Why do we treat email differently than a phone call? 10 Aug 2005

80 comments Latest by cbf

Over beers with Jim and Ryan at Fresco after work today we were discussing email, inboxes, thousands of messages, folders, etc. Yes, we should have better things to talk about.

However, we were tossing this idea around the table: Why not read an email and then instantly delete it? Why do we save emails? Why do we archive them in folders for safe keeping? We don’t save phone calls. We have a conversation on the phone and then we hang up. If we need to take notes for whatever reason we do, but 99% of phone calls are completely ephemeral. And if we forget something, or we need it again, we just make another call.

If you could have every call you’ve ever made transcribed, would you? I doubt it. Or better yet, if you did have them transcribed how often do you think you’d really go back to review? Let’s ignore business calls for a minute and think about email-like personal calls.

Is email really any different? Are we all keeping emails around just because we can? Do we really need to have this stuff on hand so we can go back 14 months from now and dig something up? If we need to dig something up why don’t we just ask the people who we were talking to originally? Surely a couple brains will remember it if it was important.

And I’d venture to say most emails are far shorter and less important than most phone calls. Yet we keep them around. We have a folder for him, a folder for her, a folder for them. Sub folders and sub-sub folders. We’re filing our way out of our way. Filing for filing’s sake.

A few months ago when I upgraded to Tiger I decided to start fresh with the Mail app. I wouldn’t bring any mail over from OS X 10.3 to 10.4. And I haven’t missed a single saved email. Not one. Did I lose a few things? Probably. But, if they were critically important than 1. I could have found them some other way, 2. I shouldn’t keep them buried in an email folder — there are surely better ways to store, remember, and retrieve critical information.

So, how about it… Who’s in? Who’s going to read their mail and then delete their mail? All of it.

A good related read: Managing Incoming Email (PDF) by Mark Hurst.

80 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Scott Meinzer 10 Aug 05

Is this the point where if this were a TV commercial someone would say “You don’t need to keep your life in email; keep it in Backpack!” ;)

That is a interesting observation thou.

Anonymous75 10 Aug 05

We donít save phone calls.

well, yea, because, until recently, we haven’t been able to do so 1) legally, or 2) technologically. Since we’ve implemented VoIP at the work place, I’ve relied *heavily* on call logs and voicemails saved on a server somewhere. But, granted, you said “ignore business calls for a minute” so I will.

So my answer on saving personal emails is…..why not? An email takes up about 5-10 Kb (excluding attachments) of disk space and I have somewhere around 40 GB free, open, blank disk yet to fill. Do I go back to personal emails for reference? Yep. Regularly? No. But when I do, I’m damn glad thankful I had those emails. One example is when my cell phone was stolen. Every phone number I needed was in there, but I had no memory of them because I’ve been dialing “Brian’s cell” in lieu of actual numbers for years (keeping it simple, you know). So when my cell phone was gone, I went back throughout the personal emails I had “saved” by default and found about half of the numbers. So it was worth it to me. Big time.

So, no. I’m not in. Why would I even bother? Less clutter? Taking back how my applications work? I’m 30 years old and have been managing pretty well. Sacrificing 100MB for possibly useless email is the last thing on my mind.

jeff 10 Aug 05

This is where gmail comes in handy. I have all my email from six (yikes!) different sources redirect into gmail, which I then grab via pop onto my local machine. And then I delete it. The gmail is there for insurance — just in case I might someday discover a need for a particular email. Just in case. Yes, I am a chicken.

But part of the problem is that I process email differently from phone mail. If I student were to call and leave a message saying, “I’m going to miss class on Friday,” I’d write it down in my gradebook. If they send an email saying the same thing, I’ll save the email as the reminder that they’d told me. A poor practice, I’m sure, but I doubt I’m alone in it.

The other issue is that *sometimes* an email is indeed full of good information. Stuff I’d like to keep. I have phone conversations (rare, but real) which are equally desireable. Maybe it’s a conversation with my illustrator outlining his ideas for a particular spread, or some details about who is doing what in a particular project. In a perfect world, I’d file it where it should go (outside my email application, actually, where I store everything else I want to keep), and trash everything else. But those damn email apps make it so easy to file everything. And it feels so good and productive to put things in little boxes. Throwing things away seems so… subversive.

