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Inbox zero, revisited, stage one

Topics/tags: Email, long, rambly

Disclaimer: This musing was written in fits and starts. That is, I’d start working on the issue, then get distracted for a few days [1], and have to go back to and update information or start again.

About a year and a half ago, I spent about a week of winter break trying to achieve inbox zero. I get a lot of email, not all of which is easy to deal with, and not all of which I can deal with at the same time. So it accumulates In any case, I failed. I think I’ve declared inbox bankruptcy twice, once at the end of that series of musings and once again in April 2017.

I try to file my email. For example, I set aside over three hundred messages pertaining to SIGCSE 2018 in the last few months of 2017. Most have to do with my role as one of the three Student Volunteers Coordinators, but there are also some having to do with my papers, with student travel, and other topics. I don’t even want to think about how many email messages pertain to the classes I teach.

In any case, as of 24 June 2018, I have 40,000+ messages in my inbox, of which slightly less than half are unread. The last time I recorded numbers was on 12 January 2018, when I had 26,000+ messages in my inbox [2]. Let’s see … I accumulated 26,000 messages in 260 days and another 14,000 messages in 163 days. That means I have slightly less than 100 messages each day that I didn’t get around to filing and almost 50 that I didn’t get around to reading. Since I think I deal with the majority of my messages each day, that’s kind of scary. If I spent one minute on each message, I would need to spend nearly two more hours each day dealing with email. Yech.

And the one minute may be optimistic. For example, in dealing with incoming emails, I had one message in which a asked to subscribe to the department mailing list (1 minute to add) and about funding for GHC (5 minutes to write) and a submission to the SIGCSE mailing list that I had to reject and then send a message explaining the rejection (3 minutes). On the other hand, there are messages that I could skim and delete in about fifteen seconds.

Anyway, let’s see how I can do on a quick cleanup. We’ll start with the obvious mailing lists (e.g., Council on Undergraduate Research), news feeds (e.g., Chronicle,, the Washington Post), newsletters, and advertisements (e.g., Amazon), and the rest. Or maybe it’s better to just put the email in order by sender and skim through for easy-to-delete groups of senders. [Sam spends some time working on this and then gets distracted by other tasks.]

Working on

It’s also likely that I should deal with things slightly differently depending on the account. Most of my mail goes to my address. However, I send some to my address, mostly stuff that I can’t stand being urldefended, particularly the racket-users mailing list, the RISKS mailing list [3], and any messages related to my work as SIGCSE information director.

For the racket-users mailing list, I have 621 messages still in my inbox. I know that there’s an archive somewhere out there, so I could just delete them all. I like to keep the most relevant messages to make them easier to find. For example, there was a recent discussion of using Racket for Digital Humanities. But I’m not in the mood for filtering. Delete ’em all or create a Racket Bankruptcy folder? I think the latter.

It appears that I handle the RISKS digest as it comes in. That’s a comfort.

What about my infodir messages? Oooh! There are 901 of them. Most are error reports. Those don’t always come in at convenient times. And I’m less aggressive at handling them than I used to be. Sometimes I keep them to see if there’s a pattern to the too many loops or temporarily unavailable messages. I can do without those. What else do we have? A bunch of Approval Required messages that I forgot to delete. But I handle those promptly, either approving or rejecting. One outstanding subscription request from a day or two ago that neither my co-director nor I got around to handling yet [4,5]. Watching the mailbox get gradually smaller as the messages get deleted is fun.

Now I’m down to 381 messages in my Gmail mailbox, only 208 of which are unread. It appears that I do a slightly worse job of reading my Gmail messages than those in my primary CS mailbox. What’s left that’s easy to delete?

Oh, look! I have 173 digests from the SIGCSE mailing list itself in my Gmail mailbox [6]. Those are easy to remove.

There appear to be a bunch of infodir messages remaining; I think those are cases in which people replied to me, rather than to the infodir mailing address [7]. I’m not going to count them since they are interspersed with other messages that I’m handling one or a few at a time.

