March 12, 2003
When I saw “clutter” on the AlphaBytes word list, I knew that was the C word for me. That one resonated. But when it came time to start writing about it, my reaction was akin to what I feel when it comes to dealing with the actual stuff itself– overwhelmed. Should I write about the clutter at home? What part of it? The tower of stuff to be donated in the basement? The things I’ve shoved in my fabric storage closet because I don’t know where else to put them? The objects that collect on the kitchen counters seemingly of their own volition? Finally, since I write most of these entries at the office (turning my nonproductive lunch hour websurfing time into something slightly more productive), I decided to focus on the clutter there. I’ve already written about the stuff in my desk, and there’s nothing new to report there. I’ve done no significant weeding out of the paper clutter, so I thought I’d turn to the electronic variety and see if there was any good news there.
Last fall, I decided I really needed to clean out my e-mail folders– I think there’d been another discussion (via e-mail, of course) about how the massive numbers of messages people had were slowing down the backups– so being an accountant at heart and in love with data, I did a spreadsheet listing each of my folders and the message count in each. I’d establish a baseline and then I could measure my progress, I thought; that’ll be a good incentive. There was plenty of room for improvement; my starting point was five thousand eight hundred and fifty seven e-mails as of the morning of November 12th, with more coming in all the time.
Over the next couple weeks, I took a few minutes several times a day to go through old messages and see if I really needed to keep them. Most of them, of course, I did not. By the evening of November 20th, I was down to eighteen hundred ninety messages. That was still a lot, but I was pleased with my progress. Then came the holidays and I was gone a lot and too busy when I was in the office to keep up my weeding out ways, so as of this morning, I’m back up over three thousand messages. As with weight loss, it’s the maintenance that’s the really hard part.
I need a plan, something more concrete than “I’ll delete messages when I get around to it”. I started by moving all but four messages from my inbox to another folder. True, that does nothing to reduce the clutter overall, but at least I’ve gotten it out of my immediate line of sight, so I won’t be constantly distracted. The four remaining messages all require action, so I’ll make it a priority to do those things and then delete the mails. Not put the mails in a folder in case I need to refer to them later, but delete them. If I can keep that same discipline with everything that comes into my inbox from now on, at least my e-mail clutter problem won’t get any worse. Sure, there will be the rare message I do need to file for future reference; I’ll just need to be very particular about which ones qualify. If I can keep my inbox down to a manageable level for a few weeks, I can think about what the next step will be, but first I need to establish some sense of control and mastery of the monster that my messages have become.
C is for Clutter