Dr_God 10 Aug 05

With regards to keeping phone messages, we write down stuff that we have to remember during a call. Same with a voice mail. Then we hang up or delete the message. With email, it would be kinda silly to write down the important stuff or transfer it to another electronic file format, because it’s already in a written format. Easier just to leave it be. With HD space increasing and sorting getting really fast and simple, it just makes things less time consuming and more productive to keep emails rather than have to having to “process” them all the time before deleting them.

Plus, it’s too fun to go back and sift through old emails from 5 or 10 years ago to see what nonsense you were chatting about back then. ;)

Stardance 10 Aug 05

A telephone call is NOT quite the same as an e-mail message, or an “instant” message, despite the tenor of your comparison.

Whether you can discard e-mail messages, or you “must” retain them, depends upon (1) context and (2) content.

With recspect to content, who keeps copies of the “spam” messages that they receive??

With respect to context, maybe you should ask a lawyer as to records retention policies that are appropriate for your enterprise (especially!), your hobby, and/ or your personal relationships, etc. An e-mail message in which the parties are negotiating a multi-million dollar contract is one thing, an e-mail message in which the parties discuss which restaurant to patronize for tonight’s dinner is probably of a different sort.

A rule of thumb: if the e-mail message were a telephone conversation instead, then would it be one for which you would want to create some sort of record and retain it??

Jonny Roader 10 Aug 05

The analogy works until you compare email with things like letters and memos. Email is not (just) like a phone call. Email is email, and one of its strengths is that it is easily recorded.

Stop trying to redefine the entire world, JF. ;)

Kevin Ballard 10 Aug 05

When I got my hands on a 700mhz iMac to supplement my PowerBook, I moved some of my always-running programs over there, including Mail. However, I didn’t transfer any of my existing emails, I just started fresh. And the only thing I’ve missed is very occasionally I have to boot up Mail.app on this computer to find a registration code I’d saved. But aside from that, I haven’t missed the approximately 2.11GB of saved emails I have here. That said, I’m not going to delete them - I like the insurance in case I ever have to search them. And with Spotlight, searching them is pretty easy. So I basically treat my email like Gmail wants you to treat it.

The only exception to this rule is I do sometimes delete the contents of folders. I’m subscribed to a bunch of lists, and some are lists for commits for a project. That sort of list I tend to delete messages from every now and then, because if I want to go back and look at old commits it’s much easier to do it via the VCS logs rather than reading each individual commit email. But everything else I keep, even though that means I have thousands of unread messages in my mail client.

Mike K. 10 Aug 05

I delete most email that I receive after I’ve read it. Unless the information it contains needs to be persistent, out it goes.

Example of persistent info: Invoices from my hosting provider that I keep for tax purposes.

Example of non-persistent info: Emails from friends arranging a pub-meet later that week.

Why don’t I keep stuff around? Probably because back when I was a sysadmin, I had to deal with email packrats that kept 8+ gigs of mail on the IMAP server.

8 gigs. Of email. Managed thru Outlook Express.

Sam 10 Aug 05

Yeah, personally, I hate the fact that you can’t go back over a phone call to check that you took care of everything.

You’re confusing necessary constraints with desired constraints ;-)

Adam 10 Aug 05

Well, it is easier to just keep the email, then it is to write down the important parts only in another application.

I have also had the experience of moving to another mail program without importing my old mail, and not missing it at all. But I have also experienced wishing that I had not deleted an email that I thought I didn’t need.

I guess you could look at our preference for storage, in all aspects of life. Renting storage spaces, attics and basements, video tapes and camcorders, file cabinets etc. Perhaps we feel it is better to hold on to something even though we don’t anticipate an use for it in the short-term, than it is to get rid of it and regret it later.

If a phone call could be recorded effortlessly and legally onto an easily accessible 5k file, than I am sure we would all be doing it. If we could have cameras implanted into our eyes that recorded everything we saw 24/7 - I am sure we would all be doing it as well.

Anonymous75 10 Aug 05

I’m not a mail admin nor claim to be, but you can sweep old email from the server without effecting what’s on a user’s local machine, right?

Anonymous75 10 Aug 05

I’m sorry. I actually didn’t intend to reply like that; based on assumptions. I know it gets me ripped up whenever I hear someone say “Well can’t you just…” or something similar. My bad.

