Your Entire Life Is on Gmail. It’s Time to Clean That Up.

Don’t suffer like I’ve suffered

Photo: Jay Wennington/Unsplash

Wednesday, 2 p.m. Eastern Time: I am on hour 9,000 of deleting emails from my overloaded Gmail account. My eyeballs are leaking out of my head and pooling in a sticky puddle on my laptop’s mouse pad.

Or it feels like it, anyway.

In recent weeks, Google has sent me repeated warnings that I’m approaching my Google Drive storage limit. I had rarely considered that Google would limit my storage capacity; the company’s potential for data collection seems infinite, incapable of being incapacitated or overburdened. And yet my email account, which I’ve had since 2014, is finally tired of holding my endless stream of newsletters and press releases; the 15 gigabytes that Google allots free users is nearly full.

I’d hoped to write this story with a title along the lines of “One Simple Trick To Clearing Out Your Google Drive Storage.” Deleting every last email in your inbox and starting fresh would be ideal, but there’s such a wild mix of correspondence stored there — chain emails from your second cousin, newsletters from companies you bought a sweater from once, love letters from the early days of a current relationship — that the nuke-and-run method isn’t recommended or possible for anyone but those who lack even a drop of sentimentality.

For everyone else, there’s no one trick to clearing out your Google Suite. There are strategies, which I will get into below, but the best thing you can do, I have unfortunately discovered, is keeping tidy as you go. And that means deleting all the emails you don’t need as you receive them so you don’t get caught up in the mess I spent the last several days cleaning up.

Over the course of the past few days, I’ve been experimenting with various methods of deleting my emails and documents. It was a painful experience: Reading old emails that detailed difficult situations and brought up bitter memories was not how I would prefer to spend my workday (or my time off), and it wasn’t easy to figure out what I could justify deleting (emails with former bosses about banal topics) and what should stay (contracts, old emails from friends). My years of resistance toward deleting any of these emails — out of a sense of nostalgia or concerns that I might need them for whatever reason someday — like fall into the bucket of what researchers consider “digital hoarding.”

Digital hoarding, which I’ve written about before, might sound somewhat hyperbolic — after all, it’s not like someone who compulsively splurges on Steam sales must then literally wade through piles of games on their way to the bathroom. Yet studies show digital hoarding can be stressful and even upsetting to those who experience it. In 2018, researchers interviewed 45 of these so-called digital hoarders and found that the impression that digital space is endless contributed significantly to peoples’ tendency to hoard. They were surprised at the volume of digital stuff they’d accumulated, but still struggled to come to terms with deleting much of it.

Many people simply didn’t care about the pileup of documents, emails, photos, and music. “I can’t be bothered going through it all, there are too many,” said one 30-year-old participant. “I’ve left it so long now that going back and sorting through is not something I can be bothered with,” said another, age 25.

For many participants, the prospect of going through and deleting their digital crap was anxiety-inducing and stressful. This certainly aligns with my own experience: When I first faced the mess that was my Google Drive on the day I took this assignment, I felt panicked and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the task in front of me.

Similar to the terror that might precede sitting down to scrub the baseboards with a stack of sponges, I was resistant and angry before I got started on my Google Suite cleaning. But once I got started, I kind of… couldn’t stop. Seeing that little percentage tick down as I went through my emails was immensely satisfying, like creating vacuum lines on a carpet. So, yes, there’s no real trick to this, and my guess is that this is intentional: If it’s a pain in the butt to organize and delete your emails and files, your only options are either to a) get a new email address (I legitimately considered this) or b) pay Google for more storage, which starts at $1.99 a month for 100 gigabytes and goes up to $10 a month for 2 terabytes. And the more emails you keep and accumulate, the more delicious, juicy data is available for Google to collect.

What you need to do first is figure out where you’re storing most of the junk taking up the precious few 15 gigabytes Google allots you. To do this, go to One.Google.com and, on the left sidebar, click “Storage.” There, you’ll find a breakdown of how much space Google Drive, Gmail, and Google Photos are taking up, respectively.

Unless you’re a photographer or a big fan of huge PDFs and weighty spreadsheets, most of the action is probably happening in your email. The best way to delete mass emails without regret — or sadness, as I found as I thumbed through those depressing messages from five years ago — is to temporarily sign up for Mailstrom.co.

