Inbox Zeroer

Saturday, July 31, 2010
By dreeves

A happy critter, impervious to a deluge of email. Note the Inbox Zero nerd merit badge.

UPDATE: I’ve now implemented the email features described here.

My email is dysfunctional. I keep things in my inbox because I can’t afford for them to go out of sight, out of mind — but then that’s exactly what happens. They get buried deeper and deeper in my inbox by all the other messages I delusionally think I’m going to deal with. It’s a given that some things will fall through the cracks. I just need to make sure I have some control over which things those are.

Let’s start with a straw poll:

Consider the reasons a message sits in your inbox:

  • The To-do Excuse. You’re going to need to deal with it but you’re not ready to yet. (Some of this is procrastination, some is legit.)
  • The Waiting Excuse. It’s something you’ve replied to but you don’t want to forget about it in case the recipient drops the ball. I.e., you might need to deal with it later.
  • The Reference Excuse. It has information that you’ll want to refer to. (Different than maybe needing to deal with it later in that there’s nothing for you to remember to do.)
  • The Laziness Excuse. It’s one of many messages that has outlived its usefulness in your inbox but you haven’t yet slogged through and archived them all.

In other words, it’s either serving as a to-do item, a might-need-to-do item, an item for future reference, or there’s no reason for it to be there at all. Or, of course, you haven’t read it yet. Which brings us to…

The nerd merit badge for Inbox Zero, from nerdmeritbadges.com.

Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero is a simple system devised by Merlin Mann for keeping your email inbox empty. The idea is that your inbox should really only be for messages you haven’t actually read. So every time you check your email, do something with every single message. Specifically, do one of the following:

  • Archive: just get rid of it (originally Delete[1]).
  • Delegate: get someone else to deal with it.
  • Respond: if it takes just a few minutes, fire off a reply right then.[2]
  • Defer: put it on a to-do list, archive it, and deal with it later.
  • Do: handle whatever the email actually needs you to do, then archive it.

The first one, Archive/Delete, is huge and completely destroys the Reference Excuse for a message to sit in your inbox. If it’s ok for a message to go out of sight, out of mind — like because you’ll go looking for it when you need it — then archive it immediately. Modern email clients make it easier to search among a million messages than to scroll and scan through a thousand. But even if you don’t have decent search, you should still get it out of your inbox. Just put it in a folder called Reference and hunt through that when you need to find it.[3]

The last one, Do, is dandy. It helps with the To-do Excuse. The procrastination part anyway.

It’s the middle three — Delegate, Respond, Defer — that aren’t actually so helpful for keeping your inbox small. None of them address very well the Waiting Excuse, the Laziness Excuse, or the other half of the To-do Excuse (legitimate need to defer dealing with an email). First, Delegate and Respond don’t get things out of your inbox if you need to make sure they get dealt with and follow up if not. And Defer also can’t get a message out of your inbox without some system for transferring it to a to-do list, which is often too much overhead. However easy it is to put something on your to-do list, you’ve still got to retrieve the email again when it’s time to deal with it. Chances are you’ll be inclined to just leave it in your inbox because you’ll be dealing with it Really Soon.

So of the four excuses for a message to sit in your inbox, only the Reference Excuse has a satisfactory solution. What can be done about the others?

Proposed Email Features

What if you had a snooze button for email — a way to easily make a message disappear from your inbox for 24 hours (or any number of days)? The To-do Excuse: eliminated.

And what if, when you sent an email or replied to one, you could have your own message re-ping you, i.e., appear in your inbox after a certain amount of time if the recipient failed to follow up? This, by the way, is one of the Getting Things Done (GTD) principles: have systems you can fully trust to remind you of things so you can put them out of your mind in the meantime. With luck the other person will deal with your message or respond in some way that helps move things forward. If not, the conversation will reappear in your inbox and you’re back where you started. The Waiting Excuse: eliminated.

Finally, what if you had a simple way (just a couple keystrokes) to, while reading a message, give it an expiration date, i.e., specify a number of days after which it should automatically leave your inbox and archive itself? The Laziness Excuse: if not eliminated, at least alleviated.

Nitty Gritty

Even if I’ve convinced you in the abstract that these are good ideas, they hinge on the interface being very quick and easy. So how would they actually work?