Swati 10 Aug 05

Oh, I’d love to keep phone calls as logs. Ignoring business (it’d be *great* for business), even for personal things. The number of times I have asked people’s date of birth on phone and then forgotten it is amazing.

It’s nice to be able to look at personal emails for reference. Yes, I remember that I had a 4 hour conversation with a friend 2 years ago, but for the life of me, I cannot remember what it was about. Though in an email, the 3000 word email is still there, and its nice to read it at times….

Anonymous75 10 Aug 05

did that book just get a chapter thinner? ;)

Jim Jeffers 10 Aug 05

I would venture to disagree with you here Jason. If you upgraded to Mac OSX Tiger and deleted your email you could have possibly made a terrible mistake.

Think about this:
I never file my email.
I never delete my email.

By doing this I don’t have to worry about creating other places to store important personal information. I have it done automatically with Mac Mail on Tiger.

Apple really got it right with Mail / Spotlights search capabilities and smart folders. There’s no need to delete mail, file mail, or create alternative means for storing valuable information.

Maybe the only thing I should be worried about is keeping people locked out of my Mac Mail!

Magnus 10 Aug 05

I hear myself saying “Mail it to me othewise I will forget it” all the time. Emails have for me become a sort of Post it notes. It is then so much easier to just leave it in the inbox than making the decision to throw it in the trash. I also think services like Gmail and features like Spotlight makes it easier to keep things in a big mess and when you need something all you have to remember is a keyword and make a quick search for it.

About recording phonecalls, the telephonecompanies are storing all calls, at least where I live. It has been a debate here if that is legal or not. It’s probably just a matter of time before they start to resell our phonecalls back to us as a reminder service.

Jason 10 Aug 05

This is the way I’ve always done it. I never keep any e-mails unless it is registration information or things I have ordered that haven’t arrived yet. (Tracking numbers, etc.)

My inbox always has less than 10 items in it that are marked read, most everything else has been deleted, or what little remains, archived.

I like thinking this way. It’s nice to keep it clean. I tried to keep it all hanging around, and using Spotlight in 10.4 to search, but the aesthetics of that was horrible.

Ben Askins 10 Aug 05

I’m currently looking at an inbox of 2664 items.

The temptation to CTRL-A, Delete, Right-Click, Empty Deleted Items Folder is there.

Should I resist the temptation? Or do I give in to the anxiety of keeping it all ‘just in case’.

Joerg 10 Aug 05

There’s email, and there’s writing. You want to keep the ones with writing in them. Writing that fills you with bliss everytime you read it, or that fills you with butterflies or excitement when you press Send.

mark rush 10 Aug 05

…we dont, they’re simply a pre-written post it note - you use them, or a CRM solution to make notes on telephone conversations dont you?

Nick Cowie 10 Aug 05

I never gave it much thought, I just archived emails on an ad-hoc just in case I needed it later.

Then we got involved in an IP dispute. Two years earlier lots of discussions, people had moved on since then and nothing was in writing. Except tucked away in my email archive a couple of innocuous emails which saved the day.

That experience, coupled with State Records Act (yes I work for the man) which includes email and phone messages as records, makes me cautious about throwing anything out especially with storage so cheap.

Matt Round 10 Aug 05

“If you could have every call youíve ever made transcribed, would you? I doubt it.”

Isn’t the evidence out there pointing in the opposite direction?

With the gradual advances in automatic transcription, the spread of VoIP and the continuing focus on search software I reckon many people will be eagerly storing and searching all their phone conversations, emails, instant messages, web pages visited, podcasts listened to, etc. We’re already on that path, and within a few years we’ll probably start seeing people recording everything they do for private reference (and/or public broadcast; the exhibitionists will love it).

I delete any emails with zero content, but the rest is genuinely useful. Not every scrap of information belongs in another system such as Basecamp or Backpack, and detaching information from its origins as a message from a specific person at a specific time isn’t necessarily helpful.

Email is popular largely because everything gets logged by default. I think you’re way off target on this one.

Ian 10 Aug 05

Yay! I get to be the first zealot to mention GTD.

If email is overwhelming, it’s not a data problem, but an interface problem. As has been said above many different ways, Gmail’s “search, don’t sort” mantra solves it all.

