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The Case For Inbox Infinity
Or: How Fantasy Football taught me not to do virtual paperwork
Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.
One thing I plan to do on occasion is turn this newsletter over to people whose writing or ideas I love (or to voices you may be unfamiliar with). My first guest blogger is the great Spencer Hall. I asked Spencer for a short bio and he provided the following: “I write about sports and people who crush houses with trees.”
If that’s not enough for you, here’s my attempt: Spencer is a genius and one of my favorite word writers on the internet. He’s a master of the blog form and started the delightful and beloved college football site, Every Day Should Be Saturday, which moved to SB Nation in 2010. More recently, helped launch Banner Society, a separate college football site for SB Nation. He's a co-host on the Shutdown Fullcast podcast. He writes westerns about college football. He’s been on Sportscenter a bunch. He’s very good at Twitter. He’s one of the most creative and original voices out there. I’m thrilled to have him write a 100% smart and correct manifesto about email.
I haven’t played fantasy football for over a decade now. I don’t know if you can say that I ever really did, truthfully. Fantasy football is basically a stock market simulator that subs football production for stock prices. Getting results means both selecting a roster and then managing a roster, preferably weekly based on upcoming real life matchups and expected outcomes.
That first part was a delight. Who doesn’t want to demonstrate the ability to prospect and scout (particularly when the clod you might be facing doesn’t even know the name of the brilliant rookie receiver out of Boise State you picked up for a song, but will ride to forty points and a win thanks to superior understanding of the football universe)? Part one made me feel very smart, and required no maintenance whatsoever.
With part two — managing and tallying and projecting — I was destined to fail. Lineups required shuffling, and the dreaded act of planning I couldn’t and still can’t do for more than three elements of my life. It felt like work. It felt like the worst parts of work: mindless, procedural mining that is better left to algorithms or to the kinds of people who keep their cars abnormally clean all the time.
After two weeks in a season, I’d never touch the lineups again. This made me a bad league member, but also a valuable asset. “Playing you was like having a bye,” I was told (proving that bad actors in a collective can sometimes still have great utility for the whole). For a while, this made me feel bad about not being a fantasy football. But then I realized something I hope I can teach you today — the same invaluable lesson fantasy football taught me about everything on this here internet. Here goes:
You don’t have to do fake digital paperwork for fun. You certainly don’t have to do it in the form of keeping your inbox at a meaningless ‘zero.’
My argument for Inbox Infinity is as follows:
1. The only asset is time. It’s limited, and frankly I think it’s yours to waste as you like. If you get a visceral, real pleasure from sorting email and watching all the little columns of your imaginary palace of the spotless mind click together, stop reading right now and go do that. Pleasure is fleeting, and I want you to go have it while you can.
Otherwise, I am going to assume you want to spend your time wisely.
(Aside #1: I did not say “spend your time usefully” or “impactfully.” “Use” implies a utilitarian mindset that rewards commodifying your every waking second, which I am against. “Impactfully” is one of the stupidest words every coined. I’d run this shambling zombie shard of management speak over with an F-150 King Ranch if I could and I would meticulously plan this road rage using all the time I saved never sorting a single email.)
I want you to have as much waste-able time possible, that’s all. I’m talking about time you could spend reading and paying to subscribe to quality Substack newsletters like this one. Or fishing, or watching professional wrestling while drinking. Or all of the above at once.
2. We are all swamped by a sea of online poop.
Flaubert once wrote the following:
'I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.'
(Aside #2: It’s important to note that Flaubert would have been intolerable in the internet age. He’d be intolerable with his parrot memes. He’d try to write perfect tweets, and then get mad about the lack of an edit button. He’d have deeply problematic opinions about many things, be rightly slammed for all of them, and then retreat to his mom’s house to complain about being cancelled, all while complaining about his mistress to his girlfriend. Just an absolutely exhausting man in any age.)
But as an even slightly online person, he’s handy for an extension of the metaphor, here. You’re awash in a tidal wave of virtual shit, all the time. There’s email, and notifications from apps, and important updates, and enough signaling to make even a rudimentary user’s day look like a constant emergency.
It’s a lot of seemingly important stimuli. But, truthfully, 95% of the incoming that rattles your phone each day can be classified as gamified non-events. Or worse, they’re ads disguised as events that are constructed to keep you feeding some little Tamagotchi of an app with your precious attention all day. For example, Venmo doesn’t need to let you know about its credit card offer with a home screen ping immediately, or ever. And yet there it is: A greedy little red dot demanding attention, lined up with all the other little red dots, pings, and pleas for attention.
