I Tried Elizabeth Gilbert’s Surprising Email Hack, And I’m Not OK On a Spiritual Level

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I know of no one in my life who would describe me as a minimalist. One glance at my bedroom would confirm that quite the opposite is true — antique bric-a-brac (and definitely some dust) clutters every conceivable surface, and Leaning Towers of Book Pisas threaten my safety daily. 

This “more is more” approach is one I apply to other areas of my life, as well — including my email inbox. Currently, the email app on my phone will tell you that I have 39,679 unread emails. 

This number is maybe a little misleading — certainly, I don’t have nearly 40,000 important emails that remain unopened. My email app is connected to my work address, yes, but it also encompasses a junk mail account and a personal Gmail that receives its share of junk, too. Still, certain friends of mine will comment on this number in sheer horror. If I know something is junk mail, they say, why don’t I just delete it and keep my inbox at a less anxiety-inducing sum?

The problem is that, for me, losing access to these metaphorical mounds of mail is the greater stressor. What if one of them, disguised under a seemingly benign subject line, is actually telling me I’ve inherited a million dollars from an unknown relative or otherwise contains some life-changing bit of information, and I unwittingly delete it? And that’s not to even mention the fidelity I feel for emails sent from friends or family. As the state of my voicemail box would tell you, I’m not in the game of deleting things that I can assign even a scrap of sentimentality to. I am a hoarder of correspondence, to put it lightly.

Which is why word of author Elizabeth Gilbert’s email hack came as such a shock to my poor, maximalist system. 

In an interview with The Cut this spring, Gilbert (of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame) shared an email tactic she learned while her partner, Rayya, was sick. It has to do with deleting her emails — before she’s opened them.

“When Rayya was sick, I started doing this to treat myself: I just delete some emails without responding. It’s taken me to almost the age of 50 to have the courage to do that. I get a lot of unsolicited emails from friends of friends who are like, 'So-and-so’s my friend and they recommended that I write to you because I’ve got this project, podcast, book, dream, question, vision, something that I want from you.' And I finally learned to just hit delete. I can’t even keep up with emails from the people who are actively in my life, so I’m not going to politely respond to these other ones. Even if it’s a publicity thing or something that could benefit my career, like a speaking engagement — I delete those too. There are channels for those requests and they are all very clearly on my website, and if something is that important to you then you’ll find the right person to talk to about it. I still feel guilty about it, but it allows me to be able to do other things like dance in the morning.”

Upon reading this, I thought to myself: I would like to dance in the morning. I would like to create more space for myself that exists beyond the bounds of obligations and pressures and propriety. Maybe deleting emails I haven’t opened could be a means of achieving some of that space. So, I opened up my personal email account on my phone and…. immediately hit a wall. 

The first email I was poised to theoretically delete was from the Brooklyn Museum, announcing an upcoming exhibit on Studio 54. Something I definitely want to read more about! Not having time to explore that topic at the moment, though, I left it unopened — “for the commute home,” I reasoned. Next up was a back-to-back slate of daily newsletters that I’m subscribed to but never actually read. Wouldn’t it be more productive for me then — more minimalist, even — to unsubscribe from those emails versus deleting them on a continual, piecemeal basis? But since unsubscribing would mean opening, I determined I’d return to those emails later, too. Next up was a coupon from DSW; I wore through the sole of my boots last winter and am really due for another pair, so this is something I should hang onto...

I think you get the gist of how things went from there.

Presumably, Gilbert deletes her unopened emails in great, gleeful bursts, without stopping to carefully weigh the pros and cons of trashing each and every one. Presumably, this is a much more effective approach to take. Definitively, that is not the approach that comes naturally to me, and the alternative deletion method fails to use my time efficiently or generally make me feel very good.

In short, Gilbert's email hack is not for me. If you, like her, are someone who doesn’t assign a great deal of weight and philosophical meaning to the contents of your email inbox, enabling you to keep it a more socially acceptable “score” — more power to ya. But when you accidentally delete the unrecoverable email that contains instructions for claiming your (totally non-scammy) million-dollar fortune, don’t come crying to me.


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