There are a bunch of messages generated by various Google services, such as when one of my research students adds or modifies a collaborative document [8]. Those are easy to delete.

I needed to process the remaining messages manually. That was relatively easy and relatively straightforward. A bunch needed to get filed in the Family folder. Some could be get deleted. And there were a few professional messages that I needed to keep.

Woo! Inbox zero achieved! (if only for one of my inboxes).

Other mailboxes

I generally track seven inboxes:,, two accounts that got associated with CSC 321 and CSC 322 that I use for some subscriptions (e.g., Cloud 9), my iCloud account [9], my Global Online Academy Account [10], and the grader account for CSC 151.

I’m leaving for last; that’s the big one. I’ve just finished So that’s five small accounts to look at.

The first CSC 322 account only has messages from Team Twilio [11]. I can delete them. Inbox zero!. The second CSC 322 account only has AWS messages. I can delete them. Inbox zero!

My iCloud account has only one message, a reminder from Apple that I now use two-factor authentication [12]. Inbox zero! My GOA account only has some reviews of messages from the Slack channel. Inbox zero!

What about the CSC 151 grader account? My graders are pretty good at reading and responding to messages. So there are only about a dozen assorted messages that didn’t get handled or deleted, mostly ones that I replied to. Inbox zero!

Of course, two Gmail messages came in while I was scanning the smaller inboxes. I managed to get those dealt with fairly quickly.

Back to the main mailbox

With the initial work on the main mailbox and the work on the subsidiary messages, I’m now down to 32,675 messages in my inbox, of which 14,621 are unread [14]. One of the most recent messages is a request from a student to review work. I suppose it would be impolite to say It’s summer; I don’t get paid for normal work in the summer and the College has warned me about doing work other than what I’m paid for [15]. It’s also not how I feel. But I’m not in the mood for reviewing student work over the weekend. So I add it to my to do list [16] and move it to my "___To Do" mailbox.

On to the more serious work. Let’s order the messages by sender and then for the senders that represent large chunks, typically mailing lists and advertisements. Of course, ordering them by sender puts my messages from Simon at the top of the list [17]. One of them was about a paper he had co-authored on expectations of academic honesty in the CS classroom. So I sent a message to the department to suggest that we read it together. And that’s illustrative of one of the reasons I never get through my mailbox. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately), there are a lot of messages that fall in the I should read this and think about it category. I need to skip over those if Im going to make a real dent in my inbox. But those kinds of messages keep cropping up. A message about a new service calledRebble" that will support Pebble users. The sad message about the end of Cr8Iowa, the Iowa Destination Imagination organization.

What about the messages to SIGCSE-members? Let’s see … there are nearly 1000 messages to SIGCSE-members. I’m not going to look through them now. But I know I saved some intentionally. They get their very own SIGSE Inbox Bankruptcy folder [18].

How many messages are from me? (I like to carbon-copy myself rather than rely on the sent messages folder. I’m not sure that’s the best idea.) Wow. 2000 or so. Oh well, those definitely go into some long-term storage.

A frustrating part of cleaning out the mailbox is that in the midst of large swaths of email that are easy to delete are a variety of messages that I’m kicking myself for missing. How often will you be in your office for your fellowship? Daily. But I can share the office Are you really skipping the AP grading? Yup. I went on a cruise with my wife instead. Can my daughter meet with you when we visit Grinnell in late May? Um, not anymore. I’m sorry. It’s things like those that convince me that I really need to strive for inbox zero. I just don’t know how to manage it when things get busy. I’ve started clicking a lot more unsubscribe links [19].

Another frustrating part is that and the Exchange server don’t always get along well. That means that there are groups of messages that I’d swear I had to delete twice. For example, I’d delete all the random eBay email. An hour later, I’d get back to the e section and see more email from eBay. And no, it was not new email.

