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Bacn and dregs: trim the fat and put your email inbox on a diet

Updated on April 19, 2011

Picture this. You get away from your desk for a fortnight's holiday, and on day one your smartphone explodes or gets stolen. No email. You call a colleague and the work stuff gets covered - but what awaits you when you return after your break? Let's assume you have your spam filters in place, and everything with a virus attached, confirming your lottery winnings, dodgy pharmaceuticals and legacies from unknown Nigerian relatives is filtered and dumped.  What are you left with after that..?

Undoubtedly, a certain amount of genuinely useful and important messages - project updates, offers of work perhaps, customer service enquiries... they're all in there somewhere. BUT I will give you extensive odds that they don't leap out at you because they are buried in BACN. How long will it take you to filter out the rubbish and find out what's important to respond to? And how much of it will distract and divert you along the way?

The term bacn was coined at PodCamp Pittsburgh in 2007, and is a wonderful word to indicate emails that are similar too, but not quite, spam. Not spam because at some point you decided to permit them, so they don't quite fit the definition... but they have reached the point of being annoying and distracting, more often than they are useful.

Bacn includes....

  • Marketing messages from places you once bought stuff, and opted in to receive special offers and updates from
  • Newsletters and alerts - whats on at your local cinema, or the day's headlines in your trade press
  • Notifications that someone commented on your blog or your Facebook status, or direct messaged you
  • Bank statements, reminders and other alerts you need to manage your financial activities
  • Tracking updates, such as bidding notes on eBay items

It's all information you need and decided to receive at some point... so why is bacn bad for your email health? Well, it's the high salt and high cholesterol of email, bloats your unproductivity by diverting your attention. Need to finish that boring report before my deadline.... hey, someone just commented on my Flickr stream, better go see! Woah.. my local bike store has a special offer on puncture repair kits for this weekend only - that interests me because it's local and we have several bikes, do we need any puncture repair gear though..? Hang on - what was I supposed to be concentrating on? What do you mean, lunchtime already?

What can you do about it, to reclaim your life, and your life's two most vital assets - attention and time? Here are 4 key approaches for cutting down the amount of bacn in your life to a healthy and manageable level. If you get these in place, you will soon trim the fat in your inbox:

Opt out in the first place. Every time you complete your email address in an online form, it's because someone wants to send you stuff. It might well be stuff you want, like a delivery note and receipt for a specific purchase - but you should get an option to decline their 'special offers' messages at this point. Sure, they offer great products, and they're a nice brand with great customer service, but you can simply bookmark them, they won't be hard to find next time you actually want something, and that'll be about your need instead of being about theirs!

Unsubscribe! We are all wary of the unsubscribe option where genuine spam is involved, and tend to avoid using it for fear of verifying our identity to unwanted senders. But remember bacn is something you gave your address for in the first place, and most use ethical email broadcast services that totally automate the unsubscribe process. Next time you are about to delete some unwanted newsletter from a brand you recognise but just don't want to be emailing you, take a few more clicks and remove yourself from their mailing list instead.

Corral, file and filter - get to know your email application's capabilities, and set up rules in Outlook or Outlook express, or use Gmail's Priority Inbox and other smart services. The good thing about the 'alert' type bacn is that they tend to use familiar and formulaic subject lines, that are easy to divert off into a pile someplace, so you can look at them when you want to, instead of having them interrupt your attention. Give yourself a set time each day to look at your LinkedIn discussions and DMs, and consider altering some settings to daily digests if the volume is overwhelming.

Manage your email addresses. The simplest thing is NOT to use your primary email address to sign up for things you don't specially want to hear about. Set up a junk address for this purpose, and if you have your own domain you can set up a range of them for different uses - such as,, you can easily get a personal domain and good online webmail at places like, for a few dollars a year. Never use an employers email address to subscribe to personal information things - because when you leave the company, your mail will probably be covered by someone else, who won't know your password to unsubscribe from your library reminders, and will curse you every time they delete them.


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