A different path to Inbox Zero

Nearly two years ago, I had an idea for an iOS app. I won’t bore you with the details but let’s just say it was Mailbox. Because it was basically Mailbox.

Regrets aside (InboxHero.net is now free again FYI), the email inbox has needed attention for years and apps like Mailbox, Triage and the new Gmail are providing a better life for email-phobics and productivity fiends alike.

But there’s an interesting distinction in the different approaches they’re taking too.

One mail at a time

On one hand, you have Mailbox and Triage. I used Mailbox relentlessly for a couple of months (until I moved to a Nexus 4) and there was something empowering and satisfying about how it shared my desire for a semi-GTD approach to Inbox Zero.

And then, with one foot in the Android camp, I moved toward a unified Gmail approach across Macbook, iPad and iPhone 5. And soon the new Gmail Inbox, which automatically separates incoming mail into Primary, Social, Promotions and Updates. One thing they’ve definitely got right is the fact the new inbox shows up across all Gmail apps and platforms — something that makes Mailbox only half satisfying once you return to a desktop.

But the new Gmail also offers a different route to Inbox Zero.

Even before Mailbox, I was literally trying to get to zero emails in my inbox. Whether they were essential messages from colleagues or marketing fluff, this meant every single message needed a decision to turn into a task or archive, so as to keep the inbox clear.

Google’s strangely shy about showing off the fifth category: Forums

Seeing read

With the new Gmail inbox, this changes. As long as you can train the algorithms to route the right mail to “Primary”, that’s the only inbox that should need your direct attention throughout the day. And anything going into Promotions or Updates probably only needs a quick glance.

Alongside archive/ action, now there’s a third, lower maintenance option: scan the subject lines. They say decreasing decision fatigue helps you concentrate on the things that matter — and I think the new Gmail represents a step in that direction. Nagging notifications are dismissed just by viewing tab.

Alongside the obvious commercial goals this new design enables for Google, I think for many, this new route to Inbox Zero may be a welcome and lower impact solution.

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