Don’t Delete, Archive

Many of my clients come to me because they struggle with email.
Here is a typical conversation:
Larry: How many emails do you have right now?
Typical Client: Oh, maybe 50 or so.
Larry: Wow, that’s a lot to keep track of.
Experienced Larry: Is that total or unread?
Typical Client: Oh, that’s unread. I have several hundred, total.
Larry: Well, you’re in the right place.
The habit of marking emails as unread after you have read them is pretty common. The goal is to keep them from getting buried in the hundreds in your inbox. If you do this, let me share a tip that will help you focus, and may be a solid first step toward Inbox Zero.
Instead of marking emails as unread, use the archive function in your email client.
There are a couple of reasons to do this.

Why use archive instead of unread to manage email

As humans, our brains explode when we are confronted with long lists of things that might be important.
Our brains are terrible at ignoring clutter. So, to ease your mind, you probably don’t want to look at any list longer than a dozen or so items. So you don’t want to keep historical information in your inbox. Further on this note, marking emails as unread doesn’t really solve the problem.
Eventually you’ll have too many unread emails to keep up with. What to do then? Mark them as ‘double-secret-unread’? Urgent and unread?
If you delete an email, the email client handles actually removing the email from your system. I think you can set this in most email clients, but the default is probably something like every 30 days. The bottom line is: you don’t have control of when these emails are no longer accessible.
Archiving allows you to control how long the email is available.
Another note on deleting: I’ve seen clients spend time on internal debate around deleting. They (correctly) fear they will lose the information and, thus, have to make a risk/reward calculation. This takes time and mental energy that is best used otherwise. Also, keeping it is the ‘safe’ answer, so it stays in the inbox. Archiving has no risk, so no debate.
So, archiving (vs. deleting) solves all three of these problems. You’ll want to develop the archiving habit.
A couple of notes:
Of course, some email is simply trash. Delete that, ’cause you don’t care about it anyway. While you’re at it, think about clicking that unsubscribe link.
Some people are concerned about keeping things ‘cleaned up’. Most of us have learned, at some point, that we need to delete things we aren’t using. This is typically based on some notion of ‘filling up’ your computer or ‘saving space’. While cleaning up is generally a good thing, good computing is no longer about ‘saving space’. Emails are (usually) pretty small files and your storage space is HUGE.
Here are some example numbers: I have ~9,000 emails archived in my Gmail account; the oldest is several years old. And I’m using 12% of the storage Google gave me for free.
I figure I’ll use half of the (free) space in a few more years. At that point, I’ll just delete everything that’s older than five years. It won’t matter anyway, I don’t store photos of my kids in there. If you do, that’s a different problem.
Other people are concerned about the archive becoming a ‘junk drawer’. I’ll just say, you’re storing junk anyway, better the archive than the inbox.
This is just a tip and won’t solve your overall information management problems. Top-notch productivity requires keeping all of your information in a single, private system. (And, no, your email client(s) doesn’t qualify.) You can find out more about how to do that in my blog and the rest of the site.