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Idea Bar: Self Destructing Emails

People often ask me how long a blog post takes.  Some take months of collecting information, most take an hour or two, and then there are posts like this one.  A quick idea, written in about 5 or 10 minutes … in this case, the quick idea came from going through my emails and realizing that I have way to many of them to delete.  I am getting more and more in my inbox, particularly as activity on my social networks and blogs increase.  The problem with all of this email is that it sits rotting in my inbox until I take the manual effort of deleting the ones I don’t want anymore.  This led me to think about the emails that I get, and what I realized is that they all fit into two types.  The first are substantial emails about things that I care about and that I need to save and archive.  The other type are the notification emails.

It is these "notification emails" that make up the bulk of my inbox.  There are several types of emails that fit this category:

  1. Blog comment or trackback notifications from Typepad
  2. New friend requests from Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, Flickr, etc.
  3. News subscriptions, live NFL scores, blog post email subscriptions, etc.
  4. CC emails where I am copied as an FYI but with no action required
  5. Sales or promotional emails I have signed up for (ie – not spam)

All of these are types of emails that I want to receive BUT NOT KEEP OR ARCHIVE.  The problem with most email tools is that they do not let you make this distinction.  They let you mark emails as urgent or not urgent, store them in folders, mark them as spam, but not decide what you want to do with them automatically after you read them.  Of course, I could delete them after I read them, but I don’t and this leads to email clutter.  Why can’t I set up certain types of emails to "self destruct" (automatically delete) after a certain period of time?  My notifications of friend requests and blog comments would automatically delete 1 hour after I read them.  The sales or promotional emails would automatically delete after the expiration date of the sale has been reached.  Other types of emails would be ones I could set the self destruct time for (number of hours or days after reading).  Then I could read my emails and then have them go away without having to do anything (of course, allowing me to undo if something is accidentally deleted).  How cool would that be?

5 thoughts on “Idea Bar: Self Destructing Emails”

  1. It’s easy to set a rule in Outlook that will do this. I used to move emails from Inbox to a folder called Archive after 2 weeks. They’d sit in Archive for up to 2 years and be deleted after that.



  2. The technical, “change the system from within” solution would be to have a convention for a “self-destruct” header in the email (e.g., X-AndBoomGoesTheDynamite: NNN, where NNN is expressed in days or something) that future email clients could pay attention to, current email clients could be taught via filters. and that folk sending out automated notifications could readily add to their outgoing messages. The length of time in the header is a suggestion from the sender; the recipient would have ultimate control over when self-destructing messages actually self-destruct.

    The “gee, that seems like too much work” solution is to not use your real email address for such notifications, but rather use an email-to-RSS service like You would have to remember to add the feed to your feed reader, and it assumes that you’re paying sufficient attention to your feeds that you will see the notifications. It also assumes that the majority of communications using that address are these sorts of notifications, vs. “real” emails you’d rather have in your email program.

  3. I love the idea of self-destruct after the event or offer has passed its sell-by date. I get bucket loads of invites to teleconferences, offers for one marketing package or another and notifications of upcoming marketing campaigns.

    Being able to let them fester in my inbox until they auto-explode sounds brilliant.



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