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!

benefits of twitter lists

I really like twitter lists.  JobMob blogged about how to use them.  I agree with what they said, but have a different personal use for them.  Here’s my take on twitter lists.

I use twitter in several different ways.  Lists help me deal with those ways.

Current tweets

This is the traditional see things as it happens model that twitter was founded on.  I don’t read everything this way, but it is good for seeing a small number of the most recent tweets.

Before lists: I used TwitterFox now EchoFon to see tweets that come when I happen to be online.

After lists: Same.

Reading a lot of tweets

I get home after work and am curious what kinds of things have been tweeted that day.  This is where lists shine.  Even if you were reading the same number of tweets, it is faster to read them in logical groups rather than time.  And lists let you skip ones you don’t feel like reading.

Before lists: Follow less people so they wouldn’t clog up my tweet stream.  Use an RSS feed for some topics so they wouldn’t clog up my tweet stream but I could still read them.

After lists:

One time setup

  • Follow the people I was following by RSS so now I’m following everyone I want to
  • Add *all* my contacts to one list.  Some public lists and some private lists
  • Open all my lists in Firefox tabs and bookmark the set

To read

  • Open all tabs in Firefox.
  • Look at the ones I am interested in.  (for example, read jokes tab when I need a pick me up)

Reading tweets on a topic

Before lists: Scan tweet stream, search

After lists: Open the list pertaining to the topic.  Easy!

Public vs Private Lists

Public lists are good for things like

  • listing the JavaRanch moderators
  • jokes
  • topics of interest.

Private lists are good for things like:

  • hobbies you prefer to keep quiet
  • more sensitive topics (like the society of secret _____)
  • less than complementary lists (I have a “people-who-post-way-too-much” list for people who I am interested in periodically, but don’t want to read all their stuff)
  • “other” – a kitchen sink list until there are more people in that category – it doesn’t really make sense to others


Lists may not have been out long, but I rely on them already.  Combined with tab bookmarking, they are very powerful.  I imagine this twitter clients will catch up soon.

Follow me on twitter @jeanneboyarsky