How To Fix The Inbox

I’m notorious for the amount of email I receive and the difficulties I have keeping up with it. My best estimate is that I receive about 200-300 emails each day.

On those few blessed occasions when I do get my inbox into single or double digits, I feel both enormously productive and focused. (Alas, the feeling doesn’t last long)

The problem is that the inbox is most people’s default choice for managing their work. It’s a matter of convenience. Because email is the medium through which most requests and work assignments arrive, we seldom take the time to transcribe that work into any other medium.

Unfortunately, email is pretty much the worst system you could design for task management. There’s no concept of priority–by default, whatever is most recent is granted visual priority. As a result, people who manage their workflow via email tend to focus on what Steven Covey calls Quadrant 1 and 4 activities: urgent and important, urgent and unimportant. This leaves Quadrant 2 activities (important but not urgent) to languish while we spend our time on trivialities.

But for all its flaws, email is here to stay. The floor of the Valley is littered with the bones of would-be “email killers.” To have a shot at success, any solution has to work with, rather than try to replace email.

Here’s one possible solution, which I offer up to the entrepreneurs of the world, free of charge.

1) When I read an email, give me a single button that lets me mark it as a to-do.

2) When I view my inbox, all to-do emails are displayed at the top of the inbox. Only after all the to-dos are shown do new emails appear.

3) If a to-do isn’t urgent, give me one button to bury it–keep it in the inbox, but show it after the other to-dos and unmarked emails.

If you implement this, let me know, so I can become your first user!

9 thoughts on “How To Fix The Inbox

  1. Easy. Create a label. I have called in Task 101.

  2. I'm pretty sure the worst tool for task management would be the telephone answering machine/ voice mail. Those things can't die fast enough. [And yes, people in my office still use them. Ugh.]

  3. Interesting.

    I'd like a similar task-oriented re-thinking of our social feeds.

    I get a lot of good articles and discussions on my Facebook newsfeed that I'd like to go back to at a later time… like can easily be done in RSS readers.

  4. Use Gmail, turn on Priority Inbox, and customize the sections to have Starred show up at the top, and whatever you want below that. Star the emails you want to have always show up at the very top.

    You can also use Superstars, and develop a system for what the different stars mean to you. I use the red exclamation mark for the most urgent, yellow for the less urgent, the orange arrow for ones I might want to reply to later, and the purple question mark for items awaiting a reply.

    There's a two-click method of creating a task out of any conversation, if you want to make use of the Tasks feature in Gmail.

  5. Anonymous

    ActiveInbox should meet your requirements. Quickly scan the e-mail and mark it as a priority or add labels. Its UI with Google Apps is pretty good — useful and not in the way.

    Ankit Agarwal
    Micello, Inc.

  6. Great suggestions guys! The one problem I have is this–I use Outlook for email.

  7. The Inbox problem is indeed, a challenge. How about tackling a more simple problem, calendars and time zones. I document my simple solution to the problem of putting appointments into my calendar when I am covering multiple time zones per week. Is anyone listening? Like Chris, solve this one and I am all in.

  8. I am not the mighty organizer when it comes to e-mails either, but I follow a few rules:

    One, I don't sign up to things that don't interest me.

    I click on Spam or Delete those without subject and leave those that are from friends and family for me to read later on. If what they're going to say is very important, surely they're going to call.

    I prefer Gmail over other e-mail platforms. It's still not perfect, but it sure is loaded with apps or features that come in handy in e-mail organization.

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