We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Stop deleting your email

When talking about email, I hear anecdotes from people using the “delete” key to progress through reading their inbox.  Presumably, this instructs their mail reader to delete the messages.  Permanently.  It makes me shiver each time I hear it.

Why on earth would someone do this?

An email that you have processed (read or replied to) isn’t trash.  It is reference material.  It is history.  It is information which has been (in part) absorbed by your brain, and at least seemed important enough that you looked at it in the first place.  Unlike many other forms of person-to-person communication we receive and process on a daily basis, it is digital.  This means that it can be copied and stored forever without losing any information.

I’ve been saving virtually every (legitimate) email that I receive for some years now.  When I’ve finished with a message, mutt automatically saves it to an archival folder without me having to do anything.  It’s actually less work than deleting it (which requires a keypress).  I only delete spam and other content which is truly useless to me.  This adds up to under a gigabyte of storage per year.  A few dollars worth of hard drive space is sufficient to hold all of it.

Every day, I refer back to messages I’ve read.  I refer to more recent messages more frequently, but go back three months or more on a regular basis, to refresh my memory, to pick up on an old topic, or to provide context to someone who is joining a discussion.  It is bewildering to me that this information is thrown away by so many people.

I also don’t ever have to decide whether something is worth saving or not, and this helps me process email faster.  I can relax, knowing that I can always find it again if I need it.

So, why do you delete your email?  Is this a by-product of using your inbox for archival, where anything which might be useful stays there forever?  Is it just the simplest way to put the information aside when it no longer seems important at the moment?  Do any modern mail readers lack the capability to archive messages for you?  Do they not make it easy enough?  Is it a habit which transferred from paper mail, where storing it is impractical for most people?


Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 27, 2009 at 11:00

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

34 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I’ve made great use of the new Archive feature in Thunderbird 3 of late. It only got the new super index and search capabilities the other day though, so I need to rebuild it today to find my archived e-mails properly again.

    Andreas Nilsson

    June 27, 2009 at 11:27

  2. I could not agree more. I never know when I will need to refer back to an old message. Archiving is one of the features that I really like about Gmail (not that it’s the only one to do so), and the main reason I keep using it.


    June 27, 2009 at 12:05

  3. I definitely agree. I had my first internet access in early 1995, and I still keep e-mail I got since then. Those mails are part of my personal history, I couldn’t even think to delete them.

    Andrea Colangelo

    June 27, 2009 at 12:14

  4. I believe that gmail this feature, but unfortunately I have not gotten it to work in thunderbird (2.0) yet.

    @Andreas, does thunderbird 3 allow archiving over IMAP?


    June 27, 2009 at 12:20

  5. When I get e-mail from human I never delete it. But I recieve dozens of email some of email verifications, reg success letters, reply notifications and so on? What’s the point of keeping them in your inbox?

    Yuriy Voziy

    June 27, 2009 at 12:34

  6. One of the few reasons pro-delete would be paranoia, i.e that the e-mail would be gone and if you ever lose your laptop the finder cannot read your personal e-mail.


    June 27, 2009 at 13:17

  7. There are some ‘legitimate’ reasons I’ve heard for deleting e-mail rather than archiving it. If you delete e-mail, it can not be subpoenaed in a legal case, but if you don’t habitually delete e-mail once read and processed, the very act of deleting the e-mail becomes suspicious behavior.

    That said, different people have different policies and I certainly am not in the habit of deleting my e-mail. I use g-mail, and actually very much love the fact that all of the messages in a topic are presented in a variation of a threaded stack. It could stand a bit of improvement in diverging threads, but over all I’m happy there.

    Outlook on the other hand bugs me to no end. Yes it will ‘Archive’ your e-mail for you. Good luck ever finding a message it has archived though. As a result I have to manually tell Outlook not to archive my e-mail every time someone else at work has used my machine (seems to reset outlook to some stupid default of asking if I want it to archive older messages) and I got into the practice of moving all read messages into a .pst file on my desktop that google desktop indexes for me. It’s not a perfect solution, but considering it’s work, it will do for now.


