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Email: Save Everything So You Can Delete More

One of my recommendations for managing email sounds very counter-intuitive. In fact, you may think I’m completely nuts – yet it’s fundamental to my approach to an empty inbox.

I was able to do an analysis of my incoming email – which accompanies this article – because I save all my mail.

I save all my mail.

I have every piece of mail my wife and I received last year. Every bit of spam, every virus, every incoming message, no matter how important, annoying, or trivial.

That seems like the exact opposite of what most people want: less mail, not more, right?

I do it because it’s incredibly liberating.

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Fear of loss

One of the reasons so many people have a difficult time dealing with email is that they’re afraid to take action. They’re afraid to delete an email or turn up the dial on their spam filter.

Why? Because they might miss something. Because they might need it later.

Email, once deleted, is gone. Poof. So long. What if that high-priority message with key information and data got spam-filtered? What if it got deleted? Poof. So long.

Not if you save a copy first!

How I save everything

When email to one of my email addresses – say leo<at>askleo.com – arrives, it is automatically archived immediately.1 That copy is not processed, it’s not spam filtered, it’s not affected by anything else. It simply accumulates on my server.

Much EmailI don’t download it into any email program at all. I download the archive of accumulated mail once a month, freeing up space on my server.

Aside from the archive, then, my email is handled normally. In my case, since I currently use Gmail to manage email, it’s picked up by my Gmail account, where it gets filtered for spam, read, saved, or discarded as I see fit.

I’ll examine how you can do something like this in a moment.

So, what does this all buy me?

That’s a lot of email

Before discussing the techniques I use to manage it all, I thought a snapshot of a year’s worth of email might be interesting.

Last year (2016), my wife and I received 50 gigabytes of email in nearly 780,000 email messages.2

This includes all personal mail, business mail, Ask Leo! mail, mailing lists, requested commercial mail, and, of course, spam for both my wife and myself. I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis, but from watching raw numbers in my spam folders, I estimate at least 75% of the email directed at us is spam of some sort.

No wonder we’re overwhelmed. The email beast we’re trying to tame is gigantic.

Freedom!

Freedom to delete. Freedom from worry.

I never lose anything. I never lose a piece of incoming email. If it makes it to my mail server, I have it and I can find it. Period.

That means I can be freer with my Delete key, and I worry a lot less about something accidentally getting filtered out as spam.

Doing this has saved my … assets … more than a time or two. For example, when my wife was expecting an important email from a business associate which they said they sent but she never got, it was there, in that pre-filtered “archive of everything”.

The Catch

Yes, there’s a catch. It’s not a perfect system.

You’ll note that my wife was expecting that email, and knew that it hadn’t arrived. It’s hard to miss something you’re not expecting. Your long-lost relative sends you an email out of the blue, and perhaps because they’re telling you about their new job working on “performance enhancing” medications, their mail gets filtered.

You have it in your pre-filtered archives; you just don’t know you have it.

The fact is, false positives are an ugly side effect of any spam filtering solution. Legitimate mail will occasionally be filtered. Even if the filter is you, doing it manually, you’ll trip up too.

But the archive means that no matter what, you’ll have the email.

When you finally find out your rich uncle has been mailing you about your position in his will, you’ll be able to go back to that archive and dig out all the details (and hopefully return to his good graces).

How?

OK, you’re convinced, and you want to set up your own pre-filtering archive. How do you do it?

Well, the 0.01% of you who run your own mail server, like I do, probably already know enough about what I’ve described to run off and do it. Have at it.3

For “real” people, it gets more complicated, and to be completely honest, it’s not likely you can get 100%.

But you can get close – very close, as a matter of fact – with one simple rule:

Always archive, never delete.

By that, I mean when you’re ready to “get rid” of an email because you think you’re done with it or don’t need it any longer, hit the Archive button in your email program or interface instead of Delete. Archive saves everything, out of sight. Delete? Well, as we saw… *poof*, gone.

Nope, that doesn’t save email miscategorized as spam. You’d need a solution that gets in front of the spam filter for that.4

As long as it’s out of sight, does it matter if it’s still on your hard disk or mail service?

Not at all.

Why close is pretty darned good

The issue with “always archive, never delete” is spam. You’d have to disable your spam filter in order to see every single email so you could archive every single email. I don’t recommend it, simply because there’s so much spam.

Besides, this was never really about spam anyway.