Snooze (eliminates the To-do Excuse; makes it easier to Defer)

For any message, type “sN” where N is a number and the message will disappear from your inbox and reappear in N days. If N is omitted the message is snoozed for 24 hours. (Fractional days are allowed, eg, “s.5” snoozes for 12 hours; “s.1” for 2.4 hours; etc.) This is also nice for reminders: send yourself an email and then snooze it.

Anti-procrastination tweak: It’s possible you’ll just keep snoozing a message indefinitely. Maybe that’s ok — at least it keeps being brought back to your attention, solving the out of sight, out of mind problem. But if it’s a problem, the snooze button could force you to double the snooze length each time you snooze a message. That way you will at some point not be able to snooze it again without admitting that you’re essentially never going to deal with it.

Re-Ping (eliminates the Waiting Excuse; makes it possible to Archive/Delete immediately after a Delegate or Respond)

Have an additional email header along with To, Cc, Bcc, and Subject for outgoing mail:

  Re-Ping: N

In N days, if there’s no reply yet, your own email shows up back in your inbox, and you can reply to it to nudge the person with a “just making sure you got this”. This could also be treated as just another form of snooze: “Put this conversation back in my inbox in N days if no new replies show up before then.” Again, when you get an email on an important topic, relating to a work project perhaps, you tend not to archive it even after replying because you need to make sure the thread doesn’t get dropped. By specifying a re-ping you can confidently archive the email after replying since the thread is now guaranteed not to end up out of sight, out of mind.

I propose this as a header because I think it should be part of composing an email and should work identically whether it’s a reply in an existing thread or a brand new message.

Auto-Expire (alleviates the Laziness Excuse; less inbox slogging)

Type “eN” and the message will be automatically archived in N days. This is roughly the inverse of Snooze. Alarm clocks sometimes call this a Sleep feature where you can have the radio play for a certain amount of time and then automatically turn off. Here, if you get an email about some event in a couple weeks you can say “auto-expire 14” and it will stay in your inbox for 2 weeks, and then silently, automatically go away. It’s not that it takes much more time to clean up no-longer-relevant emails from your inbox once in a while. But when you get the email is when it has your attention. If you decide to leave it in your inbox you might as well schedule the archiving you’ll have to do in a couple weeks anyway.

It might even be valuable to cultivate the habit of setting an auto-expire for every message as you read it.[4] Auto-expire 0 is the special case of archiving right now and auto-expire 999 (i.e., almost 3 years) would be the equivalent of choosing to just leave it in your inbox. Most messages probably have a much shorter horizon of possible relevance. If done right, you might never have to do any painful inbox housekeeping.

Conclusion

These features — Snooze, Re-Ping, and Auto-Expire — offer a quick way to confidently get stuff out of your inbox. Archive+search is a huge step in that direction, but many of us clearly need more than that. You might complain that Snooze and Re-Ping only temporarily remove things from your inbox, but it’s better than that. First, if you snooze everything till closer to when you’ll be acting on it, that alone shrinks the average size of your inbox a lot. Second, it will often be the case that when the message reappears it will be much easier to decide to just archive it. Maybe you delegated something and it actually got done. Or there was some event coming up but now that it’s closer you know that you have other plans.

The Snooze and Re-Ping features allow you to almost instantly get a message out of your inbox and out of your mind, while still having full faith that it will re-appear in time for you to take necessary action. Auto-Expire spreads out the work of inbox housekeeping. It helps keep down the size of your inbox to the extent that you put off the task of archiving messages that are no longer relevant. Whether this actually increases efficiency is an empirical question but the rationale is that it saves having to open up and think about a message twice. While you’re reading an email about a conference coming up in a couple months you can set it to auto-expire in 90 days. You’ve thus ensured that soon after the conference is over, that email will no longer be cluttering your inbox — with zero further action from you.

The only one of these I’ve actually tried so far is Snooze, which I hacked up in Pine (that’s right, I mainly use Pine for my personal email). I do sometimes find myself resnoozing indefinitely, so I probably need the anti-procrastination tweak mentioned above. But I believe (hope) that by adding Re-Ping and Auto-Expire I will finally achieve Inbox Zero Nirvana.

UPDATE: See the follow-up to this article, Email Snooze and Gmail Zero.


Thanks to Melanie Reeves, David Yang, Michael Tiffany, Patrick Jordan, Dave Pennock, Kevin Lochner, Mohammad Mahdian, Ed Fu, Sharad Goel, and Samson Yeung for reading drafts of this. I’ve also gotten some great comments on Hacker News. Thank you!

Image by Kelly Savage.