Okay, I’ve now spent over five hours [20] cleaning out the out the mailbox [21]. I’m down to 11,379 messages in the inbox, of which 1,286 are unread. It’s time to declare inbox bankruptcy. I realize that for some people, that means deleting everything in the inbox. I’m a pack rat and I can’t bear to do that. So I’ll just create a folder [22] and move the remaining messages there.

Or maybe I won’t. It gave up midway through. The messages aren’t in the new folder. They aren’t in my inbox. Where did they go? Did I mention that (a) I hate computers and (b) I hate the

And we are once again left with the questions of whether I can maintain inbox zero once I start with inbox zero [23] and whether I’ll ever get to the mail that I’ve put to the side [24].

[1] Or weeks, or months.

[2] Once again, about half were unread.

[3] Trying to read a URL-defended text-only mailing list that has lots and lots of links is incredibly painful.

[4] Subscription requests invariably require checking the slow ACM membership database and some other things. So although I try to handle them when they arrive, I don’t always manage to do so. Keeping those higher on the agenda is one of the reasons I’m working toward inbox zero.

[5] More detail about my job as SIGCSE information director will appear in a future musing.

[6] I use my mailbox for the message-at-a-time version of the mailing list and for the digest version. Getting it in both forms helps me monitor the list.

[7] These days, I try to make sure that every outgoing message relating to the infodir position has a reply-to field set to But I don’t always remember and it’s only a relatively recent practice.

[8] I don’t get a message each time that happens. Nonetheless, I do get messages some of the time it happens.

[9] I almost never use my iCloud account. But it exists. So I should keep track of the email.

[10] I rarely receive email on my GOA account. But it exists so I should track it. And I remain hopeful that I will find a way to teach for GOA again.

[11] Twilio is an awesome service to support programs that send and receive text messages. One of the original CSC 322 projects used it.

[12] I always find it humorous when I connect to iCloud from a Web browser, it says Unrecognized browser, but then pops up a message on the screen of the same device. I realize that they’re not connected, but it’s funny.

[14] For those concerned about the unread messages, the vast majority are advertisements. Some are messages that I’m pretty sure that I read, but, for some reason, the mail reader didn’t mark.

[15] It’s true. At the meeting where we discussed the new policy that You can only receive external funding for 2.5 months of summer work, even though you have a nine-month contract, they were very clear that we shouldn’t be doing anything else during the months we received external funding. As you can guess, that strikes me as an incredibly narrow-minded policy. And I realize that it’s not the College’s policy; it’s typical a funder policy. But if you’re paying me for full-time work over the summer, and I’m spending forty hours per week on your project, I should feel free to do other kinds of things in the remaining time.

[16] Yes, Doug, I’m using todoist.

[17] Simon is a computer scientist active in the SIGCSE community. I enjoy corresponding with him. He’s polite about my tendency to procrastinate. And we both have the experience of doing behind-the-scenes support. He also does cool research. Because he only has one name and most software assumes both a forename and a surname, he presents interesting challenges, including, it seems, to his email package. Email from Simon shows up in my alphabetical list at the top because it considers him .. Simon.

[18] You can tell I’m a pack rat, can’t you?

[19] A surprisingly large number of democratic candidates automatically put me on their mailing lists, or at least their fundraising mail lists. It frustrates me no end. But those aren’t the only things from which I’m unsubscribing.

[20] Probably much more than five hours. I started at about 9:00 a.m. this morning. (And I’d done things on previous days.) It’s currently 8:30 p.m. There were some breaks for other activities, but fewer than I would have liked.

[21] Also musing about cleaning out the mailbox.

[22] __Inbox Bankruptcy 2018-06-30, to be precise.

[23] Maybe for a little while, but not for long. I’ll try to muse about the size of my inbox once a week as a way to incentivize myself to stay on top of it.

[24] Let’s see … Next week is prep for two weeks of code camp. Then we have a week of code camp. Then a week to finish developing a completely new curriculum. Then the last week of code camp. Nope; I’m never getting to any outstanding messages.

Version 1.0 of 2018-06-30.