    June 27, 2009 at 13:20

  8. […] deleting your email – http://bit.ly/b7uS7 interesting meditation on the value of keeping read messages […]

  9. I used to delete until gmail came out now I just archive. I also auto-archive most mailing lists as well so I can have them handy as reference material. In mutt I have a key that moves the mail to the proper archive folder where gmail puts all the archives.


    June 27, 2009 at 14:19

  10. This is one of the killer features of GMail for me, three-state messages: inbox unread, inbox read, archive. Archive makes them invisible-but-searchable.

    Also, the search is good enough that I put notes to myself in an email just so I can search GMail for them.

    David Gerard

    June 27, 2009 at 14:29

  11. Yes – interesting post.

    I never delete e-mail. I have no spam filters and very few automated scripts. I delete obvious spam – as I go through my inbox – but I don’t worry if I miss a few. I never delete messages I have sent.

    Every six months, or so, depending, I move all messages older than six months to a seperate folder on my mac identified by year. I use the search facilities built into the Mac to find stuff. Spotlight is excellent.

    An advantage of this is that I automatically preserve all attachments in the form they were originally sent to me. All this stuff is backed up obviously.

    Interestingly, colleagues who know who I operate often phone up saying something like “I sent you a document last year I think about X when we were working on Project Y, can’t find the original you can’t track it down for me can you?”

    it seems to me that by deleting everything we risk losing valuable insights – in the past, we looked at authors’ MS – often hand-edited even if typed-up. Given that documents are often sent round by e-mail during the creation process – undeleted attachments will become more valuable.

    I have gigabytes and gigabytes of e-mail stored. And more often than you careful deleters might think it becomes useful reference material.

    Thoughtful and interesting initial post – thank you.


    Brian Condon

    June 27, 2009 at 15:46

    • Very interesting, since I use both methods of dealing with e-mail in different contexts.

      At home, all personal email is kept forever, unless it is spam or stuff that I really, truly couldn’t care less about… I guess this is made especially efficient by Gmail with the archive feature, and above all: *labels* instead of folders.

      Conversely, at work, I delete everything that has been read and “dealt with” in some way. Once it’s read, just information and I don’t need to act on it– it gets deleted. If it’s something that I need to do, I do it right away and delete so I don’t need to think about it again.. Or I may choose to delegate and forward to somebody else, then again, it’s deletion time. I’m guessing it’s become a habit from a suggestion from a pretty good book: Time Management for System Administrators (O’Reilly), talking about efficiency in e-mail, and reducing time spent on filing e-mail in their proper folders.

      On some aspect, especially in my case where I use linux, but am still forced to use Outlook for work email, my take is that it makes sense. Outlook uses folders instead of labels. Stuff archived gets archived far, in separate files that aren’t always easy to deal with, as keeping them always “open” slows down Outlook.. I admit I’ve had to ask for someone who archived everything to get back an email for me once or twice, but it’s generally pretty rare, and that also does seem to take time :)

      That said, I wish I could use labels and all-archiving everywhere. I just can’t.

      Matt Trudel

      June 27, 2009 at 16:02

  12. I’m a ruthless deleter. I delete almost all mailing list emails at some point because I figure I can always use gmane or similar to search for email I want later. I’ve been doing Ubuntu/FLOSS stuff for almost 5 years now and I have a total of 270 MB worth of email between my 2 Gmail accounts.

    I guess for me it comes down to the feeling of clutter. I use a lot of filters and tags and I hate seeing a lot of junk just sitting around. I try to make sure than there aren’t emails without a label. Maybe I’m a little OCD about it.


    June 27, 2009 at 16:22

  13. “Why on earth would someone do this?”

    as a random act of kindness.

    “An email that you have processed (read or replied to) isn’t trash. It is reference material. It is history. It is information which has been (in part) absorbed by your brain, and was at least seemed important enough that you looked at it in the first place. Unlike many other forms of person-to-person communication we receive and process on a daily basis, it is digital. This means that it can be copied and stored forever without losing any information.”

    until an action is taken you are either in a state of procrastination, or no action is required. if no action is required you delete. if you act then this is recorded as comments or code or memo-to-self or (ughhh) yet another email.

    eventually you should “clear the table” – communication is about exploring ideas and ideas are transient. preserving one form of a thought process at the exclusion of other inputs creates an unnatural bias from an historical perspective.