Mailstrom analyzes your email and, theoretically, allows for quick and easy unsubscribe and delete options. (For those worried — with good reason — about their privacy, Mailstrom says it won’t share or sell your data for advertising purposes, and it deletes your data three months after you’ve canceled your account.) But after you’ve deleted 2,500 emails through Mailstrom, your free trial ends, and you need to pay between $9 and $30 a month to continue using the service. If I were going to pay, I’d probably just buy the Google storage, which is cheaper, than a streamlined method for deletion. Instead, I recommend using Mailstrom to show you which senders are pummeling you with the most garbage:

I am my second-worst offender!

Once you’ve determined the worst sender offender, you can go into Gmail, search from:sciencedirect@notification.elsevier.com (or whoever is sending you tons of email), and mass delete from there. Once you’re looking at your search results, click the “Select All” box on the left side of your inbox, and then be sure to click “Select all conversations that match this search,” like so:

That way, you’ll delete all the messages sent by that particular sender, not just the most recent 50.

That should get rid of a pretty decent chunk of your email clutter in a minimal amount of time, but if you want to keep going, I’d recommend a few more courses of action:

  1. Delete everything in your Promotions and Social folders. Just go nuclear on those folders. Check the past few pages to ensure nothing important lands in there, and then select all and delete. That will likely be thousands, if not more, of the remaining marketing and newsletter stragglers you didn’t catch when you used the Mailstrom method.
  2. If you only want to delete Promotions or Social emails older than a specific date, use the following search term: category:promotions , older_than:2y. (That space between “promotions” and the comma is intentional — the search won’t work without it.) I did this first and then decided, whatever, I don’t need any of that junk. Bye!
  3. You can do the same with newsletters with category:updates , older_than:2y.
  4. Search for all your emails larger than a specified size, then go through and manually delete (or be bold and “select all” — “delete”). Enter larger:10mb for this option. This takes more time, so I only recommend this if you’ve already nuked your marketing emails and still have a good chunk of space to free up.
  5. It makes more sense to sort out and delete emails larger than a specific size than attachments larger than a specific size because plenty of emails are ginormous without the additional help of an attachment. But if you want to focus on attachments, type has:attachments larger:10MB (or however big) into the search bar and go wild.

You can find more helpful Gmail search terms here, though the above are the terms I found most effective for deleting swathes of email at once.

Because Google considers your Trash to be part of your allotted 15 gigabytes, you need to empty it before you know how much you’ve truly managed to delete. Once you empty your trash, those emails are gone forever, but I don’t really recommend clicking through and looking at what’s in there because you’ll find yourself three hours later red-eyed and extremely bored. Just hit delete — and admire your clean baseboards/organized closet/sparkling tile or whatever household cleaning analogy would give you the most satisfaction.

Now, hopefully, you are down to the point where you can begin to accumulate email again without worrying about running out of space for the next couple of years. Here’s where I stand now:

It took me several days to get here, but only because I took the time to try every conceivable method in order to deliver to you, dear reader, those which I’ve found most effective. Still, you probably need to put at least an hour or two of work into this, I’m sorry to say.

But you never have to do this again if you follow two very simple rules from here on out:

  1. Mark any and all press releases, marketing emails, et cetera that you don’t want to see as spam. If you want to be nice, you can email the marketing company or PR reps and respectfully ask to be removed from their mailing list, but if you’re lazy or simply receive too many of them to do this, just file them to spam. Gmail automatically clears out your spam folder after 30 days, so they’re as good as gone after a month.
  2. Do this consistently, as soon as you see them.
  3. Delete any other emails you don’t care about immediately. Don’t leave them there because maybe you’ll read them later. Don’t let them collect dust. Delete. Be ruthless, seriously. No time like the present to shed your indecisive, sentimental nature when it comes to messages from your alumni association or the rescue where you got your dog. Bye!

With this, you should stay ahead of the game, with minimal effort, for the next several years at least. Once you’ve cleared out your Gmail, you don’t need to get complicated with folders and labels and such, which get cumbersome if you have too many. (I only have two: one for random thoughts I send myself in the middle of the night about my novel, and one for press releases from book publicists since I often respond to those en masse at a later date).

By making the spam and delete buttons your best friends, you will avoid the disaster you have wrought upon yourself for a very, very long time.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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