This was always about making you more comfortable moving legitimate email out of your inbox.

Let’s look at the problem we just solved.

Caveat: legal implications

Before you start saving everything forever, discuss this with your attorney, particularly if you’re running a business or working for someone. There’s an interesting concept called a “retention policy” that should be adhered to. As its name implies, it’s a policy for how long email should be kept.

I’m told it’s important in business to both set and follow such a policy. A good tech-savvy attorney will know what’s appropriate for your situation.

Your inbox is not a filing cabinet

Most people use their inboxes for several things:

  • A place to find new messages that have arrived
  • A place to keep messages they need to act on later
  • A place to keep messages they might want later
  • A place to keep messages they don’t want to lose because … well … they might want those later, too

Anything that starts with “a place to keep …”  is a misuse of your inbox, and can lead to anxiety and even productivity loss. Why? Because the inbox keeps getting bigger and bigger and BIGGER. And since it mostly represents a collection of things we need to do something with “later” it turns into a huge visual representation of “stuff I gotta deal with someday”.

Whether or not you really do.

What I discovered after I stopped deleting

So I set up this system (originally much more elaborate than described here), and went nuts. I deleted and archived and got myself to inbox-zero within a few days.

What I discovered is that I rarely needed the archives.

All those emails I’d been hanging onto for “someday”? Someday never came.

The problem, of course, is that I couldn’t tell you as each email arrived whether or not I’d need it someday or not, so, like most people, I’d save anything remotely important in my inbox, or take the time to move it to a folder.

With an archive of everything, I didn’t have to worry. I could keep a clean slate by liberally archiving and deleting, while knowing that should I need something – anything – I’d be able to find it again.

That, my friends, is peace of mind.

And an inbox that’s regularly empty.

The cost

There’s one aspect of all this I need to touch on, and that’s disk space.

Last year, I archived over four and a half gigabytes of email.

Now, disk space is cheap – if it’s yours. I absolutely recommend you download your archives to your own hard disks and backups. Disk space is cheap – cheaper, I’ll wager, than losing important email.

But, depending on how you set this system up, make sure you don’t exceed your ISP’s limits. If you will, make sure you download that archive every so often (I like once a month) and keep it someplace safe.

I think you’ll find that, regardless of how lax or tight your spam filter, you’ll sleep better knowing your assets are covered.

Podcast audio

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The “Taming Email” series of articles is based on a project I originally started back in 2006. Now, well over a decade later, the topic is still critically relevant, particularly in the workplace.

Footnotes & references

1: Advanced: my servers run cPanel – a common server management interface. In addition to an email account – leo-at-askleo.com – there’s an email alias for leo-at-askleo.com as well. Messages are sent to both. The alias actually routes the message to a program which appends the email message to a running log. I then archive that log once a month, and collect the monthly archives each year.

2: Over a ten-fold increase from 2005, when I last did this summary. The size growth doesn’t surprise me, but I would have expected the number of messages to be higher.

3: However, if you do have your own domain and it’s hosted somewhere, chances are you have access to the same cPanel-like tools I mention above.

4: Since there are so many different email interfaces and delivery mechanisms, telling you how for every system is well beyond the scope of what I can provide.

15 comments on “Email: Save Everything So You Can Delete More”

  1. Hi Leo,

    While I agree with the concept, I find keeping it forever is a bit “over the top”
    I keep a very clean inbox, and send my read emails to either my deleted folder, or one of a few “keep for later” folders.
    Then once a month I get a calendar reminder, and I delete everything that’s over 13 months old – trash/spam/sent/keep.
    I figure if I haven’t done something about an email for 13 months, then there’s a pretty good chance I don’t need it.

    Thanks for continuing to publish your articles.

    Joe

    • They know my financial state after 20 years, and unfortunately the poor princess passed away in the Ebola pandemic 🙁

  2. I use a different system but I have saved all my (non spam) email since 2002. I almost never use the backed up email but only a couple of times, it has really saved my butt.

  3. I agree Leo, I too save all of my emails (well most of them) and my PST file is located in an area of my PC that I backup regularly (rather than its default location. I just checked and realised that I have all emails since 2004 (13 years worth). During that time I have changed ISPs 2 or 3 times and also changed email providers 3 or 4 times, but I still have all of my emails.

    I also backup my outlook.ost file as well as I’ve found it a nuisance when I’ve lost that one before. That’s the file everyone seems to miss when they migrate to a new PC.