No single app is worse about this than email. Email is the worst for a lot of reasons, but for my purposes here I’ll focus on its halo of authenticity and importance. Emails could, in theory, be from a someone about something. At one point, way back in email’s glory days they were, from a real human and about real things, even if that something was about a Usenet D&D group.
But at this point in history, a personal email inbox is essentially an ad server that is occasionally interrupted by chippy emails from older relatives too techphobic to use Facebook. Work email isn’t much better. Actually, it’s much worse ,because unlike your personal email account, it is not advisable to ghost people you’re paid to interact with professionally.1
For now, we’re stuck with email. You have to use it. But it does not have to use you. Here’s how:
Use email the way that your boss uses email: Do not file, organize, or tag anything. Not one damn thing.
The person in charge of your work at the highest level uses Gmail’s search function for everything. I repeat: For everything. When they catch up on emails, they answer what they need to answer. They disregard the “unread” numbers, and go on with their lives of actually doing things.
That’s it. There’s a time pressure here, sure, but the CEOs I know (hey, shut up, I know like two of them, and they happily snitch on every other CEO and executive they know about their wildly effective and seemingly inefficient habits) use Gmail’s search function as their home filing system.
(Editor’s Note: This is actually the entire reason that a Google engineer created Gmail in 2004. The idea was that people were getting too much email; inboxes were unwieldy and the way to tame them and get our lives back was to give people a really good search function and tons of storage space to keep everything. By the transitive property, this means Spencer is now the co-creator of Gmail. Carry on.)
Which makes sense! If every major email service has a search function and archive, then anything past that is fake hustle. That’s what people in charge do, anyway, organized competent people who run things and do what almost all of us do anyway with technology: Use just enough of it to live and work a little better, and not a step more past that.
This requires actually checking and reading emails, yes. But even if you’ve done what the rest of us do with emails — sign up for things we will never buy, services we will never use (except for this newsletter), and newspaper sites we will avoid paying for as long as possible by using three browsers and incognito mode — then you’ll know what to read, and what not to read.
But what about all that other email that is sitting there?
Everything else is just fake work. All of it. Stop doing it. I know it will be hard. For some, email feels curiously real — much more real than DMs or Slack messages. It’s got the word “mail” right in there, and that’s a hard piece of semantic linkage to break in the mind.
But then again: I’m the sort of person who makes a point to not even read junk mail in my actual mailbox. Not a scan, and then a casual glance, no: I mean a straight-up intentional blanking, right out of my universe and into the garbage, because really, Bath and Body Works, how dare you send me this huge free piece of trash covered with information about things I won’t buy and don’t need. I didn’t ask for this thing sent by no one and made for no one to come to my house.
With email, ignoring all the junk should be even easier. The numbers in your inbox are fake, especially that elusive zero of ‘inbox zero.’ Remember this: With an infinite number of emails and virtually infinite space to store them in, there is no real difference between zero, 100, or 100 million. It’s like the cosmos: think to hard about the size of the galaxy and your brain will begin to liquify at the realization of how tiny you are in relation to the glorious expanse of space.
That zero you are constantly fighting for is a lie. It’s a little spot on an endless slider extending forwards and backwards in either direction, and whether or not you pointlessly drag that slider to zero, there are another 100 million mostly irrelevant emails on the way to your inbox. Pick what you need out of the stream. Then...let it go, and watch that inbox climb.
Important objection from a person I just made up: But why not mark them as ‘read?’
That would undermine the whole point of the exercise. What you need to take away from this essay is that all of these numbers are made up. It’s one thing to hide from them, yes. But it’s far more enlightened to live with them and remember how pointless they are, and what constant vigilance is required to protect the time you have.
Marking them ‘read’ is just booking a future appointment to mark them ‘read’ again. It is a lie told against the lie of most of your inbox having any meaning at all. Who read those ‘marked as read’ emails? Not you. You hit a button to make yourself feel better.
Now, I can’t sit here and tell you not to tell little lies to a computer to feel better. But I sure as hell won’t tell you to do it, either. Personally, I like to steer into the skid. I feel better looking at the 76,945 (unread emails) hanging over my little Gmail icon. Each one is a point I’ve scored against the otherwise undefeated team of Complete Internet Bullshit.
It’s worth considering what might happen if I spent a just one second on each of those unread emails. I just did the math and that’s over twenty hours of my attention. TWENTY HOURS. That’s time I’d rather spend doing valuable things like watching every second of all six seasons of the original U.K. edition of Love Island. I’ve spent over seven days of my life in total watching Love Island U.K., which I probably have time to do because I don’t needlessly click away my life organizing online mattress coupons I will never use. Just remember: this could be your life.
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*Satisfying, yes. Advisable, no.