Mailbox App Is Fun, But There’s Only One Real Fix for E-Mail
I have some difficult news to share. Your e-mail overload problem is here to stay.
We’d all prefer to spend less time managing e-mail, and every so often a new app, service, or time-management system comes along promising to help. The latest one is called Mailbox, and it’s been generating a lot of buzz over the last week or two. But unfortunately, there are no magic solutions for our e-mail woes. Unless you decide to buy some land in Montana and go off the grid (and believe me, I’ve been tempted), there are only grim, arduous solutions.
I’ve been testing Mailbox for the past week, and I’m going to tell you what I like about it and what I find lacking. But more importantly, I’m going to share some common-sense tips based on my own e-mail habits.
My process allows me to get to inbox zero more days than not. But I won’t mince words: it’s still extremely time-consuming. I find that the boost I get from Mailbox is marginal, and mainly psychological. But that doesn’t mean the app isn’t cool or useful.
Mailbox is an iOS app from Palo Alto, CA-based Orchestra, which was previously best known for building a to-do-list app (also called Orchestra). Mailbox only works on the iPhone, and it only interfaces with Gmail accounts. Those limitations will leave a lot of people out in the cold, including everyone who depends on Outlook or Exchange, but they didn’t bother me, since I love my iPhone and I’ve been a Gmail user from day one.
I applied for a place in Mailbox’s reservation queue last fall, shortly after Orchestra released a preview of the app, so I wasn’t very far back in the line when it finally went live last week. I’ll let other pundits argue over whether the app’s widely discussed reservation system was a wise strategy for avoiding server overload or just a brilliant marketing ploy.
Mailbox’s main selling point is a clever user interface that relies on four types of swiping gestures—left or right, short or long—to help you get e-mails out of your inbox. “Mailbox makes getting to zero—and staying there—a breeze,” the company promises. (At this point, I could detour into a long lament about the fact that we no longer think of electronic mail as a way to form genuine connections with other people, but merely as a source of digital litter that must be swept away as quickly as possible; but what would be the point?)
As in Apple’s own Mail app, the main screen in Mailbox shows a list of recent messages. A short swipe to the right puts the e-mail into the archive and a long one puts it into the trash. This strikes me as a delightful, economical way to elicit two possible meanings from a single gesture. (Maybe I’m weird, but I always get a little thrill from such UI innovations.)
The leftward options are more complex. A short left swipe brings up a menu that lets you “put off” a message until a time you specify (“Later Today,” “This Evening,” “Tomorrow,” “The Weekend,” “Next Week,” “In a Month,” “Someday,” or on a date of your choosing). When you put off a message, it disappears from your inbox, then re-appears at the requested time. Other companies have offered this feature in the past—notably Baydin, which has a Firefox and Chrome plugin for Gmail users called Boomerang—but Mailbox’s mobile implementation is a little more elegant.
A long left swipe, meanwhile, lets you assign an e-mail to a “list” where you can get back to it later. Technically, Mailbox lists are the same as Gmail labels, and show up as such in the Gmail Web client. Mailbox gives you three pre-specified lists (“To Buy,” “To Read,” and “To Watch”) and you can create as many new ones as you like.
This video from Mailbox explains it all in just over a minute:
And that’s all there is to Mailbox. If there is a theme at work here, it’s finding new uses for the now-familiar gestures—swiping and tapping—that make mobile computing so much more fun than PC computing. That’s my interpretation of the Mailbox philosophy, anyway. I haven’t seen Orchestra’s engineers saying that in so many words.
And I like this impulse, as far as it goes. But I don’t think it goes very far.
Mailbox does nothing to help with the core challenge of e-mail, which is that after you’ve archived and trashed and postponed as many messages as you can, you’ll probably still have a truckload of e-mails that require actual responses. And in reality, if you use Mailbox’s “Put It Off” feature, the situation will be even worse than that. On top of all the e-mails coming in from other people, you’ll also be dealing with the postponed messages sent by your past self.
Typing responses to all these non-disposable messages on the iPhone’s tiny keyboard is just as time-consuming in Mailbox as it is in any other e-mail app. If you have an iPhone 4S or later, you can gain back some time using voice dictation, but unfortunately there’s a bug in Mailbox that causes dictated text to get stuck behind the keyboard. I’ve wasted a lot of effort trying to bring text back up where I can see it.
In sum: Mailbox’s snappy interface makes it more fun to use than the iPhone’s native Mail app or Google’s Gmail app. The ability to archive or delete a message with a single rightward swipe is a very nice touch. But the list feature isn’t terribly useful, especially given that it doesn’t play well with any existing Gmail labels you may be using. And the postpone feature is just plain counterproductive—it’s a terrible idea to 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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: