Software Engineering in WordPress and Musings on the Deep Life

My Day-To-Day: Inbox Zero, Revisited

A couple of months ago, I shared my strategy for trying to get to inbox zero. In short, I mentioned the following points:

  • I think that trying to get to inbox zero is a myth at worst, and a slippery slope at best
  • I outlined my strategy for dealing with email on a daily basis
  • I talk about the software I use as well as various things such as newsletters, after hours, etc.

Since that post, I’ve changed up my strategy a little bit and since email seems to be a common issue for everyone with – well, y’know – an inbox, I thought I’d share what I’m currently doing to manage my inbox.

It’s About Getting Things Done

For those of you who have been reading along with this series, you know that I’m a GTD type of person. To that end, I tend to see things in the following way:

  • Determine if given thing is an actual task. 
  • Somethings can be done now
  • Somethings can be done by the end of the day
  • Something can be done at some point in the future

I can’t speak for everyone, but much of the stuff that comes through my inbox fits in that filter as well:

  • Not everything requires a response, but everything requires an action (even if it’s just delete or archive)
  • Somethings can be replied to now
  • Somethings can be replied to by the end of the day
  • Somethings that can be replied to at some point in the future

The point is, email can be viewed as an actual task and thus part of the GTD methodology.

So What About Mailbox App?

Mailbox App

I gave Mailbox App more than a fair shake. In fact, I used it for several months which is far more than I normally evaluate new software or new strategies.

In short, I really liked a lot of things they were doing – assigning dates to emails, the intuitive UI, and the idea of tabling certain things into the future.

Three of my biggest problems with the application were the following:

  • It didn’t allow me to respond to email’s by selecting a “from” address. This is imperative as all of my email addy’s come into a single inbox.
  • The search was weaker than Gmail’s app search which is imperative to me.
  • The app actually complicated my way of managing tasks.

The other two things that features that will likely be improved over time. I think Mailbox is a stellar application and I’d still recommend it to others.

But the thing is, since I try to filter everything through a GTD-type of system, and since I already have an application in place for that, Mailbox was actually resulting in me having two systems for managing tasks:

  1. The first system was for my every day tasks
  2. The second system was specifically for email

And when it comes to getting things done, my ultimate goal is to have a single way to manage all of the tasks that I need to do. Anything else is duplication and noise.

Paring Back Down

To that end, I’ve reverted back to the native Gmail application. In addition to some of the points I’m going to mention below, this also gives consistency between my desktop experience and my mobile experience (which is important to me, though not so much to others).

Gmail For iOS

Back To Gmail For iOS

Now, the way I manage the inbox as follows:

  • If I can respond to an email as soon as I read it, I will do it.
  • If I can’t respond to an email as soon as I read it, I will star it, then archive it.
  • If the email contains an action item, I’ll add it to my TODO’s, then archive it.
  • If I don’t need to respond to anything, I’ll archive it.

Then, at the end of each day, I’ll look at my starred emails and see if there’s anything I can respond to since the email first arrive. If I can, I do; otherwise, I leave it starred, and I leave my actual inbox at inbox zero.

This ends up me keeping a relatively clean inbox and an single place to manage tasks. If I’m on the go and can’t respond to an email, I’ll simply star it and archive it; otherwise, I respond.

Ultimately, this has reduced my list of tasks back down to a single thing and has made managing email much easier.

This Won’t Work For You

As with most things in this series, I still contend that this may or may not work for you.

I don’t believe in prescriptive advice when it comes to this kind of stuff because we all have varying degrees of time management and self-discipline and who am I to push my strategies on anyone else?

Instead, I’m offering the way I do stuff for the sake of sharing, because I occasionally get questions about it, and so that I have something to refer to when others ask me about it.

And obviously, my own advice doesn’t always work for me so who knows. Maybe I’ll have this changed up again in a few months.

After all, I have migrated away from Things, but I’ll talk about that later.


  1. Sunny Ratilal

    An interesting read Tom. I, too m had Mailbox running for a couple of months but went back to native Gmail.

    From your list, however, one of the pain points can be removed – alias support was introduced in their update which can out a few days.

    Other than that, I know what you mean with the weak search and hard management, it was frustrating to me at first but the more I used it, the more it “grew on me” but in the end just had to move back to Gmail,

  2. Mickey

    You mention task lists a lot, and you mention that you moved away from Things, but you didn’t go any deeper. For a lot of folks, having a solid trusted task system is the missing key to getting to inbox zero. What are you using for tasks now?

    • Tom McFarlin

      You mention task lists a lot, and you mention that you moved away from Things, but you didn’t go any deeper.

      Yep – you’re right, but I also said “I’ll talk about that later.” I’ll cover it in a much more detailed post, but I’m actually using Apple’s Reminders, believe it or not :).

  3. Martin Lucas

    You manage your email in a similar way to me – although I leave messages in my inbox until I can reply to them, 99% of those are within a day. I use a todo app for managing tasks and I also use Evernote for any content from emails that I need to refer to at a later date – rather than them hanging around in my inbox.

    • Tom McFarlin

      I’ve given Evernote try after try after – I want to like it, but it just doesn’t fit in with my workflow so I’ve had to abandon it.

      • Darius

        You should give a breakdown of your workflow in a future post… I know that day-to-day I couldn’t do without Evernote and Mailbox (or at least, it wouldn’t be ideal) – curious to know what you use and how.

        • Tom McFarlin

          Definitely planning to do that at some point, though I’m doing some of that with this series.

          Check out some of those posts for more details, too :).

  4. John Saddington


  5. Oliver Strauss

    Really looking forward to your upcoming(?) article on your transition from a GTD based system like Things to Reminders.

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