P.S. Since writing this I’ve learned of two relevant startups: Etacts.com is trying to solve the Re-Ping problem, among other things. And HitMeLater.com implements email snooze. I would prefer these to be simple client-side features though.

P.P.S. Thanks for the great suggestions in the comments! Here are the new services I’ve tried, none of which I’m entirely happy with:

  • Boomerang for Gmail implements Snooze, awkwardly and cumbersomely. It also implements delayed sending.[2]
  • ActiveInbox is a monstrosity of a GTD system. I’ve barely tried this but it seems far too heavyweight for me.
  • Gmail’s Priority Inbox seems entirely wrongheaded to me, if you’re striving for Inbox Zero. If you’ve resigned yourself to an ever-growing inbox then it’s helpful. Better to have Google’s fancy AI decide which messages go out of sight, out of mind than for it to be essentially random.
  • Email Oracle [UPDATE: now defunct] implements Re-Ping as well as a crazy stalker-ish feature to try to tell you if the recipient opened your email. I prefer followup.cc:
  • Followup.cc implements Re-Ping by just cc’ing (or bcc’ing), e.g., 3d@followup.cc to re-ping in 3 days. Works very well and I use this all the time now. I would just prefer to do this fully client-side. It also works ok as Snooze by forwarding messages to followup.cc, at least in Gmail with its thread-centricness (you actually get the original message back in your inbox, not just a forwarded copy of it).

Appendix: Notes on How to Hack Snooze, Re-Ping, and Auto-Expire into Email Clients

Snooze

When you hit sN, where N is a real number, a client-side script applies the label “snooze-N” (or puts it in a folder called such) to the message and removes it from the inbox. A daemon checks all such labeled emails every so often and removes the label and puts it back in the inbox (applies the “Inbox” label) when the email’s date is >= N days in the past. Note that this means a proliferation of labels/folders of the form “snooze-N”. An open question is whether, when putting something back in the inbox, to also mark it unread. If you’re succeeding in keeping your inbox very small then this would be unnecessary.

Re-Ping

There are two parts to the hackery here: creating the additional field, “Re-Ping:”, in the compose headers, and keeping track of whether there has been a reply. It should be fine if the Re-Ping header is included in the actual outgoing message. For the actual re-pinging, a partial solution in Gmail is easy due to its thread-centricness. Don’t actually check if there was a reply, just apply the Inbox label after the specified amount of time. If a reply is already in the inbox, fine. This works because a whole thread (conversation) is either in the inbox or not. In fact, all labels are applied to threads, not individual messages.

The only thing missing with the above hack is that you may have archived the conversation after a reply came in but before the re-ping time. In that case you don’t actually want the conversation to reappear in your inbox. So to do this right you have to actually keep track of each outgoing message with a re-ping set and do the re-ping conditional on no reply.

Auto-Expire

Implementation-wise this is basically the inverse of Snooze. Label the email “auto-archive-N” and remove it from the inbox at the appropriate time.

Footnotes

[1] I’ll always archive and never delete a message, simply because the cognitive cost of deciding that I’m certain that I’ll never need to look at it again is too high. Consider the economics: How much time will you save, cumulatively, by just always hitting “archive” without thinking about whether you might ever need to look at it again? And how much will it cost you to have your archive folder full of junk? The additional storage probably costs nothing, and if your email client’s search feature is decent it won’t slow down your searches either. In other words, there’s only upside. And that doesn’t even factor in the chance of accidentally deleting something important!

[2] If you sometimes delay responses so as not to seem overeager, or because you want your reply to arrive during business hours, or any number of other reasons, check out this clever idea. I think my proposed Snooze feature also partly solves this problem.

[3] I’m anti-folders for the same reason I never delete anything. I don’t want to waste time deciding what to do with a message that I might never look at again. Everything goes in one folder and that’s where I go to find anything.

[4] It would be even better if people set expiration dates on their own outgoing mail, but I can’t think of a way to get that convention to catch on.

Tags: ,

  • wok

    I use labels, such as “Answer pending” in Gmail, and then archive mails which are related to the “To-do Excuse” .

    Concerning the “Waiting Excuse” and the “Reference Excuse”, I keep these mails in my inbox, since they serve the same purpose.

    No “Laziness Excuse” since everything else is archived.

  • http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/dreeves dreeves

    @wok: I feel that using special To-do labels (like your “Answer pending”) or starring messages that need to be dealt with only shifts the problem (for me anyway). You still have the out of sight, out of mind problem if you star or label too much. You could view your solution as redefining “inbox” to be those starred or labeled messages. Thus my proposed features for keeping your inbox (however defined) small at any given time I think would still be valuable.