    I must admit that from time to time, I sometimes run through some of the really old emails and cull them just to stop my PST file getting too enormous.

  4. I am a novice and I have no idea what you are talking about and I want to keep it that way at least until I do learn what it is you are talking about and how to do it.

    • Agreed. I too am a novice and don’t understand, so will keep a ‘heavy’ Inbox until i know what to do properly, rather than screw up !

      Keith (England)

  5. I agree absolutely with the philosophy of saving everything (although I confess to deleting some really pointless stuff) and, like Leo, find I rarely need what I’ve saved but am so happy to be able to find it when I do. I don’t handle enormous quantities of mail but have a PST file of 1.6 GB going back to 2003 – I used to file stuff in loads of sub folders in the PST but now do no more than have sub folders for each year (eg Filed Mail 2016) as it’s not difficult to search with Windows 7. I also get all my mail delivered to three Gmail accounts and all mail there is set to archive a copy when downloaded to Outlook. So I’ve yet another backup………

  6. Like Leo, I used Gmail for a spam filter. Most of my devices use and IMAP connection to read email (like my phone and laptop). But on my main computer, I use POP3 which downloads a copy of my incoming mail to my computer. I use Outlook’s archiving facilities there to keep an archive of emails and calendar events. This archive is on my hard drive and gets backed up when I do a system backup. But I have set the gmail servers to keep all email, except spam, so I have a backup there that has my emails back to 2007. I’m going to run a bit low on space soon and may need to start removing the oldest emails, or perhaps buy more storage. I don’t get as many important emails as I used to, so glancing through my gmail spam folder once it a while suffices. I hardly ever have false positives.

    By the way, I don’t need to go to the gmail site to check my spam. On my Windows 10 mail, which runs imap, I have access to the spam folder just like a do the inbox.

  7. Over 70% of my emails are either for eBay searches that are completely irrelevant in a short period of time (and I place the things I am interested in on watch), or board threads I watch that I can reference through my profile on those sites. SPAM is deleted after blacklisting and occasionally asking the actual person supposedly represented if it’s legitimate or not.

    What is left, private message notifications and forums related actions, personal and business mail are placed into folders and subfolders. My retention has been fairly excellent over several years and I also do cull messages that have no intrinsic/sentimental value anymore as I see fit.

    The total number of archived mails is not as large as one would believe, and then again I have the ability on some forums platforms to export my message to text, csv and other files, meaning that I have triple redundancy, including the messages on the forums site.

    Got it covered for now.

  8. With G mail and my sever TWC I have not found a way to remove mail from the server to a file on my PC other than copying and pasting it to notebook and save that. I would like to move it from the server to a removable disk.

  9. I needed to read this article a few times to understand how it can help me as I currently save all my “will be needed again” emails in different folders in my “in box”, and I cannot, right now, see me changing that as it works for me.

    However, I definitely will be using archive instead of delete for the messages I don’t think I want to keep. I have accidentally permanently lost a few messages because my email provider requires two clicks to move a message to “trash” but only one to empty the “trash” folder, and too late I see something go “poof” that should not have been in “trash”.

    This is an excellent article, Leo, that caused me to think carefully about how I treat my e-mail.

  10. Sound advice, as always, Leo.
    The simple fact is that you never know when you might need to look back, perhaps many years, to find the important detail of something you knew you received. This happens to me all the time and, believe me, at 73 years young, my memory is not what is used to be.
    In the 90s, I registered a domain and subscribed to MS Outlook as soon as it emerged and have used it consistently ever since. The “PST” used to be a problem due to filesize limitation but with the advent of the later “OST” and Office 365, size is no longer a problem.
    I keep everything which is simulataneously forwarded from my e-mai hosting server to a Gmail account as a back-up.

  11. After reading your article, I took your advice. First off, Wow, what a great feeling to open my email in the morning and have only the last 24 hours worth facing me. I can make pretty (well, maybe relatively) quick work of that. I am sure I will get even better at this approach with time. My slight modification is that I do delete spam and some advertising without archiving. Thanks for the suggestion.

  12. I do something kind of like your archive strategy, except I don’t use the “archive” feature in Outlook. When I have an e-mail I want ot save, I do a “save as,” name it with a clear name and save it in a folder called “E-mails” which is in my “My Documents” folder. I then back up that “E-mails” folder to my thumb drive.

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