On Mailbox, or: Don't Work in Your Inbox


Much has been said about Mailbox, a new email management app in which users can quickly cycle through their inbox and “snooze” particular emails in order to focus on the most important messages.

This strikes me, at least in its current state, as a terrible idea.

As a professor (as in many other jobs, I imagine) my professional life is steeped in email: messages from students, colleagues, administrators, editors, listservs, etc. During my time as a grad student, I quickly learned that email management is an invaluable and often untaught aspect of contemporary academic life.

My one tip for managing email? Don’t linger in the inbox. Instead, process.

When you open your email client, you should have one goal: Process every email. When everything is processed and the inbox is empty, close your client. My processing guidelines are based on Dave Allen’s/Merlin Mann’s rules for the inbox:

  1. If a message requires no action from you, archive it.
  2. If a message requires response/action from you and you can do so in less than two minutes, respond.
  3. If a message requires response/action from you, but requires more than two minutes to do so, move it into another system–and get it out of the inbox.

A key component of this process is the archive folder: Use the inbox only as the space in which emails are received. Once you’ve processed those messages, move them out. Inbox zero. If you currently have 24,343 messages in your inbox, declare mail bankruptcy and move everything into an archive folder. Start fresh, and maintain an empty inbox. It’s the key to email sanity.

I see too many students/colleagues that use their inbox as a to-do list, and I think there are many problems with this: The stress that comes from seeing unfinished tasks every time you open your inbox; the chronological organization of the inbox, which allows older & unfinished tasks to fall off the page; and the intermingling of junk/unimportant emails with pressing & pending tasks.

This is my problem with the Mailbox concept: Your to do lists are constantly circulating through the inbox, rather than moving into a system that is built for managing tasks–not messages. And there are plenty of these systems: Apple’s Reminders, Omnifocus, Things, Wunderlist, Toodledo, Remember the Milk, the Emergent Task Planner … seriously, countless systems. Depending on your needs, there is a system for you.

As an example: I’m a devout Omnifocus user, and the Omni Group’s recent Maildrop feature offers a great way to manage email processing: If a message requires a signficiant response, I simply forward it to the Maildrop, which then moves the message (as a task) into my task management system. When my inbox is empty, I can then categorize tasks and move forward with the most pressing concerns. Everything is accounted for, and I have a task management system that is more robust than the always-on and chronologically-focused email inbox.

So rather than using your inbox as a de facto to do list, I would encourage you to find another system and move the pressing conversations & tasks into that system. Check your email at specific daily intervals, process your tasks, and then close your mail client. Don’t linger in the email slot machine, and don’t let the random and chronological structure of the inbox dictate your work day.

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