The Statute of Deletions

Inbox Zero. To get to the unimaginable, unattainable place only reserved for the likes of those disciplined enough or courageous enough to manage it, one has to be comfortable with “delete.” Delete as a colloquial term is fairly recent, but as part of our language and social structure, the concept of deleting is clearly not. We’ve been promptly disposing of items that others have prepared for us for centuries.

Why then, does one feel like an utter failure when one must delete an email without having taken action on it? Are there precedents for these defeatist feelings in other aspects of our lives that we can draw upon?

Time, Work, and Value

I wanted to examine what other common goods that I typically receive, somewhat unprompted, and explore them across two axes: time (length of time I keep the goods) and work (the perceived effort it took the giver to prepare said goods). The hypothesis, of course, is that perceived work influences how long I might keep something. If I think someone spent a long time composing an email to me (e.g., it contains an original poem), I’m less likely to delete it immediately. Perceived value—both monetary and emotional—is another axis worth exploring that could influence decision making.

x-axis: time it takes to delete an item; y-axis: how much perceived effort it took to prepare item.

(With all due respect to my family) I present this chart, showing what is surprisingly a non-emotional relationship of goods to work. The higher or more intense the perceived effort (e.g., email from family member or work-related email), the more apt I am to delete it right away. Other items which require less work and whose trajectory is clearly going to be shorter-lived for me, stay around for close to a year before getting tossed. The exception to this pattern, it seems, is greeting cards. I have always had a difficult relationship with them, and keep them for up to a year, moving them around in disorganized piles from one surface to the next.

Permanent WayBacking

What I can only guess, then, is that items get deleted immediately if I am certain there is a formal or informal archiving system in place. Family members can be returned to, however insensitive it may be, to ask about something they said or intended in a heartfelt email. Auto-generated emails can be re-auto-generated. Work-related email is semi-disposable, as our co-workers can often be tracked down. And tweets, of course, are archived.

So the hurdle to deleting seems to be less about parting with something and more about retrieving the thing, should that need ever arise. And, therefore, the waiting period begins until the thing’s usefulness proves unnecessary.

When bright people such as Gordon Bell are recording a lifetime of data and Pattie Maes’ and Pranav Mistry’s work on the SixthSense are potentially allowing humans to augment the physical world with information from the digital, why does a simple, archaic-even, action like “delete” still feel like such a faux pas?

I would argue that it shouldn’t.

All this time, we’ve been afraid of retrieval, not deleting. I would argue that whatever statute of limitations we’ve been working under has passed, and the etiquette around deleting is over.