Help! I have 19,000 unread email

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

It's not just physical clutter that makes life stressful, virtual clutter can be a headache too

My office has started a hot desking system in which some of us share the same table and computer, depending on the roles we play.

So, in the morning, I log on to a computer and when I leave in the early evening, a colleague takes over the seat and desktop for the rest of the night.

One morning when I came in still groggy with sleep, I was surprised to see that I had only 11 unread mail in my inbox.

Can't be, I said to myself. I've thousands of e-mail as far as I remember.

Could something have happened to the computer overnight?

I was on the verge of panicking at the thought of all my messages having been wiped out when I realised I hadn't signed on to the computer properly.

I was inside my colleague's mailbox.

I quickly signed out and logged on to my account and was back in familiar territory - a mailbox with plenty of mail.

To be exact, 19,003 unread mail, out of a total of 77,635 mail.

It's a crazy figure, I know.

And it's driving me crazy.

If physical clutter can make life messy and stressful, so too can virtual clutter, and I am accumulating more of this in my life.

Later that day, I asked my colleague just how many mail documents he had in total if his unread mail tallied just a paltry 11.

He said he makes it a point to clear his inbox every day. He hardly has any mail, he said.

I was shocked and awed.

Wow, I marvelled, you must be really, really disciplined to be able to have a clean inbox.

Hard as I try (and I do try, believe me), I can't seem to clear my mail.

I'm constantly living on the brink of hitting my 5,000MB mail quota.

How did I reach such a dire state?

I have many excuses.

For one thing, I've been in the workforce a long time (then again, so has my colleague), which means I've accumulated years' worth of mail.

I'm also in a profession where I get plenty of mail, from PR companies, for example (but so does my colleague).

I'm also in a department where I get an endless stream of e-mail notifications (every time a story is uploaded onto our website, I get mail), as well as lots of mail with heavy attachments such as photos and videos.

But if I'm honest, the reason I have such a bloated mailbox is that I'm kiasu, sentimental and lazy.

The oldest mail I have is dated Aug 3, 2010.

It's a correspondence with a SingTel customer service executive about me buying an iPhone 4 and the payment plans I could sign up for.

One line of her mail goes: "You can transfer the photos in your Nokia handset to the computer, then transfer them to your iPhone through iTunes. As for the SMSes, you are unable to transfer them over."

It's been four years since, the world has moved on to the iPhone 6, so why on earth am I still holding on to that mail?

On the kiasu front, I am loath to junk it because it has information on the plan I'm on. (I could, of course, just call up SingTel to check or refer to my monthly bill, but isn't it better to have e-mail proof of the plan?)

The sentimental side of me thinks this is a mail worth keeping (hoarding) because of its nostalgic value.

I mean, isn't this an invaluable record of a time when I still had a Nokia phone? Of an era when I still used SMS? In this age of Apple, Samsung and WhatsApp, don't Nokia and SMS sound so cute and quaint?

What if in the future I want to reminisce about a digitally less sophisticated period in my life? Wouldn't that e-mail with SingTel come in useful? (Never mind if chances of this happening are likely to be zero).

In any case, the mail's taking up just 45K of space. No harm keeping it.

The biggest file in my mailbox is 7.1M and headlined "Newspaper industry and disruptive technologies".

It was sent by my editor in June with a note to read it. Well, I have read it, so why haven't I deleted it? I could find the article on the Internet if I wanted to.

It's because I'm kiasu. What if I suddenly want to read it again? (Unlikely, but who knows?) Wouldn't it be easier for me to retrieve it if it is in my mailbox? I could, of course, archive it in the meantime, but I don't like archiving as I'm lazy.

A lot of my mail are no longer useful but I keep them because:

  • They are from people I like and it makes me happy to re-read the content, if I ever do, that is
  • I haven't got round to deleting them after reading them (that would form the bulk)
  • They are "important" (like mail from our in-house lawyers) and I might need to refer to them one day
  • Just in case - better to keep than be sorry

It's not just my office mailbox that's creating virtual clutter in my life. I'm a hoarder of digital photographs too, and have more than 4,800 in my phone alone, not counting those on my iPad.

My phone also has rows of unread notifications. I have more than 20 apps that need updating. Dozens of notifications from Facebook and Twitter are waiting for me, as are hundreds of videos and photographs from people I follow on Instagram and Vine.

Clutter is bad, I know.

It not only slows down my devices but also leaves me anxious. I don't have peace of mind because there are things I need to do, mail I have to read or reply to or delete. Because I haven't done so, I feel messy and untidy, out of sorts.

But there is help for digital hoarders like me. The Internet has loads of tips to manage mailbox size.

We are told to practise "zero e-mail" and to clean out our inbox completely every day, either answering, filing or deleting each item.

There's even a tip to declare "e-mail bankruptcy" and to purge every unread e-mail and start anew.

I embarked on some housekeeping.

I unsubscribed to newsletters and mailing lists I never read. I started purging mail according to sender first, then by date.

After an hour hard at it, I got my box down from 19,000 mail to a more breathable 17,000. I have a long way to go, but I am determined to hit 10,000 and, who knows, 1,000.

Some things, though, I will keep, like that August 2010 e-mail on my iPhone.

You never know, it might come in useful one day.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan