A Different Kind of Bankruptcy

Posted on: January 13th, 2009 by Julie Bestry | No Comments

My parents once told me about a long lost relative who, when his bank statement got too terribly out of balance, withdrew all but a small amount (estimated to cover all outstanding checks), opened a new checking account at a different bank across town and abandoned the old one.  New bank account, new check register, new sense of freedom.

That old story has new wings.  For avid web surfers, it seemed to have started with a man named Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist.  In early 2007, Wilson declared bankruptcy on his blogemail bankruptcy.  He wrote, simply:

Wow.  While Wilson’s pithy post got linked and tracked and repeated all over the web, he wasn’t the first.  It turns out the real father of this movement might have been Stanford professor, copyright attorney and Wired columnist Lawrence Lessig, who, in 2004 sent an email to everyone in his address book, apologizing for a “lack of cyber decency” (which, I suppose, we could 21st century moral bankruptcy), and saying that if anyone was awaiting a response to an as-yet-unanswered email from him, they should reply directly to this particular email, implying all emails that had come before were to be ignored. 

Lessig apparently saw a declaration of email bankruptcy as the only option to allow him to repay any of his email debts–attacking the most urgent or important would be better than the hopeless and time-consuming attempt to handle them all.  With this method, he’d give “creditors” with the most valid claims on his time a chance to recoup their long-awaited loses, and he’d start clean. 

Certainly, this method has some appeal.  Lessig and Wilson absolutely aren’t the only ones in email bankruptcy court; they’re not even the only high-profile ones.  Even musician Moby (known for his high-tech & digitally-designed creations) is reported to have done it.

Although often credited to Lessig, the term email bankruptcy seems to have been coined a full decade ago by MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, and she’s been speaking on the subject for a decade, and as recently as national conferences in 2008.  Apparently, the fantasy of freeing oneself from the burden of massive and multiple screens’ worth of email is a common, appealing and compelling one.

As a professional organizer, I’ve seen clients facing this dilemma, with anywhere from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of emails in their in-boxes, haunting and taunting them.  Sure, there are great advantages, not the least of which is that unlike financial bankruptcy, you don’t have to wait 7 years to rebuild your online reputation.  However, I can’t say I’ve ever encouraged a declaration of email bankruptcy, which seems to involve three steps:  alerting everyone to your situation, apologizing, and deleting everything emailed prior to this moment.  

I’ve you’re thinking of email bankruptcy, Paper Doll encourages you to consider some compromise measures.  Peruse the following, which can be taken in baby steps:

  1. Sort emails by date.  (Just click the top of the date column–it will reorder your emails, just like magic, and is an entirely reversible action.)
  2. Create an email folder called “Archive”.
  3. Drag old mail (everything from prior to last two weeks) to the Archive folder.
  4. Take a deep breath.
  5. Now, just handle whatever is “current” (perhaps the last 10 days or two weeks’ worth) in your in box.  Be ruthless, though.  If you haven’t read a newsletter or “joke” email by now, chances are you’ll live fine without it.
  6. Pat yourself on the back.
  7. Go to the Archived Folder.  Create a sub-folder called “Archive 2007 & Prior” or “Before 2008” or something like that.
  8. Move everything from the Archive folder that’s dated prior to 01/01/2008 to the sub-folder.  In other words, the last year’s worth of stuff is archived, but stuff older than a year is SUPER-ARCHIVED.  (If you’ve been using your email inbox as an endless “to do” inbox for years, you may have up to 10 years worth of emails in your box.  Chances are good that if you missed anything prior to about 6 months ago, someone has already called to bug you about it.)

At this point, you could just stop and walk away, content that you’ve caught up on what’s truly essential.  You could also delete the whole sub-folder, because how likely are you to really need something sent to you between when you got your first AOL account in 1994 and the start of last year?  But just having all your 2008 set aside can make it seem more manageable, because if someone does contact you about an email sent a few months back, using your search function to find one email out of a year’s worth will be easier than location one in a decade’s.

However, if now that your email is reasonably mail sorted, you could just pull your December 2008 mail into a sub-folder and work on it (after first sorting by sender or date), then ruthlessly deleting newsletters (taking a moment to unsubscribe), hoax emails (check Snopes to find those warnings are almost always hoaxes), bad jokes and junk.

But I’m Paper Doll, so why am I talking about email?  Because this urge to run away, to abandon your paper debts is just as strong as that to free yourself of email.  Look around–do you have months, even years, of magazines, catalogs, old charitable requests, junk mail and loose papers surrounding you?  Wouldn’t it feel good to be free?  (Wouldn’t the foundation of your house be less likely to creak under the weight of it all?)  To that end, consider:

Catalog Bankruptcy–It’s January.  Last year’s (or last decade’s) prices don’t magically stay valid just because you’ve saved the catalogs. 

  • Get a recycling bin and dump every catalog into it. 
  • If you REALLY think you’ll order from any of these catalogs, take a minute to bookmark the URL so you can surf anytime you like.
  • If you’ve spotted a turned-down page bearing a product you simply must have, tear out just that page–catalogs print their names/URLS/phone numbers on at least one side of every page.  Surf the site, bookmark the product page in a bookmark folder called “pending purchases” and recycle the paper.
  • Call the 800 numbers and take your name off their mailing lists.

Magazine/Newspaper Bankruptcy–Do you hand-write a transcript of every episode of Oprah?  (No!!!) Then you don’t need to save every issue of O Magazine! If nobody is paying you to be an archivist, stop taking that on as a responsibility.

  • Read what I had to say about magazine clutter last year, here and here.
  • Go back and read it again.  This time, take it to heart.  Owning a magazine does mean you have a slightly greater potential to gain the knowledge within, but it’s only potential unless you actual read the articles, retain the information and release the magazine back into the wild.  Set them free!
  • Start by making some rules to make the pain of letting go a little easier.  Perhaps you can save just the Holiday Issue of each magazine and let go of other months?
  • Recognize that old news is history; if you haven’t read Time or your local paper from last April or even last week, trust me, your life will be none the poorer.  
  • Affirm that there’s not that much new under the sun; if you throw out an issue emblazoned “A Flatter Belly in 30 Days”, be assured “A Tighter Tummy in 4 Weeks” will probably appear in your mailbox next week, anyway. 
  • Trust Paper Doll (and failing that, Antiques Roadshow) that your 6-year-old National Geographics and daily papers will not become collectors’ items.
  • Stop renewing subscriptions to magazines you don’t read in full by the time the next issue arrives. Really. (If you miss them that much, go read them at the library where the magazine clutter gets managed by the staff.)
  • Donate the magazines and enjoy your free space.

Junk Mail Bankruptcy

  • Do a reality check.  Last week, there was a vigorous discussion on Twitter regarding how so very many of us spent our childhoods coveting Samantha’s or Tabitha’s magical twitches (from Bewitched).  But we accept it’s not going to happen.  Now it’s time to face another truth.  You are very unlikely to win a magazine clearinghouse’s million dollar sweepstakes.  Your time is too valuable to play affix-the-sticker-on-the-contest-form, and we’ve already determined you don’t need new magazine subscriptions.
  • Donate or don’t, but make a decision.  Too many people hold onto charitable donation requests for week, months or even years.  There’s no more or less inherent value in replying to any given request (except, quite possibly, letting the non-profit’s marketing firm make suppositions regarding which design was more popular).
  • Shred convenience checks and any other “junk” mail that bears any personal information.  It’s junk if you don’t want it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not appealing to dumpster-diving identity thieves.

There are dozens of ways you can free yourself by declaring a positive kind of bankruptcy.  Starting today, think about what else you can jettison:  tasks and obligations that don’t fit your goals so you can spend more time with your loved ones? Email newsletters you only subscribed to so you could read the bonus ebook?  DVD and game subscriptions for discs you never have time to watch or play? 

Set yourself free!  Declare bankruptcy.

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