But if you go by GTD, then an email and a phone call are treated the same: inbox material to be processed. I suppose if I could save all my handwritten call transcripts to gmail’s archive with the wave of a wand, I would. But it ends up in my calendar or Backpack, which is good enough to toss the call note.

Ben, you should get David Allen’s book and understand the euphoria of an empty inbox and no more “open loops” (just in case’s). There, I’ve done my part.

julian 10 Aug 05

I used to be a delete/keep person, so I’d delete stuff that I didn’t think I’d need anymore and throw everything else in a keep folder.

Then I got Gmail, now I don’t delete, I don’t file, I just read.

We all have brains that tend to forget certain things we’d rather they didn’t, when we have computers with practically unlimited storage and better and better searching, what’s the point of deleting anything?

tef 10 Aug 05

I tend to purge my email every so often. Having a quota helps.

“In hindsight, complying with the company’s Document Retention Policy (which at Netscape was basically, “shred anything within 90 days unless you can’t get your job done without it”) might have been a good idea. “


Nice Paul 10 Aug 05

Email is historical evidence of what someone’s said. It shows when clients change their mind or agree to something, and makes it easy to resolve disputes. That can be seen as it makes it easy to catch people out, but keeping it has its genuine uses.

When I call my bank, utility company or mortgage lender I always use Registered Call to record the conversation so that I can check what was agreed if there any are any problems at a later date. They record the calls for “dispute resolution purposes” so why shouldn’t I?

Jonathan Holst 10 Aug 05

Basically, I only save my e-mails, if there is something vital in it. Project description, login information, stuff like that.

And as I wouldn’t like getting these via the phone, that’s why I treat e-mail and phone different.

Jens Meiert 10 Aug 05

I beg you would save phone calls if they were short and contained useful and important information, and if there was any opportunity to save them with ease. It’s something quite different to deal with audio content.

David Mackay 10 Aug 05

Jason, I think it has a lot to do with the thinking behind 37signals’ decision not to allow indefinite editing of comments in Basecamp. At some point you want people to have to stand by decisions they make, and keeping e-mail is a great way to make sure you have a record of what was said. How easy would it be to revise what happened if the only record of events was asking people what they thought had happened?

Brad 10 Aug 05


(This explains both why we save e-mails, and why we delete some).

Dhrumil 10 Aug 05

I use Bloomba. No folders. Just file it all away. Search based email on your desktop.

JF 10 Aug 05

Stop trying to redefine the entire world, JF.

But it’s fun, Jonny! ;)

It is interesting to see how passionate people are about keeping every email they’ve ever sent or received.

Good discussion.

Unearthed Ruminator 10 Aug 05

I can’t stand saving email myself…I prefer a nicy, tidy inbox. I’ll keep some stuff around but only until it is no longer needed.

Brad 10 Aug 05

I’ve saved every substantive work-related email since 1997 (roughly 5 gigs worth at this point), and it’s amazing how often I end up referring to those old messages. It’s partly because my clients and colleagues know I have that historical record and they don’t, so they come to me with questions. “Do you remember how we handled xyz four years ago?” or “Haven’t we used this quote somewhere before?” etc.

I have Google Desktop, which works brilliantly for answering these kinds of questions (better than Searchlight on my Mac, I’m afraid), and most often I find the answers in my archived e-mails. I don’t bother saving attachments separately; I keep them in the e-mails since the e-mail often provides important context that I’d lose if I only saved the attachments.

Mark Priestap 10 Aug 05

Some Reasons for saving email at work:

1. Sometimes you have to have a paper trail at a big company to explain why you’re doing something. It’s not enough to say it - you have to prove it. Saving emails is handy in that regard.

2. Yearly reviews - Emails store in black and white all the backslaps received.

3. Sometimes it is too cumbersome/time-consuming to copy the email and save it as a Word doc or txt file somewhere else. *It would be nice if you could save the email elsewhere in another format with the click of one button.*

4. Managers sometimes receive hundreds of emails a day and must go back to reference these emails when someone said “Didn’t you read my email where I said…”

Peter Cooper 10 Aug 05

The thousands of times I’ve had to pick something out of my e-mail archive prove to me that deleting all your mail would only work if you had nothing to do. People often forget things, disagree on things, or refer to things that I have to verify or pull out of my archive. That’s exactly why e-mail is useful.

