A brief history of my e-mail reading habits in one graphic

A few months ago, I began dividing my Outlook inbox archive into separate folders organized by year. Keeping all the e-mails in one folder just made the folder run very slowly. (It’s not much better now, but I tried anyway.)

Today I noticed that even in the archive, Outlook tells me how many unread e-mails I have. The numbers raised my eyebrows.

Unread Emails

I have only three unread e-mails from 2011. Of course, I only worked at Randolph for half of that year. But this archive contains fewer than half of my e-mails from 2014. (January – May 2014 are still in the “Inbox” archive folder.) In fact, for 2014 I’m on track to have more than 1,180 unread e-mails by the end of the year.

Here is how the count of my unread e-mails looks on a line graph.

(I know my headline says “one graphic,” but I guess you get to choose which graphic.)


If I needed any comfort about this situation, I would find it in this fact: The rate of increase in my unread e-mails has slowed down. From 2011 to 2012, the number of unreads rose More than 1400 percent. The percentage increase has declined every year. Which is more than what we can say for the United States deficit.



I peeked in my 2013 folder to see what I wasn’t reading. Many of the e-mails were “Daily Update” e-mails that everyone at the college gets with the latest announcements and calendar information. There were a handful of “Your Mailbox is Almost Full” messages, and many e-mails I get because I signed up for something free and don’t care enough about Inbox Zero to unsubscribe.

Some people say e-mail is broken because of situations like this: If you have this many unread messages (my Gmail is over 3,800) then you have too many coming in. I don’t think e-mail itself is broken, or has become a useless product. We just use it differently. Years ago, when only three of your friends had e-mail addresses and no one was trying to sell you anything through e-mail, Inbox Zero was within easy reach. Today, when it is common for all of your friends to have multiple e-mail addresses, I believe our brains are adapting to the reality of never having read  everything in our inboxes. It’s OK if you have hundreds of unread e-mails from last year. You can deal with the existential anxiety of never knowing what is inside some of those messages. If it was important, there’s a good chance you would have caught it when it came in.

What do you think? Is e-mail broken? Should I (or anyone) try to catch up and read all those “Daily offer from Whatever Retailer” messages?