    In the starring/labeling version the features become:

    o snooze: star this in 24 hours.
    o re-ping: send this back to me, starred, if no reply.
    o auto-expire: unstar this in N days.

  • http://blog.oddhead.com David Pennock

    I think there is also a psychological factor at play: the very first time you open and read an email there is a tiny feeling of pleasure. When you look at old emails you perhaps failed to process in a timely manner, there is a feeling of dread. Naturally, you seek the former and avoid the latter. See e.g.:

    http://pmarchive.com/guide_to_personal_productivity
    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6004954-the-tyranny-of-e-mail

  • Donna Silver

    This entry has changed the way my office handles email… most liberating. Thank you.

  • http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/dreeves dreeves

    @David Pennock: Wow, great point about the psychological factor! Sounds like the kind of long-term vs short-term irrationality that a commitment device could help with.

    @Donna Silver: Wait, what? You’ve got to fill us in!

  • Donna Silver

    As per your request–

    I use Thunderbird and my assistant uses Outlook and we were able, through the use of tags, to sort our inbox emails into; action items, feedback required,and holds. Then everything else is filed in the appropriate reference folder or in my case topic
    folders.

    We receive a tremendous amount of emails given that our staff of two serves over 7000 academic staff on the UW-Madison campus. There was something very liberating about sorting out everything that just has been hanging out in the inbox (we each now have
    under 50 emails in our inbox)– I hope we’ll be able to sustain this when the fall semester starts–

    Your blog entry was perfectly timed for preparing for the fall onslaught.

  • Mary Johansen

    Finally! A Blog I can relate to- I have implemented this system into my black pit of emails that seemed too overwhelming and confusing to even read from start to finish. I have gone from 80+ emails down to 27. I use Outlook 2007 and wanted to use the ‘Categories’ color codes and just found a way to work this out in this version. Apparently, you must have the Categories Field up in the title and do a ‘right click’ to enable this feature…Voila! I now breathe easier and have less need for druuuugs,
    Mary

  • http://www.mahdian.org Mohammad
  • wok

    It seems Google heard you with its priority inbox: http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2010/08/email-overload-try-priority-inbox.html

  • http://sureshamrita.wordpress.com suresh

    i am waiting for some one to implement this so that I can jump to use that mail system!

  • Pingback: Email management (for gmail users) « Lokah Samastha Sughino Bhavantu

  • http://www.followup.cc Chris

    You should definitely check out my service http://FollowUp.cc. You can set reminders on emails you send out (Cc or Bcc) or forward emails in your inbox to FollowUp to deal with later.

    The reminders that ping your threads pull it to the top of your inbox and there are one click Snooze Links that you let you defer to deal with it later.

    You can also head to the website and review your calendar of reminders in case you want to ping reminders soon and deal with them. I think it meets a lot of what you’re looking for! Try it out and let me know, thanks.

    Chris

  • http://blog.oddhead.com David Pennock

    I just read this in NYTimes, related to snooze feature (one of them is the one @Chris mentioned):

    “there are sites and plug-ins that can manage your e-mail and make it reappear at the top of your in-box at a specified date. Services like Nudgemail, Followup, Followupthen and Boomerang allow you to schedule a message to reappear as new in your in-box later by allowing you to forward the message to yourself with a time delay — from an hour to weeks or months.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/08/technology/personaltech/an-easy-way-to-stanch-the-e-mail-flood.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&ref=technology

  • http://stoneglasgow.blogspot.com Stone Glasgow

    Apple’s mail client avoids all of this work. Messages that need to be read later can be flagged; so the inbox becomes a kind of “timeline,” as are common to Facebook and Tumblr. The chore of moving messages to archives or organized into folders is becomes a nonsensical, wasted effort, because messages can be searched effectively or manually browsed quite effectively.

  • http://messymatters.com Daniel Reeves

    @Stone, I disagree! Note the point I opened with about messages going out of sight out of mind. If you star messages then the list of messages with stars (upon thars) is just the old inbox problem all over again!

    Btw, thanks for your other excellent comments recently on other posts. Still thinking about those.

  • Pingback: Gmail Zero: Beeminding Your Inbox | Beeminder Blog

  • Pingback: GmailZero: Not Just For Your Inbox Anymore | Beeminder Blog