How to Crowdsource and Gamify Your E-mail

Unsubscribe Graffiti[This is a guest post by Jesse Stommel, an assistant professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Liberal Studies and the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also founding director of Hybrid Pedagogy. He is an advocate for lifelong learning and the public digital humanities. He teaches courses about fun stuff like zombies, horror film, American literature, and digital media. Find him online at and follow him on Twitter @Jessifer.--@JBJ]

E-mail has pretty much become the bane of my existence, an enormous and bottomless time sink. At this point, I couldn’t spew enough hatred upon e-mail. At one point in my life, e-mail was my preferred method of communication. Back in 2001, E-mail felt incredibly productive, streamlining countless tasks. My ire for e-mail didn’t begin to rise until around 2008. My rule had always been to process my inbox to 20 or fewer messages, most of which contained important information I needed for some near-future event. Around 2008, that number began to approach 50, and I felt like I was constantly keeping a flood at bay.

The good folks at Profhacker have written extensively on e-mail productivity. Some highlights include: “Mailbox for iOS Offers a New Metaphor for Managing Emails” by Ryan Cordell; “Chasing Inbox Zero” by Anastasia Salter; “Simplifying Email” by Brian Croxall; and “The Zero in Inbox Zero” by Jason B. Jones. I also found the tips in this recent piece from Lifehacker pretty invaluable: “Seven Ways to Manage Email So It Doesn’t Manage You.”

Back in October 2012, I did some textual analysis of my sent e-mail folder, discovering I produced 32,366 words by e-mail during that month, which is the equivalent of 129 double-spaced pages (or an academic book’s worth of words every two months). Meanwhile, the number of e-mails in my inbox had ballooned to 300+. My rule was the same as it had always been: e-mails needing my attention or containing important information for some near-future event would remain in the inbox until handled or no longer needed, but my system was clearly broken.

Around that time, I determined to commit to Inbox Zero and watched all 60 minutes of the Original Inbox Zero Video, which has tons of great tips but is basically e-mail porn for everyone that loves to hate e-mail but is actually secretly infatuated with it. The bad news for me is that much of the Inbox Zero advice felt like it wouldn’t work on an inbox already filled to bursting. I considered transferring everything into a folder, so I could start from scratch with an empty inbox, but that felt horrifying, as though I’d lose the strand on dozens of important tasks and relationships.

So, my compromise was to get my inbox to zero through a long weekend of processing and then join the Inbox Zero club for life. I failed, sputtering out at around 57 e-mails, before my inbox began again almost immediately to explode. I still have a crush on Inbox Zero, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s the e-mail productivity equivalent of yo-yo dieting. As of last night my inbox was back up to 300+ e-mails.

So, on a whim, I devised a new tactic for tackling e-mail:

Step 1: Stare in abject horror at hundreds of e-mails in my inbox needing attention.
Step 2: Type a random word or phrase into the search box in my e-mail reader.
Step 3: Deal with all the e-mails returned by that search.
Step 4: Repeat with a new term.

I wasn’t sure what I had to do the next day, so I started with the search term, “Wednesday.” I processed all the e-mail to zero and managed to figure out what I had to do the next day in the process. Then, just for fun, I did “Thursday” before moving on to more topical queries. I announced my new game on Facebook and Twitter and folks began to join in the fun by throwing queries my way like “budget,” “legislature,” “DH,” and “zombie”. My personal favorite was “pudding,” which unfortunately returned zero results, until Jonathan Senchyne swooped in to fix that problem by sending me an e-mail containing the single word “pudding.”

“Fast” and “urgent” proved to be useful searches, but the highlight was an amazing suggestion by the inimitable Fiona Barnett to search the word “unsubscribe,” unsubscribe from all the results, and delete the e-mails. (One note of warning here: sometimes the “unsubscribe” button is actually a phishing scam.) That alone eliminated about 40 e-mails in one clean sweep. I had officially crowdsourced the expediting of my e-mail and managed to process over 200 e-mails in a single evening. One step closer to Inbox Zero.

What about you? Any e-mail gamification strategies to share? Other ways to rethink e-mailing as a more collaborative and/or crowdsourced endeavor?

Photo “Unsubscribe Graffiti” by Flickr user incurable_hippie / Creative Commons licensed BY-NC-2.0

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