E-mails are like a modern version of a filing cabinet to me. Rather than have lots of letters and invoices, etc, in a filing cabinet.. I have an e-mail program with virtual letters and virtual drawers and folders. Why anyone would want to turn their valuable filing cabinet into a trashcan is beyond me.

Of course, you could do what you’re suggesting if you had an alternate means of keeping this virtual filing cabinet, with, say, a wiki. In that case, it’s do-able.. but, well, I find e-mail makes the best filing cabinet for tons of useful information right now.

Jon Gales 10 Aug 05

I have used old email enough to know that it’s worth it for me to keep it around (and iChat transcripts, but that’s a whole other discussion!). But I like using IMAP, so I have Mail.app setup for that which only has the past few hundred messages or so. And then for archiving purposes I load messages into Thunderbird every week or so.

This has a few benefits:

Spotlight’s mail search only picks up the most recent (past week) messages which are probably going to be the ones that I am most lookingg for.

Mail runs really fast because there aren’t many messages.

If I do ever need to find someting, I have it, but I don’t have to look at it every day.

Mark Hurst 10 Aug 05

preaching to the choir: read this.

KnurdMan 10 Aug 05

This same philosophy carries over to Verizon’s standard voice mail option for wireless customers. By default, each Verizon cell phone customer gets to keep their voice messages for 7 days before Verizon automatically deletes them. Want more time and you have to pay to upgrade your voicemail service. I figure that if I haven’t dealt with a message within that 7 day window, it probably wasn’t important enough to keep. An option that I once thought was a limitation has actually turned out to be a great liberation.

Jonathan 10 Aug 05

My theory - when in doubt, throw it out!

Dave Simon 10 Aug 05

A number of times, a saved email has saved my butt or one of my co-worker’s.

For instance, you email the specs for a job off to a printer. Said printer gives you a bid. The job takes a while to finish due to a client not deciding if he wants dots or dashes separating the sections of his phone number.

You finally send the job to the printer. Everything comes back looking great except - oops - they printed it on the wrong paper. You look back at your email and find that you speced one paper and they printed on another. Congratulations, you just saved the firm a few hundred dollars.

I also use my inbox as a sort of mini-Backpack. Everything gets filed eventually, but the things that require my attention stay i my inbox until they are done.

I’m not that concerned about space. Every year or so, I archive anything older than 6 months or so to a disc.

JF 10 Aug 05

I archive anything older than 6 months or so to a disc.

Just because I’m curious, how often have you gone back to one of these discs to find something?

Scott Trudeau 10 Aug 05

I also have archived personal email to disc. I’ve kept much of my email since 1996, when I started college — mostly for nostalgia/historic purposes. It doesn’t take up much space and it might be nice to go back and read old mail b/w me and friends, crushes, and others. The same reason many people keep personal letters. Recently, I’ve been helping take care of an estate of a friend, who kept all of his personal letters from when he was a child and on. They take up entirely too much space — at least two full four-drawer file cabinets (and this was only a fraction of the other paper he kept around). I was surprised to learn many archives are *very* interested in collections like this (since has no surviving family, and none of his friends wanted the papers, this was a relief)… Historians eat this stuff up — you never know who is going to have had contact with somebody interesting or important.

Scott Trudeau 10 Aug 05

Also, when archives take any collection, I’m told they typically wait 10 years or longer before they even begin to really sort and organize the collection — they give themselves a lot of time to decide whether the material will be of interest. So you can throw out my CDs of old email when I’ve been dead for 10 years. ;)

Jessica 10 Aug 05

I prefer email so that I can ‘save’ it. When I get changes from 3 different people on one webpage, I can later (it always seems to happen weeks after the page is live) pull up the exact words the person used.

This has happened a few times. Though recently I lost a bunch of mail in an upgrade of computer and haven’t missed those 3 years too much.

Brad 10 Aug 05

It doesnít take up much space and it might be nice to go back and read old mail b/w me and friends, crushes, and others. The same reason many people keep personal letters.

Oddly enough, this is exactly the kind of email that I don’t save anymore. I used to save all my emails from friends until a jealous girlfriend of mine decided to go to my house and read my email archives one week when I was on vacation. She misinterpreted a string of mildly flirtatious and affectionately teasing emails I had with a (married) friend in England, printed them out and shared them with her friends, and confronted me with them when I came back home.

