My Quest to Stop Sucking at Email

I don’t want to suck at email. Sucking at email is HORRIBLE for business. Unfortunately, I do suck at email. Not sucking at email is one of my New Year’s resolutions.

My inbox over the past 30 days.

My inbox over the past month. Red is bad.

Around the first of the year I whipped up a little tool to track my inbox. Not because I am curious about how much email I get, but rather because I need help not getting in a hole. While this chart shows that there is a definite ebb and flow in my inbox, it is more flow than ebb. The good news is that this is better than it was. I started the year with over 4,000 messages in my inbox.

I am committed to getting better at this though.

Here is my working hypothesis:

  1. My ability to stay on top of email is more of a process problem than a volume problem. I have already done things to reduce the volume (filters, unsubscribing from lists, turning off social notifications, etc)
  2. When I am successful at staying on top of email, is by following the system of starring and archiving.
  3. Emails in my inbox that are read, but not starred are a sign of a problem.
  4. If I had hard data telling me I was about to get into trouble, I would be able to remedy the problem.

Here is what I have learned so far:

  1. The worst emails in my inbox are the ones that have been read, but not starred or archived.
  2. Sometimes starred emails stay there forever and never get completed.
  3. This tool helps. I know that I need to jump into my email hardcore right now so that I don’t get buried.
  4. I can create more tools to help, but I also have to Just Do ItĀ®. As you can see, I should be in my inbox right now, but instead I am writing this blog post and reading about colorblindness.

There are lots of people looking at The Email Problem lately. Mailbox is starting to roll out to users and promises to make it easier to archive messages and even allows you to “snooze” them until later (thus reducing the worst kind of email, read and still in the inbox). The New York Times wrote about it last weekend in When Email Turns From Delight to Deluge.

The Next Web is working on something they are calling Inbox Pro. It allows the sender to have some insight into the state of the inbox and to assist the receiver by categorizing the action the email request. I tried something similar with Email Jackson+. It was an attempt to allow people to “pre-tag” their messages to me by sending to special email addresses (unknown Gmail feature). Nobody used it. The problem is that people don’t want to help; they want to send you an email and get something off their task list an on to your’s in the fewest steps possible. I like the idea of Boris’ system, but I suspect it will receive the same cold welcome that Email Jackson+ did. Yeah, people think it is great at first, but nobody actually uses it.

There is Gmail Meter which shows you stats about your inbox. There are also tools likeĀ SaneBox and which use filters and other means to try and move the crap out of the way for you. Google’s Priority Inbox and Apple Mail’s VIP both take the opposite aim and try to draw your attention to the most important messages. There used to be a neat tool called 0boxer which made a game out of getting to Inbox Zero – I loved it.

I have tried all of them, yet my inbox still looks like the graph above.

Email is a firehose that we have to drink from. It sucks, and I suck at it, but I will conquer it. Tools will help, discipline will help, and practice will help. The only thing that has been proven to work is to churn through the messages as fast as you can and hope you can keep up.

I am going to go do some email now. Feel free to check out my email dashboard and see if I am making any progress. I also need to make sure I am Getting Everything Done.

I just saw a new tool in this category that was the result of a hackathon project: Inbox Pause.

It is from the same people who make Boomerang (which has some overlap with SaneBox mentioned earlier). The idea is that you can stop messages from hitting your inbox until you un-pause it. There is even an option to notify senders that their message is being held.

I could see tying something like this to my email tool so that once I got past a critical threshold, it automatically paused my email and texted me saying that I would not get any new mail until I made room for it.


  1. Oh man, I am right there with you. I love all the tools you’re putting together to manage this.

    1. Glad to know I am not alone :)

  2. Great analysis! I think having the visual feedback really drives the point home when things are starting to pile up.

    Along the gamification front, I’m curious to try It’s made by the inboxpause / boomerang folks and I’ve heard good things about it.

    1. On of those starred emails is from you :-/

  3. […] heard email described as “a firehose that we have to drink from”, and it’s certainly ubiquitous. It’s become a hub for our entire work day. It’s a […]

  4. Ooh, can I recommend my own

    GmailZero (part of Beeminder, btw) works best when you have a ton of messages in your inbox and want to force yourself to make gradual progress on whittling it down to size. In part for the reason you point out, it only cares about Read messages.

    Another thing I’ve been using is a gmail snooze tool I wrote:
    But that’s a double-edged sword, since it lets me keep procrastinating on dealing with emails even though they’re not technically accumulating in my inbox.

    Tricky stuff! :)

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