    June 27, 2009 at 18:21

  14. It’s because mail clients “for normal people” suck, if you want to view or search 10000+ mails. Gmail is now providing people with a working search, for example my gf does not delete mail at all from her gmail inbox.


    June 27, 2009 at 19:27

    • Thunderbird has no problem searching through the body text of my folder of 20K messages, or even all of my folders (35K?ish)

      So, I don’t know what your definition of “sucking” is, but I certainly don’t have that problem.


      June 27, 2009 at 23:37

      • You are probably using pop3..? Basically, when you use IMAP, full message body search does not really work 100% (even when I sync whole folder to disk), so you are forced to use “Search To:” or “Search subject:”. It’s also very slow, gmail is instant. Really, it’s not worth talking about it, it’s blindingly obvious.


        June 28, 2009 at 11:47

  15. I delete spam, low priority mailing list messages over 3 weeks and launchpad and other automated messages (which should eventually find their way to notifier or something in future)


    June 27, 2009 at 19:33

  16. I auto archive serverside by using Maildir and a nightly cronjob. This means that mail only stays in the top level folders for a maximum of 7 days, read or not.

    I have mail dating back to around 1997-1998, although archived offline. I also cannot understand why people delete email. :S


    June 27, 2009 at 21:33

  17. I don’t delete email, although most of it gets archived off my laptop. Aside from the reasons already mentioned: disliking disk ‘clutter’, legal precautions, I think other people have been trained to delete by web mail clients prior to Gmail, when they had such low disk quotas.


    June 28, 2009 at 01:12

  18. I delete all my mailing lists except recent ‘flagged’ threads that I might need to watch. Google is my friend for searching mailing lists.

    What kind of archival do you all use? A single archival folder or split by month/year/sender?

    Amit Kucheria

    June 28, 2009 at 12:59

  19. I have this argument with Corinna often. She deletes almost all her mail, and several times it has come back to bite her in the ass. She’s a Gmail user who isn’t anywhere even close to her quota, so I simply don’t understand why she doesn’t just hit ‘Archive’ as opposed to ‘Delete’. She’s even a librarian, so you’d think she’d be all about preserving that information, but no. For some reason she considers it ‘messy’ to keep all that ‘clutter’ around…

    I have an archive going back to some of my first email in ’94. I wasn’t as diligent when I started, but I have pretty much everything saved since I started at RIT in ’97 (save for a few black holes where I wasn’t good with my backup policies and lost a drive). And as silly as some may think to keep messages from 15 years ago around, they have actually come in handy on several occasions. Sometimes, it’s just to fill in holes in my memory for casual purposes.. But recently some mail from 5 years ago came in very handy in a lawsuit…

    As you say, with storage cheap, in my opinion it’s easier to archive everything as opposed to making some kind of value judgement about what messages are worth saving..

    Sean Graham

    June 28, 2009 at 15:21

  20. No delete? Seriously? So you’ll refer back to that mail you received from the public library that your held item is now available? You’ll cherish the responses from the blog posting you responded to about how wrong the original poster was? You’ll keep in perpetuity all of the missives from your family telling you about the impending 2012 apocalypse?

    Please don’t advocate not deleting things. Keep those things that are important (the first note you sent your girlfriend / wife, the bills from AT&T, the receipts for purchases, the interesting discussions) but let the chaff be threshed out with the delete key. Chances are you’ll amass enough cruft someday that you’ll want to obliterate it all anyway.

    Craig Maloney

    June 28, 2009 at 18:38

  21. My philosophy on this is that I delete anything that is better archived elsewhere. Things like mailing lists get the delete key if they’re archived on the net somewhere. All mail that I send, or that has my e-mail address in the header gets saved. I figure that’s part of MY personal history, while most of the other stuff is the environment that I exist in.

