The Myth About Inbox(0)

Learning to manage my unmanageable email inbox in graduate school
JAN 2020
Mechanical Engineering

After extolling the logistical heroics of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian Army, my military history instructor turned to the class and declared, “Good generals study tactics; great generals study logistics.”

To my fellow graduate students, I offer a customized message: “Good graduate students study research methods; great graduate students study email.”

In this digital age, email inbox management needs no introduction whatsoever. In fact, managing my own inbox has been one of the most time-consuming endeavors of my MIT graduate career. It is a task that never ends, constantly distracts, and offers little-to-no-reward relative to the amount of time it demands. On top of this, inbox management is something no one ever taught me how to do. In fact, no one even told me to do it! Nevertheless, do it I must.

When it comes to managing my inbox, I perform a feat which most of my fellow graduate students find anywhere from appalling to impossible to a pure waste of time: I consistently keep my inbox at 0 emails. This is known as “inbox zero” in the tech world, and it is something which is becoming increasingly uncommon. See, for example, Taylor Lorenz’s article advocating for “inbox infinity”. As with most things in life, inbox management is a function of human decision making, and therefore, a universally optimal strategy doesn’t exist. What does exist, though, is a set of habits and techniques which I have personally leveraged to make inbox zero not only possible, but also highly beneficial and uniquely suited for my role as a graduate student.

Before you rush to judgement, please know that I do not have a particularly type-A personality, nor do I suffer from any obsessive compulsions which entice me to keep my inbox drained. My primary motivations are efficiency, effectiveness, and thoroughness. In the pursuit of these values, I intentionally shifted my mentality to treat my inbox as a list of tasks which need to be addressed in a short-term timescale. If a message does not meet this definition, it is (one way or another) removed from the inbox. The methods for achieving inbox zero are fairly straightforward, but they have taken time to be ingrained as habits. The following sections, which are predicated on the fact that I have merged all of my email accounts into a single Gmail account, outline these methods.

Filters and Folders

In the pursuit of automating my problems away, I have set up a series of over 75 filters in my Gmail (don’t forget about aggressively unsubscribing - the most powerful filter of all!). These filters catch 85+% of the emails entering my inbox and categorize them into a series of folders. In this way, they skip my inbox altogether. Furthermore, I have Gmail automatically open all the emails which enter into certain higher-traffic folders, such a research listservs. This method allows me to check these folders whenever I want an update on the respective topics. The majority of the 85+% emails are general announcements or advertisements which do not concern me personally, so I can skim through them quickly and use little brain power while doing so. When I do stumble across an important one though, I simply move it back into the inbox.

The Archive

Because of the effectively unlimited size of inbox storage and the efficiency of email search algorithms, most people arrive at the following conclusion: manually deleting or sorting emails into folders is a complete waste of time. *Enter the Archive*. While still mysterious to some, Gmail’s Archive is a fantastically useful concept. When an email is archived, it goes away. Where does it go? Who knows! It disappears from the inbox and can still be found in the “All mail” folder, and it is still searchable, but it isn’t in the inbox any longer. Using the archive is a very simple way to quickly clear (via swiping) non-filtered emails out of the inbox, and it is the only sort of manual email sorting I tolerate. Generally speaking, embracing the Archive allows you to “let go” of the need to sort/delete/deal with emails which the filters don’t catch. I simply just send these emails to the Archive.

Snoozing Inbox Emails

Finally, we are left with the few emails which do end up in my inbox (plus the small percentage of emails which I move there manually). Some can be sent to the Archive, but the remainder need to be dealt with. Often times, I am not ready to deal with them in the moment, so I use the most fantastic feature of all: email snooze. When an email is snoozed, it returns back to the inbox when I tell it to. In this way, I intentionally decide when to deal with my various inbox tasks; they show up only when I have time to deal with them!

Debunking the Myth

Through cutting down my inbox traffic by 85+% and embracing a systematic way for dealing with the rest, something peculiar has happened: email reception has become manageable and thus somewhat exciting again! Inbox(0) has been described as a myth, i.e., impossible to maintain, but I am here to proclaim that it is definitely possible. In fact, when pursued in a sustainable and systematic way, it can have a variety of great benefits. For example, by spending less time managing my inbox, I have more time to be a productive graduate student.