Getting Off Gmail

A few weeks ago, TechCrunch published stories about how Facebook and Google used unauthorized iOS apps to gather data about phone usage from external users in ways that the users likely didn’t understand. In light of these stories, I wondered how feasible it was to switch away from Google services to other platforms.

Most Google services start with a Gmail account, and I have been happily using Gmail since 2004. It was, in fact, the first personal email address I had, and thankfully, I picked a professional username for it. Unlike my Skype handle warstrekkid, which I have to justify whenever I do a phone interviews.

I have been transitioning away from Gmail and other Google services for about two weeks now and have a handle on my new digital life. I thought I would share my migration experience, starting with email.

(One disclaimer: we use G Suite at Zanbato, so I’m still entirely committed to the Google ecosystem for work. These changes only reflect my personal digital usage and identity.)

Prerequisite: kevinleung.com

Internet accounts start with having an email address. Even if email is passé and uncool, just about every social network requires that you sign up with an email address. In claiming ownership over my digital identity, I wanted to use my domain rather than just switching to @yahoo.com or any other provider. Thankfully, I own kevinleung.com and can use @kevinleung.com email addresses.

This, of course, literally comes with a cost. Unlike free Gmail accounts, I pay a few dollars a year just to own kevinleung.com, and then I have to pay for separate services to host and use that domain. I realize that’s a real obstacle for many people, but it was worth it to me to have control.

Migrating Gmail

Amongst Google services, switching emails has been by far the most complicated, so get ready for an adventure.

Email Hosting

After searching through recommendations on Hacker News, I decided to use FastMail as my email backend. FastMail allows you to plug in your own custom domain rather than using @fastmail.com.

I considered using my Linode visual private server that hosts my blog to also run an email server. However, I also intermittently break my server, so it isn’t safe to become the core of my new online existence. Instead, I decided to pay someone else to be more reliable than me.

Email Client

Previously, I used Gmail’s webmail and iOS app to access my email, so I switched to using the Apple Mail app across all of my devices. Some may argue that swapping Google for Apple isn’t much of a privacy or ownership win. However, I have to stay in the Apple ecosystem for the health of my marriage, so I’m entirely committed.

Ostensibly, the big change here was routing email through @kevinleung.com instead of @gmail.com, but I was actually most concerned about the email client. If I didn’t like the Mail app or had difficulty using it, it didn’t really matter what address email would be going to and from. Over the past 15 years, I had gotten comfortable with Gmail: I was very fluent in the keyboard shortcuts, and I had my filters all setup nicely.

I was even more concerned that I wouldn’t like Mail while I getting setup. Before switching emails, I tested Mail out by using it for my @gmail.com email. Since Mail is all local, I had to sync each of my devices (Macs, iPhone, and iPad) to fetch my entire mail archive. As previously discussed, I also have had disk space problems on my devices, so I got scared when I saw Mail downloading 30,000 emails.

And then everything synced, and everything just felt like it worked.

Inbox Management

Since I never used anything other than Gmail, I actually didn’t know what features were Gmail-specific or generally available through IMAP, so I was pleasantly surprised when my email folders, archived mail, and starred emails were also configured.

On the other hand, I was also using Gmail’s priority inbox to split Primary, Social, Promotions, and Updates into separate tabs, and that was not available in Mail. This omission forced me to come up with my own system from scratch, and frankly, I like it even more. My new system has five categories.

Primary: These emails are from other humans, so I read and handle each one individually. Ideally, these are the only emails in my inbox. All of the other categories are filtered server-side into folders.

Receipts: I hang onto, say, my monthly FastMail subscription receipt or a recent Amazon purchase until the end of the month. Then, I will verify the amounts (just like physical receipts) against my credit card statements, and then can discard them.

Daily News: I read these within a day, including the NY Times Morning Briefing, 538’s Significant Digits, or the Mountain View Voice Express. If I fall behind by a day, then I will skim and delete it. I’m trying to stay slim in my daily news diet.

Newsletters: These emails actually take time to read, like Ben Evan’s Newsletter or Stanford’s The Loop. They have interesting and more thoughtful content and links that I typically will read within a week.

Updates are for just about anything else, like Facebook updates, Funcheap newsletters, and other marketing and transactional emails. These emails are the junk that I open and immediately delete.

With this system, I can open different categories depending on how much attention and time I have. Sometimes I just want a momentary distraction and just clear out my Updates. Sometimes, I want to take five minutes to read something interesting from my Newsletters.

Multiple Email Addresses

Alongside switching my email subscriptions, I also had to decouple my other email addresses from my @gmail.com address. I had several other email addresses (such as my Spawning Tool email) forwarded to my personal Gmail account so I only had one inbox to manage. Since I was now using Mail, I disabled Gmail forwarding on those other accounts and instead fetched those email addresses directly from Mail.

Overall, it has been easy to manage since IMAP was designed with multiple emails in mind. The only hiccup is that I now have email archives split across multiple accounts. For example, I have a Spawning Tool folder under my @gmail.com address with all of my email until now. All future email will be in my my Spawning Tool email archive, and this break leads into my last discovery.

Email History

When I switched, I tried to delete old emails to make a clean break and reduce the Mail sync download. I found some easy wins, but it took too much work for minimal benefit, so I gave up on that.

The catch is that I can’t ever completely get rid of my @gmail.com address. Between my email archive, extensive use for account creation, and having shared it with others, I will need to continue checking it for the foreseeable future. Within a couple months, however, I hope that it reduces to a trickle, and then forward it to @kevinleung.com email.

And More, Next Time

Of course, Google provides many more services than just Gmail, and I went through the process of migrating those as well. However, I’m already many words deep into this post, so I split it into a followup post for next week. Stay tuned!

One thought on “Getting Off Gmail”

  1. I have both a self-hosted email account on cPanel, and a forwarding email address from my domain, but mostly use Gmail as my primary contact address. The reason is actually not email, but calendaring. It’s too confusing to ask people to use one address, and then ask them to switch to another, when we get to scheduling time together.

    I regularly check 4 email accounts with K9 on my smartphone, and about 10 accounts with Thunderbird on my laptop. One account I use for purchases and subscriptions, so it’s a spam magnet. Sorting by field on Thunderbird is something that the webmail interfaces don’t do well.

    If I was really paranoid about security, I might be more serious to host email on Proton or Tutanota. In real life, if I don’t want to leave a significant trail, it’s more practical to just meet in person and talk.

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