    Ted Gould

    June 28, 2009 at 23:43

  22. my mailbox(s) are full filled by silly mlm & other spams i never need to read or store.
    As our great mailers are so stupid (Evolution for example): no blacklists or clever filters, i ask you on wich planet do you live (kiddy funky genius student yard)


    June 29, 2009 at 06:45

  23. @DarwinSurvivor: as far as I can tell, it does (I use IMAP myself).

    Andreas Nilsson

    June 29, 2009 at 11:16

  24. I still delete most mails and have NERVER felt like “damn, would i have saved that mail”. Actually i try to keep the inbox with 6 months old though.


    June 30, 2009 at 12:50

  25. I like Ted’s approach to get rid of anything that is better archived elsewhere.
    Exceptions are things I’ve worked on.

    On the other hand I tend to delete things like ‘confirm your account link’, XYZ has added you to your contact list and all the other notifications which are of a informative character and not a conversation.

    I quite a few filter rules in Evolution, fetch my mail with POP and archive all in gmail as well.

    In Evolution I have archive folders and other subfolders. I try to keep the inbox clean in a GTD way.


    June 30, 2009 at 12:51

  26. I do delete not personal mails after reading. Newsletters etc. are not interesting afterwards. They are on the internets if I need to get back to it again.

    The big reason is I want my inbox to be clean. If I search my archives because I look for something, I don’t want to need to search through gigs and gigs of junk. Because unnecessary mails are just that for me.
    Done is done, I don’t care about passed events and writings that are online anyway (that is, not personal for me).

    This is my thought, but of course I can see your point aswell.

    I wouldn’t want to use desktop search on your computer either :) I can imagine the huge list which would not be useful at all…



    July 1, 2009 at 12:02

    • I want my inbox to be clean as well (it was empty when I finished work yesterday). My post was about getting things out of one’s inbox into archival, rather than deleting it. Both approaches keep the inbox clear, but one of them throws away data while the other doesn’t.

      In terms of search, it turns out (for me) that sorting by date (newest to oldest) gives pretty good results.


      July 1, 2009 at 12:08

      • By inbox I actually meant inbox + archive. The place where I search for something in case I know it should be there.

        But then again, I’m not an email centered person like some (you) are. Even if I do mail, I do it mostly in IM style.


        July 1, 2009 at 13:29

        • Heh, I feel so totally 2005 for using email ;-)


          July 1, 2009 at 13:42

  27. Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post!

    I’m a packrat, so I tend to keep anything other than spam or things that I consider to be insignificant. My setup:

    The inbox is for mail that just came in and for mail that needs my attention in some way, so there’s usually one or two things hanging around in it. I color code the headers so that I can tell at a glance what needs to be done with any messages in there.

    I’ve created a series of folders like Miscellaneous, People, Work, etc. for archiving mail into. Each of these has sub-folders for more specific filing. The Miscellaneous category contains things like newsletters, mails that I haven’t figured out a category for, and anything I’m a member of (like forums or Launchpad or whatever).

    Anything that can be filed elsewhere (like in a note keeper or as part of a project relating to the contents of the email) gets moved as soon as possible. Once it’s moved, the email is deleted.

    I don’t trust a spam filter to do the cleaning for me, so I quickly go through headers and mark messages for removal, checking the contents of the one or two I’m unsure of first. If you do this regularly, you get pretty good at spotting the trash. (:

    One thing I do that you don’t mention doing is that I sometimes peruse my archives to weed out things I archived with the thought that they might come in handy some day, only to realize later that I really won’t need them. It’s kind of similar to how we keep clothing or personal items, and every so often we take stock of what we own and get rid of some of it, because we realize we’ll never use it.

    The variety of responses you’ve gotten on this are wonderful. I always enjoy finding out how and why others do things. (:

    Little Girl

    July 19, 2009 at 05:31

  28. People use emails for different purposes. But using one mail account is the cause i believe they delete their emails. If you use 2 emails there’s no harm but you can keep your personal and work life different. Also, the spams are main cause of this deleting mentality. Nowadays not so many emails are good enough to read thoroughly.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: