you into the future.” That’s the one that clicked for me.

Most emails from colleagues at the magazine made the cut. I especially value the ones in which my three editors-in-chief raked over the flaws in my work and urged me to do better. I also kept the ones congratulating me on a job well done. Every time I got one of those, I’d immediately reread the piece in question to nail down, as they say in The Producers, “where did we go right?” I need to take these priceless critiques of my writing into the future.

Occasionally I would run across things that sparked not joy but a bittersweet emotional response. After one of my editorial superiors got the chop, I wrote to our publisher urging him to promote a replacement from within our staff — an especially talented young colleague whose command of the magazine’s unique tone and substance was unsurpassed. The publisher didn’t take my advice but the young editor went on to become editor-in-chief of another tech magazine and then refashioned himself as a travel writer and personal essayist. I am still in awe of his writing.

Some emails I’m bringing into my future out of pragmatism. Over the 17 years I wrote for the magazine, I borrowed, reviewed, and returned hundreds of audio product samples cumulatively worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In many cases I signed legally binding loan agreements making myself personally responsible for their return to the manufacturers. But quite often I was often not the last employee to handle the booty — most of it went to the magazine’s studio for measurement and photography. Sometimes manufacturers would ask me about review samples months or even years after they’ve left my possession. So I’ve kept every UPS shipping notification to document when things left my home-office and arrived at the studio.

I rarely wavered in my assessments of which emails to keep. How to get rid of the rest was the big question. The obvious place to start was to search or filter recurring nuisance mail and delete it en masse. This freed up 20 percent of my inbox within hours. When I ran out of ideas, I began stepping back in time, email by email, hitting the delete icon over and over. When another nuisance mailer appeared, rather than lose my place, I’d open a new tab to search and mass-delete.

I noticed that whenever I did a simple search by year, then repeated the same search a day or two later, new clumps of unread emails started popping up. The system would also freeze from time to time, suspending my tidying ritual. Apparently Gmail’s servers were as overwhelmed by my email as I was. It was like one of those giant fatbergs that congeal in sewer systems, the monstrous masses of wet wipes and cooking fat. The carbon footprint of preserving my unread emails on Gmail’s power-sucking server farms must have been unconscionable.

As the days stretched into weeks, my 61-year-old hands began to complain. When all this began I had already trashed the joint of my mouse-button finger with repetitive stress. As I deleted mail after mail, other finger joints, my shoulders, and my elbows joined the chorus of outrage. To keep up the pace I began dividing the labor, switching hands and fingers and using combinations of fingers.

Two weeks into this project, I’ve cut my inbox from 94 percent to 38 percent. My Gmail account may not be all keepers, but it’s out of the woods and no longer the whole focus of my attention. I still might peck away at the remaining clumps of years-old mail from time to time.

I have also improved my email-checking hygiene. If I don’t want it, out it goes, same day, and I unsubscribe to zap recurring nuisances. I’ve also extending the hygiene to my Yahoo Mail account, which I use for personal (as opposed to business) mail. It has benefited from more zealous pruning over the years but, until now, not from labor-saving unsubscription.

Now that my hands have stopped hurting, I am even beginning to feel some of the joy Marie Kondo refers to. As Dorothy Parker observed, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I hate deleting emails but I love having an inbox whose contents are useful and even meaningful. Now I must attack the other dusty corners of my life.