managing my inbox

Email overload!  Must change something.


Up through November, I thought I had decently organized my gmail.  I had filters set up to direct certain kinds of mail to labels that could be read on demand/on the weekend/etc.  I was able to find most things that stayed in my inbox.  I did have a constantly growing inbox size, but it didn’t bother me.

The problem

Early this fall, I took a number of flights within six weeks.  My system sputtered and fell apart from that.  I learned I didn’t have a way to deal with “I’ll do that later” things.  I had been using gmail’s star for that, but there were too many.  When I got home from each trip, I had dozens of starred items and countless more I hadn’t even read/processed.  My inbox size shot up so I couldn’t find things.  I didn’t have a clear picture of what needed doing.  Clearly something needed to change.

What I tried – Active Inbox (Getting Things Done)

The first thing I tried was ActiveInbox‘s Getting Things Done style plugin to gmail.  Basically, you move each e-mail from your inbox to a state (action/waiting/someday/etc) and a project(javaranch/robots/blog/etc).  This gets them out of your inbox and into an organized state.  The plugin also contains some helper features like integrated access to previous mails to that person

What I liked:

  1. Forcing me to have flow
  2. Reminding me to get stuff out of the inbox
  3. Getting me in the habit of having flow

What I didn’t like:

  1. Gmail filters only let you automatically direct e-mail to  one label.  This means my filters are sending things to “S/Action/Robots” but not “P/Robots”.
  2. Gmail was very intermittent about showing me the ActiveInbox tree to view mails and the normal list of labels.  When the tree was showing, I had trouble viewing things because I couldn’t view the categories I created under “S/Action” individually.  I could only read “S/Action” in one fell swoop.
  3. When on another computer, ActiveInbox isn’t there and you have to choose the labels you want manually.

Overall impressions:

  • Active Inbox got me more organized.
  • Active Inbox trained me to think about state in my personal mail.
  • Problem #1 is bothering me too much to continue using Active Inbox, but I am creating state based labels and using them instead.

In other words, I used Active Inbox as training wheels for a bike.

What I tried – 0boxer (Zero Inbox)

While I still had Active Inbox installed, I tried the 0boxer game.  The game has a banner on top of your gmail that tells how many points you have.  It is supposed to motivate you to get to zero mails in you inbox.

What I liked:

  1. Blatant reminder to go through mails
  2. Counts of how well you do each day

What I didn’t like:

  1. It slowed down my gmail noticably.
  2. It said I got to zero inbox when I hadn’t.

Overall impressions:

0boxer was a good way to go through my “legacy” e-mails.  With Active Inbox, I declared triage and said I would only manage e-mails received after September 22nd.  0boxer helped me go through those mails.  I did uninstall 0boxer after about 900 deletions due to the negative performance implications.

Where I am now

I’m actually in a comfortable state now.  I still have about 50 pre September “triage” e-mails left.  (out of about 200 originally.)  I have a system that is working for me.  It still involves the inbox/stars for very short term things.  But now I have a consistent number of post September e-mails in my inbox and an organized set of labels for time/type of things.  Active Inbox taught me the importance of using two labels for the same mail.  Even without Active Inbox, it really helped!

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