Mailbox App Is Fun, But There’s Only One Real Fix for E-Mail

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touch any e-mail more than once. I can’t see millions of people switching over to Mailbox. But I can see Apple or Google buying Orchestra, or copying Mailbox’s features. [Author’s Note, October 2013: In fact, Orchestra wound up getting acquired by Dropbox about a month after this column originally appeared.]

Now, I said above that I’d explain my own method for zeroing out my inbox most days. I’m afraid it won’t sound very sexy or fun, at least compared to the sunny scenario in Mailbox’s promotional video. The method is simple, and it’s largely based on advice I’ve gotten from Mark Hurst, the founder of Creative Good and the author of a great little book called Bit Literacy, plus some elements of my own. The steps are the same no matter what e-mail program you’re using.

1. Sign up for an e-mail prioritization system like Sanebox or Gmail’s Priority Inbox. Let that system siphon off the unimportant e-mail so that it never shows up in your inbox in the first place. Glance through this low-priority stuff at the end of the day. (You’ll be able to delete most of it without even opening it.)

2. Back in your regular inbox, delete all the irrelevant, spammy, or purely informational e-mails. Archive the stuff you might need for reference later.

3. The remaining e-mails are actually important and require some sort of response. They probably fit into one of two categories: simple requests for information, and action items where someone is asking you to do something.

3a. For the information requests, write a response, then archive the e-mail.

3b. For the action items, add the item to your to-do list, then archive the e-mail. I use Apple’s Reminder’s app to store my to-do lists, because it automatically synchronizes across my Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Wunderlist is also fine, as is Hurst’s Good Todo app.

Repeat until your inbox is empty. Stay at your desk as long as it takes.

4. When you’re feeling fresh, start on your to-do list. This isn’t e-mail; this is actual work. Remember that? It’s what we’re supposed to be doing, instead of managing our inboxes.

5. Realistically, there will be nights when you just don’t have time to zero out your inbox. If that happens a couple of days in a row—and it happens to the best of us—you’ll quickly end up with more e-mail than you can handle in one sitting. When this happens, resort to whatever special tricks you need to help you get back to zero. Brew a pot of coffee, put on some jazz radio, and spend your Saturday morning powering through your inbox. I find that Baydin’s Email Game helps me in these situations.

That’s my system. It isn’t fast, it isn’t fun, but it’s the only procedure that’s ever worked for me. In my experience, apps like Mailbox can only ever help with Step 2, which is why it’s a mistake to get too worked up about them.

But I’m always looking for new ideas, and I’d love to hear how you manage your own e-mail. Leave a comment below or send me a note at I promise I’ll reply. Probably.

This is the ninth in a recurring series of Xconomy articles about e-mail and task management. Previously in the series:

How I Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy and Discovered the Bliss of an Empty Inbox

Okay, You’ve Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy. Now What?

Taskforce: The Y Combinator Startup with a Solution for E-Mail Overload

Gmail Fail: The Problem with Priority Inbox

Could A Game Be the Answer to Your E-mail Woes?

7 Ways We Can Work Together to Restore E-Mail Sanity

Not All E-Mails Are Created Equal; Sanebox Knows the Difference

Punching the “Clear Your Head” Button: The Xconomy Interview with David Allen

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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5 responses to “Mailbox App Is Fun, But There’s Only One Real Fix for E-Mail”

  1. FYI: Wunderlist lost my task list with an upgrade to the iPhone in Dec (’12). I email their support desk 3 times and didn’t get a reply. I deleted Wunderlist and recently replace it with Orchestra’s ToDo. It has great voice recognition and swiping is a smart feature too. Great that WL is on multiple platforms, but what’s the most important think about any ToDo list? Not losing it.

  2. Unrollme is worth subscribing for managing mailers etc and is free

  3. MichaelD says:

    You should check out Tickletrain. It’s the only one that actually does the followup for you. It doesn’t just procrastinate following up, it has them ready to send. It’s pretty unique and very powerful. Also works with any email program….

  4. CraigM says:

    Mailbox is shooting itself in the foot not playing well with business-oriented email (ie. Outlook).

    In a small consulting business like where I work, most of my to-do list is generated by a request in an email. I can Mailbox’s delay feature completely replacing a to-do list (which I rarely seem to have time to keep up to date anyway… sticky notes everywhere)… but we use Outlook, and not Gmail.

    In fact, I’d welcome the message going away and then coming back when I actually have to do something about it. That’s far more efficient in my opinion than spending the time to copy the task over to a to-do list.

  5. ewagner says:

    Just snooze any emails requiring you to type a long response until a time when you know you’ll be at your computer. Works great.