A Different Approach to Email

In Tim Ferris' book the Four Hour Work Week he shared the tip of minimizing the number of times you check email in a day. One reason that this approach is beneficial is because it will minimize the distraction from looking at the inbox. 

Yes! The Inbox is Distracting

Let me give you an example. You want to write someone an email. So you open up Gmail(or your mail program of choice). The first thing you see is your inbox. Oh! An old pal just added you on Facebook! Or, oh! Someone sent you a pull request! Your next impulse is to go add your friend on Facebook or to take a look at the pull request: it'd only take a couple of minutes. If you are someone who can resist that urge, good for you. But I usually can't. And even when I can resist the urge to actually do those things, I usually can't resist thinking about them. Half an hour later, I am usually serving the web or writing an email to someone else and have forgotten what I was doing in the first place.

Maybe the problem is the high level of in-your-face which the inbox possesses. My first attempt was Gmail Peepshow: a Greasemonkey script that initially blocks the view to your inbox. This solution didn't end up working very well, both because of how hard it is to manipulate the Gmail dom and its inflexibility, as I will explain.

Only Check Once A Day

One solution is to minimize your email checking frequency to say, once a day, as Ferris suggests. For me at least, this works out well most of the time, and keeps me focused. I have turned off push notifications on my phone(if you are hooked on push, you might try doing w/o it again, you might feel liberated), and only check email once a day, and try to take action right away at that sitting. 


However, there are occasions  when the thing you are working on requires you to correspond with someone via email, and worse, because you want to close the loop on the task ASAP, sometimes you want to be quickly notified when the correspondent replies. So, that means repeatedly checking your inbox again.

It dawned on me that the solution was to separate the urgent correspondents from the rest of your inbox. Even better would be if push notification only notified you if the urgent email comes in. After chatting with my wife about this, she seems to think I can implement this behavior using only Gmail filters, and so I got to work. 

The Solution

The first thing to do is make a filter rule that removes everything from the inbox except for ones that come from the urgent correspondents.

Matches: -from:{ vip@superimportant.com }
Do this: Skip Inbox
This rules says for anything but emails coming from vip@superimportant.com: skip the inbox. If you need to add another correspondent, you can just add them one by one within the {}'s.
Matches: -from:{ vip@superimportant.com vip@alsoimportant.com }
Do this: Skip Inbox

What we've done is reserved our inbox only for our VIP's. But now, what about the other unread mail? I am going to create a label to simulate a second inbox - the one I check once a day. I will call it @daily (The @ sign is just so it will be sorted to the top). Basically, everything can go into @daily, so my rule could be

Matches: from:(*)
Do this: Apply label "@daily"

But, here I could add a rule to filter out the bacn I get from Delta and Borders, for example

Matches: -from:{ e.delta.com e.borders.com }
Do this: Apply label "@daily"

If I want, I could add yet another rule/label, maybe @weekly, for all the bacn or less important stuff that I might still want to look at at a lower frequency.

Pros. Cons.

An advantage to using the main inbox for only the urgent stuff is

  1. you will only see the urgent stuff when you open up Gmail - nothing that distracts
  2. you can use push notification on your phone now and only get urgent notifications - for my iPhone, I've turned off the sound for whenever any mail is received(so I am not distracted), but the little number at the corner of the "Mail" icon shows me the inbox number 
    Inbox Number
    . For Android I hear the integration is even better.

The only drawback of this approach is that you will have to maintain the "Skip Inbox" filter rule - every time you change who your urgent correspondent(s) is/are, you need to go in and change it. For me, this would be every time I start an urgent task that requires a correspondent, and when I finish that task.


I think this is a novel approach to approaching email. But there's no conclusion yet because I have only begun using this. Will blog updates if I learn anything new in the process.

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