Now my computer is password-protected and I delete most of my personal emails. And that woman is no longer my girlfriend ;-)

Peter Cooper 10 Aug 05

To add.. I often copy and paste IM transcripts into e-mail and send them to the other person. E-mail is an accepted way to “get things down” and store them. That’s why even if you discuss a contract on the phone, you always get a written copy. It’s just that nowadays e-mail counts as “written”.

Dan Boland 10 Aug 05

My quick response to this (haven’t read anyone else’s) is that there’s no real con (as in pros and cons) to archiving e-mails. They don’t take enough disk space to cause any problems, they’re out of the way, and every once in a while, I can find some piece of information that I really don’t know where I’d find otherwise (like FTP login information, for instance).

And people in certain occupations simply couldn’t live without archived e-mails (sales, accounting/finance, etc.).

Mark Reeves 10 Aug 05

This is probably redundant to many of the “why not? / disk space is cheap” comments, but I’ll add my own angle.

I recently destroyed my paper shredder trying to eliminate boxes of old, useless documents. I’m in the mode now where I’ll shred them when they come in, keep only really important and recent stuff, and rely on the Web to pull older copies (banking, etc) if I need to. The reason I had all those old documents: It was easier to stick *everything* in a box when things came in than contemplating whether or not it was worth saving for later reference.

I regularly email myself links or refer to communication from friends, colleagues, and, recently, real estate brokers and the bank. This is why the Search and Label capabilities in Gmail are great. Like the boxes of documents, I don’t think about whether or not to delete an email, I just leave it in the Inbox…If I need a more concise view, I can apply a filter.

The difference (as oft-stated above): Storage is cheap and the archives are on a server, not in boxes in my hall closet. And I live in Boston, so that apartment space used for storage is valuable!

Stuart Willis 10 Aug 05

A large portion of my job is e-mail driven. Its why I love Tiger and Mail.app - smart folders change the way I interact with mail. I’ve always used extensive filtering, which I still do, but now mail doesn’t have to exist in one single place at a time. I have smart folders for specific individuals (my supervisors for e.g.), for the day’s mail, of to do items (e-mails which I’ve flagged), for invoices, for specific types of e-mail related to a project etc. Its a pretty awesome way of managing information… and tracking the progress of a job.

Being able to more intuitively manage this e-mail means I’m even less inclined to delete e-mail, because there really isn’t any reason to - especially when you can automagically move it out of the ‘active’ inbox into a ‘deep storage’ area after a predefined period.

But I’ve been keeping personal e-mail for years… and I do pull stuff out after years and read threads. It always makes me wish I kept -more- stuff. I’m a horder but these things are personal histories…

HellLindsay 10 Aug 05

This is also a question of how our brains handle information.

There is no such thing as a delete button for memory or knowledge - information in our brain stagnates, if it isn’t accessed for some evelution-decided amount of time it, may no longer be able to be recalled.

Services like gmail are on the right track - we shouldn’t have to decide what we want to keep and what we don’t - because its unnatural - what we use should be kept, and what we dont, can eventually be removed quietly.

Neil 10 Aug 05

I agree that it comes down to content and context; while I’ve kept every personal letter I’ve ever received since I was 4 or 5 in a gigantic box, I have little interest in keeping every bill I’ve received or junk letter.

The issue here is that the initial discussion was trying to fit email into an “old tech” concept which doesn’t work. Just as people have been saying forever “the web != TV / newspapers / radio / etc.”, email is equally nebulous.

I think simplifying concepts to roughly correspond to old tech equivalents is interesting but *very* problematic. There’s simple, and then there’s so simple it’s wrong.

At any rate, the fleeting nature of email is a negative, not a positive. I for one lament the fact that we will never see books like, “The Collected Emails of Bill Clinton”.

Benjy 10 Aug 05

While I admit I am a pack rat and that extends to emails, I have learned that it is often best to err on the side of keeping too much — especially at work!

I cannot tell you how many times a “my word vs. his” has been cleared up by an old email. Clients and co-workers are so prone to trying to cover their ass and often an email paper trail is key to making sure that a request is something new that’ll affect the deadline/budget rather than a mistake, etc.

But you’re right, most email could be deleted after reading. I should do a better job of that…

Dui 10 Aug 05

Why should we delete e-mail? What bad does excess e-mail causes us?

