Inbox Hero

by Charles Miller on May 7, 2008

The Internet is full of articles on how to manage email, and I'm pretty sure I've read every one of them over the last few years. Despite this, I've never been able to stick to any of these systems long enough to pronounce any of them a success.

Hello. My name is Charles Miller, and the last time I regularly cleared my inbox was 1997.

Until now.

Almost by accident, by combining a little from column A, a little from column B and a lot of column C, I seem to have stumbled on a technique that works for me. I've been regularly processing all my incoming mail within a working day of it arriving for the last five weeks, and the system seems comfortable enough that I can't see myself falling off the wagon any time soon.

Because I know you find these things frightfully interesting, here are the details.


All my mail comes into IMAP boxes. Inbox Heaven is adamant I should be using GMail, but I disagree with pretty much every reason given. The advantages of IMAP are:

  • My email is available uniformly across multiple devices
  • My mail clients cache mail locally and update in the background to reduce annoying network lag
  • My mail clients can aggregate mail from multiple sources... or not if I don't want to deal with my personal mail on my office workstation
  • Working offline is an option (albeit not one I take advantage of very often)
  • IMAP is an open protocol with hundreds of implementations, so I don't have to rely on the kindess of strangers when time comes to change mail clients or move to the next great mail-storage system

(A couple of people emailed me to point out that GMail supports IMAP, which might make it worthwhile thanks to the server-side spam-filtering.)

The main disadvantages of using IMAP are that my reliance on client-side spam filtering, flagging and smart folder-ing make this system entirely useless on my iPhone. Which is good. The moment I'm so tied to email that I need to read it from my phone is the day I need to throw said phone away.

My mail client of choice is Apple's I'm sure this system is do-able in other clients, though. In, I create two smart folders:

  • Unread mail in all accounts
  • Flagged mail in all accounts

Unless I'm hunting down a message in my archives, these are the only two folders I read.

The Process

A lot of Inbox Zero primers tell you to only have your mail client check for mail once or twice a day, and subsequently force you to deal with your mail in large chunks. This is what broke me every time. I'd hit the "Get new mail" button and be immediately buried under the boring task of sorting that huge slab of email before I could continue on with my life.

I follow the Inbox Heaven approach instead. My day is chock-full of short periods of inactivity, and when I have one, I'll alt-tab into Mail and cull the contents of the Unread smart folder. Culling is a simple process:

  • Sort the folder by subject
  • At most, skim-read the message (many messages can be culled by subject-line alone).
  • If the message is spam, junk it (cmd-shift-J)
  • If the message is tl; dr but you might want to read it later, flag it (cmd-alt-L).
  • If the message needs a reply or further action, flag it
  • If the message needs to be kept (receipts, correspondance), copy it to the appropriate archive folder (thanks to smart mailboxes, once you've flagged a mail you can archive it immediately and still have it available to act on)
  • Otherwise, delete

One or two times a day, go through the "flagged messages" folder and work out what else to do with them.

Why this works for me

The biggest reason I've stuck with this when other Inbox Zero systems failed me is that it mostly works in "stolen time". Even with the most efficient system in the world, slogging through mounds of email is dull, and looking forward to an hour of dedicated email maintenance is a great recipe for just giving up and letting it get on top of you.

What's really dumb is that I didn't come up with this on my own, I had to crib it from other sources. Really, this is exactly how I've kept on top of RSS for the last year. So much so that I'm seriously considering taking advantage of Mail's built-in RSS support so that my feed-reading and email-reading can just become one process.

Previously: Direct Fail

Next: ...with ninjas