The Overloaded Inbox: Confessions of a Mailing List Junkie

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The content that once brought me a bit of insight and joy had turned into a source of stress. As I cruised through my heaving mailbox, I found myself asking the same question over and over again: “Who is this person, and why are they in my mailbox to begin with?”


Admit it. There’s stuff in you email inbox that predates almost everything in your fridge. I’m not talking about reference emails that you’ve handled or plan to come back to when you have time. I’m talking about the parade of dots, arrows, or other notifiers that stream down your screen next to unread messages.

If you’re one of those obsessive compulsive organizers, who’s read things like The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People®, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and other life altering insights, and actually cleans out your inbox daily, congratulations. You are a freak of nature. I’ve read all those things and more. For several days, or even weeks, my inbox is pristine. I have self-actualized.

Then real life happens.

There was a point in time where I sat at a desk, my inbox set to automatically reload new mail every five minutes. Our events company was a bit of bedlam from time to time. Pre sales, post sales, vendors, co-workers, colleagues, media and the press. Staying on top of the pile was not only a necessity, it was the rhythm.

Flash forward many years later and I’m happy to say that other things are going on that need my attention. It’s called life. After the events company, there was a time when I didn’t need to check my inbox for days. People had my phone number. If they needed me, they called. I had no outside business activities. It was a bit of heaven. But heaven never lasts.

Our photography company has nowhere near the mail traffic as the events company. Since we are now older and wiser, we have a dedicated support staff to handle customer and pre-sale issues. The mail that gets to me comes from clients, who are themselves event organizers, or things bumped up from our front line support.

Everything was going swimmingly until I took an interest in an industry colleague’s content. I added my email to their mailing list.

I can almost hear you gasp from here, miles away, and long after these words have been written. You know where this is heading. You have probably been there yourself.

The mailing list rewarded me with a faithful stream of content. The information was what I’d asked for, and our relationship blossomed. The honeymoon was lovely. Soon afterward, my new mailing list pal introduced me – via an email, of course – to yet another colleague. Referrals and recommendations go a long way in our industry. If my new email friend thought there was value in it for me, I’d give that link a click. And just like that, I was on another email list.

At some point in time, ad targeting had gotten wise to my mailbox. The things I clicked, the sites I visited, the content I consumed, all lead to more recommendations. So. Many. New. Friends. In my mailbox!

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Okay, so it should be obvious that I use the word “friend” to mean just anybody. Anyone with a mailing list more than happy to pump content toward me. I even created a dedicated email address to collect these gems. Every one of my new friends remained steadfast. Hardly a day went by that most, if not all of them, sent something my way.

Of course, I could not possibly read everything as soon as it came in. That was okay, my mailbox was patient. It would hold on to those emails as long as I needed it to.

Have you ever seen snowfall in the mountains? It is a silent, magical scene where tiny, weightless flakes descend from the sky. They are invisible for most of their journey, until they get close enough to earth, where they land and become invisible once again. Now they are just an indistinguishable part of the building snowbank. If those silent flakes just keep coming, they go from weightless to something quite the opposite. They crush the treetops, they hide the landscape, they become an accident waiting to happen. There are only two outcomes for this situation: a thaw, or an avalanche.

If a single mailing list is a snowfall, I had found myself in a blizzard. If I didn’t thaw my mailbox, the avalanche was inevitable.

But what about the content? Hadn’t it been valuable in the beginning? Hadn’t it proven that it was valuable enough to hold on to? What if I was missing the one thing that would make my life and business more successful?

Okay. So what if I was?

I had to accept the fact that, even if this were remotely possible, I would have to live without it. The content that once brought me a bit of insight and joy had turned into a source of stress. My snowbank of flakes just chided me as a failure. I finally had to dive in.

As I cruised through my heaving mailbox, I found myself asking the same question over and over again: “Who is this person, and why are they in my mailbox to begin with?” Okay, so I guess that’s technically two questions, but they are inseparable from one another.

I dedicated an entire day of my life to opening at least one email from each sender, reading it completely, and then finding the “Unsubscribe” link. In this way, my reasonably random, but still nowhere near scientific cross-sectioning made one thing clear. Over time, the content became just as perfunctory as my engagement with it. The farther we got from the honeymoon content that brought me to the list to begin with, the less cohesive and valuable the content became.

To be fair, those later messages would probably have meant more to me if I had taken the time to form a relationship between myself and the sender. If I had kept up with the serial installments of their messaging, I would have been more invested in the subsequent mails. I would know the names of their kids. So when they felt compelled to drop them into the story – as advised by every brand building guru this side of the new millennium – I’d know who they were talking about, and I might even care. When they decided to have a “vulnerable” moment, I might sympathize. Regardless of how they kept hooking in, I would be just as faithful in my reading as they were in their sending.

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That, however, did not happen. As I glared into the snowbank of my mailbox, all I could think about was the avalanche. I would need to get the thaw on with a blowtorch of detachment. That, I was able to do easily.

Finally, the blizzard stopped. The snow had been shoveled and the skies cleared. So did my mailbox.

I won’t say that my mailbox is back to its pristine, pre-return-from-retirement condition. I still sign up for the occasional mailing list. The difference is that I have a lot more self-discipline now. If there isn’t at least one ruby in someone’s pile of rocks after a couple of weeks, we part ways. If the rubies also come with a few diamonds, that sender is elevated into The Special Inbox, and hopefully, I will know and care about their kids, their dog, their hobbies, and anything else they bring up, because I made the investment.

Some senders don’t even make it through those first two weeks. If I get the vibe that their mailing list strategy is simply “have one” because those gurus told them they should, I let those little flakes melt before hitting the ground.

So what is the lesson in all this?

As a reader, and a subscriber, it would be to thoroughly weigh the value of the content. If the author and their content don’t begin to resonate with you right away, chances are they never will. There are almost unlimited options out there. Find a creator, personality, class, or topic that suits you better.

For creators, it would be to remember that your audience is entrusting you with their most valuable resource – their time. We readers know that not every message will be knocked out of the ballpark. Regular home runs, however, make the fouls easier to bear. In other words, create something worth reading.

Either way, a mailing list should not be a source of anxiety. If your inbox is heaving under the weight of its own blizzard, be brave, grab your blowtorch and get to melting. If your mailing list is a chore, and you are struggling to produce, or you find that your content has strayed too far from its original purpose and your subscribers are melting from your list, it might be time for a clean out of a different sort.

There are two parts to any communication: signal and noise. The only way to amp up one is to get rid of the other. Both the creator and consumer need to remember one very important rule: There should always be more signal than noise.


Photo credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay