Day 12: The Unbearable Lightness of Unsubscribing

When I discovered the “unsubscribe” button, everything changed. My inbox would give many people a case of the collywobbles. For years, I have let my various inboxes bloat with a rapidity that would make even my allergic-to-mowing neighbors blush. Just as weeds left unchecked will quickly overwhelm a neglected garden, so too has my poor email hygiene drained the utility of this medium for me.

I have a friend who prides himself on having no more than two or three emails in his inbox. If it approaches double digits, his anxiety is triggered. I shudder to think what would happen to him if, in a Freaky Friday-ish switch-up, he awoke to find my current number of unread emails in his inbox: 107,433. Years of benign neglect, that most common and insidious of diseases, is what got me here. While I’m sure I actually signed up for some of the mailing lists I am on, the vast majority are spammy tripe–promotional messages that I never open from random companies and organizations which I casually interacted with once upon a time. They sunk their tick-like teeth into me and have been sucking the blood out of my attention ever since.

I know I am not alone in drowning under the ponderous weight of my inbox. One of the most effective targeted ads that the google algorithm sends my way is for a service that promises to reduce your inbox from 100k to 100 emails with a click of a button. I have been tempted to try this many times, but I am always held back by that fear that I will lose some critical email from long ago. As someone who has not kept a journal and is not a prolific poster on social media, my sent mail and conversational threads with friends are just about the only tangible record of my thoughts for the past two decades.

But deep down, I always knew that this argument for continued neglect was specious. Nevertheless, the problem seemed so intractable that I always just looked the other way and hoped for the best. The thought of deleting individual emails one after another filled me with an existential dread that should be reserved for more pressing concerns.

Finally, I decided to compromise. Instead of seeking the target of Inbox Zero, I just called a truce and accepted the glut of my earlier indiscretions. Ignoring the past, I decided to use the present to simplify my future. And thus, I began unsubscribing. While I’m sure it is patently obvious to most of my fellow humans, somehow the fact that every email from a mailing list has an “unsubscribe” link buried somewhere in its fine print had eluded my notice. These links are often buried within obfuscatory language about “changing email preferences,” but like Waldo, they are always there. Sure enough, our politicians actually got something right when they passed the curiously named CAN-SPAM Act in 2003 that required this provision.

This orgy of unsubscription has been irrationally satisfying and cathartic. With each, “We’re sorry to see you go,” message, my happiness quotient levels up. As is my wont, this experience caused me to reflect. Daunting problems and huge tasks have a paralyzing effect on most of us. We forget that piece of ancient wisdom which says “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” There is a beautiful hadith Qudsi in which the Prophet (SAWS) tells us that Allah says “Whoever draws close to Me by the length of a hand, I will draw close to him by the length of an arm. Whoever draws close to Me by the length of an arm, I will draw close to him by the length of a fathom. Whoever comes to Me walking, I will come to him running.” What many of us fail to notice is that the key to initiating this virtuous cycle is taking that first step, however halting.

When I have told people about this College-Essay-a-Day challenge, the usual response is, “That sounds like torture,” “Are you feeling alright?” or, my favorite, “Br. Hamzah, you one crazy man.” But forcing myself to write every day has opened the floodgates. I have been focusing on input for so long that switching to output has had a curiously freeing effect on me. I didn’t recognize how much the burden of my unspoken thoughts had been weighing me down. I don’t know exactly what will happen on Day 31, but I know I have to continue writing.

Unsubscribing from most email lists has actually helped me find the signal in the noise. A few mailing lists are genuinely helpful. They have interesting content with actionable items. I’ll mention a few here: Tim Ferriss’s 5-Bullet Friday, Sahil Bloom’s Curiosity Chronicle, Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic, and, my mom’s favorite, Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American. I recognize the irony of asking people to join a mailing list after spending 800 words lambasting them, but if I ever manage to set one up, I hope you might consider clicking “subscribe.”

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