1) Space: Is becoming so cheap that it barely pays off the effort of pressing the “Delete” button after reading the e-mail

2) Aesthetics: This can be solved through a “filter”. You need not delete the e-mail in order to remove the visual pollution.

That said, persistent information is a good thing. Get used to it. In the future, all of the information will live.
Also, didn’t you wish some of the information produced in the past was not destroyed? Such it will be for the future generations also (and even us in the future).

I foresee reading really old e-mail and listening to really old phonecalls would be great for us on a more advantaged age. Like when we look at our pictures on when we were children:

“Ah..remember the 1st trip I made to London, this is the 1st phonecall home, when I talked to my mom”. That’s pretty exciting. I don’t think this should be destroyed, just as your childhood photos shouldn’t either (just because they clutter up your closet or, worse, your /photos folder).

My 2 cents. Love your blog and products.

D u i

Kesava Mallela 10 Aug 05

Current inefficient methods of navigation thru voicemail dont even make sense in archiving. Its far easier to write down the important stuff in the voicemail than archiving it and then trying to get to it at a later point of time.

Anonymous Coward 10 Aug 05

A wholelotta pack rats out there.

Lloyd Dalton 10 Aug 05

If phone calls were quickly searchable and required little storage space to archive, you bet I’d keep them all. I hope that’s possible someday. Historical archives are useful, because human memory is frail.

Eamon 10 Aug 05

If I could have every phone call saved and searchable, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Especially the drunk dials.

nick 10 Aug 05

I’ve seen some of the Cisco IP telephony phones allow you to save voice mails as audio files that you can access on your computer and email around. That’s pretty slick.

As far as saving business emails, you’re legally obligated to do so.

brian.leroux 10 Aug 05

I hate “yay me too” posts but David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) philosophy has cleaned up my inbox and releived tremendous stress from my day to day life. Do or delegate or defer it.. and then delete it.

Bob 10 Aug 05

I think each person has to make the decision for themselves whether their backlog of email is preventing them from doing new things or not. That’s where the rubber meets the road—is it *actually* causing me a problem? Gmail has solved that for my email…

The (perhaps unfortunate) fact is that the world is getting to a place where you are expected to be able to access any information at any time. If you want the advantages of email and digital communication (which are substantial), you will be expected to deal with the mental overhead they require.

Closing your eyes and just saying “I don’t know, I deleted it” while simultaneously working in a digital world is like trying to live an Amish lifestyle in New York City—it ain’t gonna happen.

Brad 10 Aug 05

Closing your eyes and just saying ďI donít know, I deleted itĒ while simultaneously working in a digital world is like trying to live an Amish lifestyle in New York City

And yet, this is what most of my clients and colleagues do and say. I think deleting email is a very acceptable practice in some organizations and businesses, mainly because of storage constraints, but also I think it helps some people avoid accountability.

I’m all for running a lean, light ship, but I personally don’t feel burdened by having 5 gigs of e-mail archives on my hard disk…I don’t even organize it into folders/subdirectories anymore because I can instantly find whatever I’m looking for with Google Desktop. I try to keep my in-box light and transfer anything I need to do to my task list, then file the e-mail away.

Dan Boland 10 Aug 05

I think deleting email is a very acceptable practice in some organizations and businesses, mainly because of storage constraints, but also I think it helps some people avoid accountability.

You hit the nail on the head, Brad. It’s right up there with “oh, I forgot.”

Derek Scruggs 10 Aug 05

I delete probably 99% of my email, a practice I started a couple years ago after reading “Getting Things Done,” by David Allen. Anything that needs to persist is either stored in a reference folder in Outlook or (gasp!) printed and filed physically.

It’s a terrific feeling to have an empty inbox. And it also forces me to do “real” work instead of procrastinating by reading through old messages.

Su 10 Aug 05

Evidence. “I told you so back on [date1] in a message titled [blah], and you confirmed on [date2].” I have a policy of not accepting project details via any medium I can’t readily save(ie: phone calls). We can discuss on-phone, but there will be a followup e-mail.

Frankly, I can easily memorize and dredge up huge amounts of information, but I still save everything except filler(eg: Basecamp comment notifications) because I do forget or overlook things sometimes. I’m not going to trust the memories of people who have been demonstrably—and sometimes conveniently—forgetful. If that sounds vindictive, it’s because that’s the context in which it’s sometimes had to be used. As with Nick Cowie, my e-mail archives have been directly involved in averting a legal problem.

