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Seriously, Why Do You Delete Your E-Mail?

As 2008 came around, I found myself doing a much-loved semi-annual ritual: archiving the old email. For the last ten years or so, I’ve kept almost all of my email in one monolithic inbox while relying on search to find a particular message (the exception being mailing lists, which get their own folders). Every six months, I move that inbox and sent box into an archive folder. It’s like spring cleaning, but it’s fun and only takes a couple of minutes. As a result of this process, I have reasonably quick access to almost every e-mail sent to my personal accounts since about August, 1997.

Several days ago, I asked a friend of mine to dig up a particular type of email that I was confident she received all the time, so that I could see how they typically look. She responded saying that she certainly gets them, but she almost always deletes them. Why? To keep things tidy, and because she doesn’t expect that she would ever need them again.

When was the last time you were really glad you deleted an email sent to your personal address?

While I definitely don’t need the vast majority of messages I have archived, I do find myself looking back through those archives once in a while. A few weeks ago, I had to reference some technical documentation I’d written for a Linux consulting firm back in 2000, and there it was. It’s also useful to find contact information or to recall that name just barely outside of mind’s reach. My email ends up being a catalog of much of my research and correspondence, and that seems pretty valuable, at least valuable to me.

In these days of massive disk storage, even at hosting providers, it should be quite easy for most people to store all of their email for at least a couple of years. My archives back to 2003 come in around 2GB or so. My archives prior to that are gzipped, since I very rarely touch them, and use about 1.8GB. In all, I could probably maintain a decade of email, and I get a substantial amount of it, within 10GB.

Certainly, there are some types of email that would simply be a waste to archive — spam, bac’n, and other automated messages that you probably didn’t even want to get the first time would fall into this category, and perhaps messages on a few mailing lists that are archived online in multiple locations. Archiving business email for an extended period may introduce some liability, so I can understand those circumstances as well.

So if you delete email beyond these exceptions, why? Have you ever regretted that, and if so, did that trigger a change in your practices?

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Avatar of M. Jackson Wilkinson

I'm M. Jackson Wilkinson, a technologist, designer, speaker, educator, and writer in San Francisco. I'm the Founder of Kinsights. I'm from Philadelphia, went to Bowdoin College in Maine, root for the Phillies, and love to sing.

Entry posted from Fort Georgetown Apartment

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  1. Hey Jackson, check this out! Oh wait, nevermind. I got distracted by your header image.

    Excellent points, sir. I always delete email to keep my inbox clean and keep Apple’s Mail from getting bogged down, including my Sent folder. It never really occurs to me that I might want some of that stuff at some point. And if it’s a message I think I might want, I just keep it in my inbox forever.

    As a part of my new GTD plan, I’ll have to find a place for “Archive email” so I don’t lose things I might want a couple months down the road (it’s happened a few times already). I wonder if there’s a good way to automate this process…

  2. Wow. Great post — now you really got me thinking. Why do I delete email? Perhaps I should stop!

  3. I definitely hang onto my mail. I’ve got archives going back to 1999. While I rarely have to go back that far, I’ve often had to look for old contacts or documents that I knew were in an old email somewhere. It has been indispensable.

  4. I think its a lot easier to not delete my e-mail now with things like GMail. It’s just all part of the cloud… i think in general, because space is SO cheap, we’ll be moving a lot of our data to the cloud.

  5. “…some technical documentation I’d written for a Linux consulting firm back in 2000…”

    I love that you were writing technical Linux documentation at age 17!

    Age related comments aside, I’m with you - unless it’s obviously spam or a duplicate email, I see no reason to delete anything. You’d be surprised how often i pulled up an old email to prove a point or set the record straight…

  6. Mr. Haney: There are some advantages to doing it manually, such as not having an issue where you can’t find a message because you don’t realize that it’s been archived. My archiving practice usually takes me about 10 minutes, I do it twice a year, and I kinda love doing it. Maybe I’ll post a quick follow-up showing how I do it in Thunderbird, though it should be pretty analogous across major mail clients.

    Snook: Glad you agree — do you have system-level access to see how large those archives are in total? I’m curious if my archive sizes are abnormally large or small…

    Justin: While I’m not typically a sporter of tin-foil hats, I do like to have some say over what kind of information is available about me online, though my say tends to be fairly liberal. In the case of email, it’s far more likely that something would get into the cloud that I didn’t necessarily intend (someone sends me an email with personal content about them or about myself). Given Google’s track record of using any and all information in their system in non-traditional ways, I’d feel like this reason for not archiving would be more or less acceptable to me. What do you think?

    Paul: Ah, yeah, definitely missed the “settle an argument” scenario!

  7. I’m currently just over 1.5GB. Not too bad, really.

  8. I tend to save personally meaningful email and receipts.

    But I delete useless email.

    In addition to spam, which is pretty much automatically handled for me, this includes messages I am done with that don’t have any personal significance. Hitting delete is as easy or easier than hitting “archive” or dragging and dropping into a mail box if it isn’t already handled by a filter. If you read the announcement and the thing has passed, no need to keep it.

    I also do reasonable things to cut down receiving certain useless email (unsubscribing, telling someone not to send me that kind of thing, etc).

    Eventually I delete most list mail and other stuff that I find useful but know is archived elsewhere. I might keep it for a while; the purge might be more or less annual, but there’s no point in backing it up indefinitely in my opinion.

  9. Matt: I definitely don’t drag each individual message into an archive or folder or something like that… I just let my inbox accumulate for about six months, deleting spam, and then drag the entire inbox into my archive. My inbox then gets recreated by my IMAP server as soon as a new message comes in.

    It actually takes me less time than hitting delete.

  10. Though you and the comments make a compelling point, I can’t say I’ve ever looked for an email that I’ve deleted. Getting rid of email is like throwing away old magazines: Sure there might be an article or two I may look at some time in the future, but really it’s just one more think I think I should be looking at. I’d rather trap the knowledge in my mind and get rid of all written/paper trails of it. Maybe I should do a corresponding list about why people delete email.

    Oh and I agree with Paul. Even though he didn’t say it, you are a big dork!

  11. Here’s a Psych 101 answer for you: I delete sensitive email because I suspect that at some point I may not close my browser and everyone in my house will read it,LOL.

  12. […] A good post over at Jounce about deleting and archiving email. Filed under Experience Design, Information Architecture […]

  13. how do you archive your e-mails. I would like to start doing this instead of deleting my e-mails. How do I get started saving my e-mails

  14. i never delete email…i have smart folders set up to filter spam and file my other mail into its retrospective folders…….time management at its best…saves me 30 mins a day easy

  15. I write emails sometimes

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