'Inbox zero' doesn't seem to work for me but it's still tempting

February 9, 2015

Every so often I read another paen to the 'inbox zero' idea and get tempted to try to do it myself. Then I come to my senses, because what I've found over time is that the 'inbox zero' idea simply doesn't work for me because it doesn't match how I use email.

I do maintain 'inbox zero' in one sense; I basically don't allow unread email to exist. If it's in my actual MH inbox, I've either read it, am in the process of reading it, or I've been distracted by something being on fire. But apart from that my inbox becomes one part short term to-do tracker, one part 'I'm going to reply to this sometime soon', and one part 'this is an ongoing issue' (and there's other, less common parts).

What I do try to do is keep the size of my inbox down; at the moment my goal is 'inbox under 100', although I'm a bit short of achieving that (as I write this my inbox has 105 messages). Some messages naturally fall out as I deal with them or their issue resolves itself; other messages start quietly rotting until I go in to delete them or otherwise dump them somewhere else. Usually messages start rotting once they aren't near the top of my inbox, because then they scroll out of visibility. I try to go through my entire inbox every so often to spot such messages.

What it would take to get me to inbox zero is ultimately not a system but discipline. I need most or all of the things that linger in my inbox, so if they're not in my inbox they need to be somewhere else and I need to check and maintain that somewhere else just as I check and maintain my inbox. So far I've simply not been successful at the discipline necessary to do that; when I take a stab at it, I generally backslide under pressure and then the 'other places' that I established this time around start rotting (and I may forget where they are).

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that inbox zero would be useful for me as opposed to make-work. To the extent that I can see things that would improve my ability to deal with email and not have things get lost, 'inbox zero' seems like a clumsy indirect way to achieve them. More useful would be something like status tags so that I could easily tag and see, say, my 'needs a reply' email. You can do such status tagging via separate folders, but that's kind of a hack from one perspective.

(I'd also love to get better searching of my mail. Of course none of this is going to happen while I insist on clinging grimly to my current mail tools. But on the other hand my current tools work pretty well and efficiently for me and I haven't seen anything that's really as attractive and productive as they are.)

(A couple of years ago I wrote about how I use email, which touches on this from a somewhat different angle. This entry I'm writing partly to convince myself that trying for inbox zero or pining over it is foolish, at least right now.)

Sidebar: why the idea of inbox zero is continually tempting

I do lose track of things every so often. I let things linger without replies, I forget things I was planning to do and find them again a month later, and so on. Also I delete a certain amount of things because keeping track of them (whether in my inbox or elsewhere) is just too much of a pain. And I've had my inbox grow out of control in the past (up to thousands of messages, where of course I'm not finding anything any more).

A neat, organized, empty inbox where this doesn't happen is an attractive vision, just like a neat organized and mostly or entirely clear desk is. It just doesn't seem like a realistic one.

Comments on this page:

By Paulo Almeida at 2015-02-09 07:02:27:

One thing I love about Evolution is how easily you can create tasks and events from e-mails (right-click the message and those options are on the menu). Couple that with Evolution's ability to talk with caldav calendar servers (e.g. owncloud) and you have a nice workflow that doesn't make you too dependent on the particular tools.

By opk at 2015-02-09 17:44:32:

Either mairix or notmuch can be setup to do searching of MH folders. My search script creates a temporary folder of links for the search results and it works well. I don't use exmh, though: just plain nmh.

From at 2015-02-10 10:39:35:

The problem most people have with inbox-zero is they don't understand it. They think that staying at zero means you have completed everything you need to do. This is incorrect.

Inbox-zero is very simple and lightweight:

  1. Create 2 new folders, Action and Waiting/Follow Up
  2. When you get a new message, read it (when you can) and decide if:
    1. It's something you need to directly take action on, then move to the Action folder
    2. It's something you need to wait for a specific time before you can take action, or if you need to follow up with someone else about it, then move to the Waiting folder
    3. It's informational and you don't need to do anything, then either delete it or move to your current folder structure.

That's all there is to Inbox Zero. If you don't like the trendy name of "inbox zero", just call it "triage", it's the same thing.

The only real change is that instead of always keeping your "inbox" as the default folder you always look at, you do that with the Action folder.

You're assigning a different context to your default inbox. Most people use inbox to be "stuff i need to do", but the problem is that it also contains "stuff i haven't made a decision about yet", and random other junk. By moving all of your todo items into Action or Waiting, you have removed that ambiguity about what inbox contains, so it's now just stuff you need to make a decision about.

Also, you need to review the Waiting folder every so often and pull out stuff that is now actionable.

Additional notes:

  • Don't use rules to automatically file messages into different folders, except for stuff that truly can be said that you don't need to take action on, such as technical / open source project mailing lists, etc...
  • Keep all todo items in the Action folder. Don't file things that you need to do in other folders either by project or by person.
  • I have recently made some "Priority #" folders as subfolders of Action, which helps to organize priorities.
  • If your mail program makes this cumbersome, find a new mail program.
  • Prefix your Action and Waiting folders with @ or something to get them to sort at the top of your folder list.

P.S. This approach incorporates a lot of elements of GTD.

By Ewen McNeill at 2015-02-10 14:27:44:

Over the last couple of years I've started doing something similar to the previous comment: unread messages in my inbox need a triage decision; read messages in my inbox need action; everything else is somewhere else (usually a todo list -- as a file on my desktop -- or an reminder event in my calendar, eg scheduled for one week in the future). I do try to get down to zero messages in my inbox periodically, but it only occasionally happens (because the messages left need actual action, and it's rare to run out of things needing action :-) ).

Personally I've found over the years that 100ish messages in a folder is just too much. The top 10-20 get attention, and the bottom 10-20 tend to get ignored sufficiently that they might as well not be there. If I can't see all the subject lines on a single screen, at once, it feels like too many. By putting longer term items on a todo list that I look at regularly (typically daily, but at least a few times a week), they actually get more attention. And for anything that is time based ("check this after the new month rolls around") a calendar event really helps. Usually those just have a tiny title, and a "see email on date/time for details" type note.

Finally I'd second notmuch as a mail search tool. I've not used it, but seen a couple of talks on the design and it seemed very sane. The creators used MH and deal with a lot of email. (I used MH and nmh for a decade or so, but eventually gave up trying to deal with all the HTML mail, and other non-ASCII content with it; these days I use Apple Mail, and Thunderbird, neither of which is great, but the tradeoffs seem to work better with modern email content.)


Written on 09 February 2015.
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