Steve King 10 Aug 05

It’s a condition that I call “digitism”.

“It’s the bits and bytes corollary of materialism. Digitism is a noun that reflects the desire to increase the amount of electronic possessions, including the transfer of the physical to the digital (e.g., atoms to electrons).”

More here…

Wesley Walser 10 Aug 05

Seemingly appropriate linkage:

In honor of all this I am going to reformat my hard drive.

Shawn Oster 11 Aug 05

Litigation is why we save e-mails. I have had my wrist slapped a few times for deleting conversations when legal wants to know all dates I’ve communicated with a client. Oops. Patent lawyers also get grumpy when you can’t show them that first e-mail with that first spark of an idea internally. Basically all buisness e-mails get saved, personal ones get tossed.

The only other reason to save e-mail is the modern equivalent of love letters. I have some wonder e-mails from my wife that I save and look back on from time to time.

jimbob 11 Aug 05

I’ve got 11, 838 non-spam messages in my inbox. So far, so good.

Bob Aman 11 Aug 05

I think the difference between email and phone messages and why we treat them differently is the “density” of the content. Email is usually much “denser” than a phone conversation, and we know that we’re less likely to absorb the message in its entirety. So we keep the message around, and if we need more of the message to be absorbed, we just go back to the message again.

Justin Lilly 13 Aug 05

What about people who have their messages written down by their secretaries? They don’t file those away. They make their calls and toss the paper.

Adrian 18 Aug 05

“Don’t make me think!”

Choosing to delete something is a positive decision that requires you to make a value judgement based on what may be important _in the future_. It’s hard. Not deleting something is the default. It’s easy.

With tangible artifacts, storage and transfer has real, substantial costs. WIth digital artifacts, the costs are negligible.

Gmail has got it spot on. Search, don’t sort. Keep everything, forever. Clicking “Archive” takes a message out of your current “Inbox” view so you never have to see it again _unless you need it_. Gmail made their software more useful than the competition by using smart defaults. Archive is one cilck, delete is two.

In a dispute between a Gmail user and a Hotmail user, the Gmailer is the one likely to have the documentation. This isn’t a trivial matter of a minor design preference. It’s a fundamental approach to helping people make the best use of IT.

Deleting stuff is so 20th Century. Decisions, decisions. Worries about scarce resources. The price of disk space is already near zero and it halves every year. The expensive and scarce resource is my time and my cognitive load. Don’t make me think. Make it easy for me to do the right thing - by _inaction_, if possible.

The possibility of a single bad decision which could have extreme consequences is enough to justify a Keep Everything policy. And you can’t separate out your business and personal life, unless you never transact important personal business online via email. I do it all the time.

Keep Everything is the aim of Microsoft’s My Life Bits project:


Something that is a great idea in principle, but not something that I’d like MS to be taking care of on my behalf, thank you.

The only really valid counter-argument to Keep Everything is the bad stuff that comes back to haunt you. I believe the common practice is to keep separate email accounts (or even separate computers!) for those purposes, for which a Delete Everything policy applies quite prudently.

Josh 23 Aug 05

I’m in agreement with some other folks here: emails are already in digital format, and they’re easily stored. With free, ultra-fast services like Gmail, which lets you search through all of your mail - why *not* keep it?

It’s not like you’re going to run out of space anytime soon (if ever). So why not keep it? It’s not hurting anything.

I keep any email related to:

* A purchase
* An order of any kind
* My webhosting account (support, etc.)
* Website sign-up emails (with username/passwords)
* Personal emails that have information that may be needed at a later date

How often do I actually go back and use any of it? Very rarely. But, it’s nice that it’s there on the rare occasion that I do need it. And what have I lost in keeping the email? A few megabytes on a free service that gives me 2.5GB of space.

I just don’t see the big deal.

Jim Barnes 11 Sep 05

You can now save your phone calls and your emails - www.springdoo.com. Allows you to send emails in your voice from any phone. Any comments on this “new” communication service?

Somewhat Frank 17 Oct 05

Thanks for pointing me to the Mark Hurst paper on managing email. It has changed the way I handle my email accounts. I feel liberated! Thanks.

sad 21 Jun 06


sad 21 Jun 06


cbf 21 Jun 06


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