Confessions of an email hoarder

13 October 2016

I openly admit that I have been an email hoarder. I abandoned my emails on my old Windows computer when I switched to the Mac in 2008. And since then I had a tendency to hang on to all emails that might possibly come in handy some day.

I keep a clear email inbox but I do so by moving emails to an archive folder, rather than deleting them. That seemed to work well for me because I could simply search for emails I might need. But I was completely indiscriminate in terms of what I decided to archive. It was easier to archive than to make a decision to delete.

Despite a “less is more” attitude and my rejection of the “But I might need it some day” reason to keep physical stuff, I saw no disconnect with hanging on to digital items forever and ever. In my mind, space was plentiful, and using the Search function on my Mac I could find anything, so it wasn’t a problem.

And I was right: it wasn’t a problem. Until it was.

Last week my computer told me that 99 percent of my hard drive was full. My 500 GB hard drive had only 5 GB available. What? I took the computer’s suggestion to optimize my hard drive, which gained me another 25 GB, and I reached out to my Mac consultant, the wizard Gabriel Steinbach of The Mac Guys and we did a virtual consultation. We discovered that something was messed up in hard drive, probably as the result of my simply transferring everything (without decluttering) every time I bought a new computer. This is my third MacBook since 2008. I was hoping to get another year out of it.

The solution, we hope, is what Gabe calls a “clean reinstall” of the operating system. So he’s going to wipe the computer clean, reinstall the operating system and put the essentials back on the computer, along with my data.

That led to a discussion of what exactly is essential for my computer. And then we talked about my emails. Most modern computer users use IMAP email protocol which stores the emails on the server. I’ve used POP3 for decades and was more comfortable with storing them on my own hard drive. They feel more safe and secure there to me. But my using a POP3 server makes the process of transferring my email back onto my computer a huge hassle, rather than the breeze it would be if I used IMAP.

So I resolved to let go of unnecessary emails. And that was an interesting experience—it put me smack in my clients’ shoes. I heard myself saying things to Gabe that my clients with hoarding tendencies say to me about physical items. It was a bit of an existential crisis, since I am so committed to the benefits of living with less stuff.

I gave some really serious thought to why I like keeping all that email. I had almost 30,000 emails in my Archive folder alone and tens of thousands in other folders. I came to realize that the voluminous email archive allowed me to:

  • Not have to make notes elsewhere
  • Be the hero who can get my hands on information
  • Recall any fact that came to me via email
  • Keep track of purchases for tax purposes
  • Keep track of client communication (Gabe suggested I shift to a CRM.)
  • Let go of worry about forgetting things

So I shifted my perspective and thought about the worse that could happen if I couldn’t get my hands on a particular email. I realized that in most cases, it wouldn’t result in a problem. Temporary discomfort, perhaps. But not a long-lasting problem.

So here’s what I did:

  • I searched my archive for correspondence from certain friends and family members and moved them into appropriately named folders.
  • I kept all client correspondence
  • I kept 2016 archived emails and receipts and trashed the rest.
  • I deleted eight years’ worth of accumulated emails from various professional email lists I was on, since I realized I never looked back at them.

As the emails were deleted, I felt a little anxiety. And then a whole lot of relief.

I feel like I’ve pared the emails down to the bone. But in fact I still have just under 25,000 emails spilt among 65 folders. I’m sure I could let go of more, but that’s a reduction of at least 2/3—I bet I had more than 75,000 emails.

I’m hopeful this will be enough to make putting the emails back on my computer relatively easy. And then I’m hoping to let those reside there and shift to an IMAP system to avoid any future problems.

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Is this in the Mac Mail program? I don’t archive; I delete or move to one of my folders. How do you know how many email you have altogether?

Elizabeth H 10/21/2016 06:29 PM

Yes, I’m using the Mac Mail program. I now know that with IMAP, I can just click Archive, rather than moving emails to an Archive folder, which is easier.

You can see how many emails you have in a folder/mailbox, by clicking on the folder name. The number is at the top of the screen. I just added up those numbers to get to my total.

Janine Adams 10/25/2016 09:25 AM

I agree, it is almost painful in the beginning, when you start deleting. I always thought “but what if…”. I realized, there was no “if” for emails I hadn’t looked at in years. the only stuff I archive for years is everything tax related. Everything else goes. Research related emails are stored in the family folder in the cloud, indexed and used as source.

Barbara Schmidt 06/07/2017 05:06 PM

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Janine Adams

Hello! I’m Janine Adams — a certified professional organizer based in St. Louis, and the creator of Peace of Mind Organizing®.

I love order, harmony + beauty, but I believe that the way that you feel about yourself and your home is what truly matters.

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