It’s been that time of year to open up the garage and go through the attic, cleaning out things we no longer want or need. Something about clearing out the clutter is good for the soul. It removes distraction. It brings about a feeling of accomplishment. It removes stress and brings on inner peace.

For generations, we have been spring cleaning, mostly focusing on our possessions, our things, our clutter.

This year, however, I took my spring cleaning to a new level — I took it to the “in-box” — the physical one at the post office and the digital one on my computer.

I was getting a ton of email and regular mail. At the beginning of the year, I would estimate that about 90 percent of my mail was junk mail: catalogs, requests for donations, and other items I have not solicited. I paid for a bigger post office box to accommodate all these mailings.

My digital in-box was bursting too. Some of it was my own fault. I sign up for all kinds of emails and brochures when promised a coupon or a free gift. Some of my mass inflow was companies selling my email in direct marketing packages. My digital emails got so overwhelming that I have created multiple emails just for specific things, such as newsletters, shopping, travel, etc.

After being away for two weeks earlier this year, I realized that my overflowing in-boxes needed attention. The stress of going through piles of mail and pages of emails was bringing me down and taking up way too much time.

The researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute were right when they said the chaos of clutter hampers a person’s ability to focus. The disorganization was competing for my attention. It was distracting. Overwhelming. Exhausting.

They say that the new new thing is to go minimal. And while I may not be ready to try tiny-house living, I certainly wanted to try tiny in-box communicating. The de-cluttering downsizing process took at least three months, but now I can say the minimal in-box approach feels great. Some days I go to my post box, only to find it empty. Some mornings I wake up to no new emails in my primary in-box. Freedom! 

Here’s how I did it.

First, when I went through my emails daily. I flagged anything to which I wanted to unsubscribe. Then, every Monday for an hour, I repeated the mind-numbing task of clicking through the “unsubscribe” buttons hidden at the bottom. They can be tricky. Some require only one click. Others demand multiple box-ticking to truly be rid of those pesky emails.

Then, when I sorted my physical mail, I created a pile of “undesirables.” I would spend a few hours a week calling the numbers on the undesired catalogs and letters and requested to unsubscribe. It usually took 30 days to come off the various lists, but they all did remove me upon request. The only mail that didn’t have a way to unsubscribe were all the political junk mail from both parties. No number. No way to unsubscribe. What an annoyance.

For some companies, I still wanted informative emails but didn’t want them killing a lot of trees to make the catalogs. And often, when I called, they could stop one but keep the other.

I also converted many of my bills to electronic. Almost everyone, except county water and sewage and county taxes, can send a bill by email and let you skip the letter and stamp.

Finally, I learned that the FTC offers some services to us consumers to help in this endeavor. First, there is DMA Choice, where you can go and opt out of unsolicited commercial mail by requesting to be deleted from direct-mail marketers. It won’t catch everyone, but it is a good start. There is also one for email — as well as the better-known “do not call” registry service to stop getting unsolicited phone calls. For all of these, consumers can add multiple names and numbers to opt out.

The hardest nut to crack was the credit ratings agencies. I asked one catalog mail sender how they got my name, and the answer was they bought it from Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.

Getting any of these agencies on the phone to get my name off their sales lists was hard and required a lot of waiting time on the phone. I fundamentally feel it is wrong that they can make money collecting and selling my contact details without my approval. (But that’s a topic for another column, perhaps.)

Now that spring is over, so is my new form of spring cleaning. Just last week I was away and came home to a mailbox that wasn’t stuffed, and email boxes that weren’t overflowing. What a wonderful feeling.

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