Inbox Infinity

by Laura Fitton on April 29, 2008

I just FAIL at the Inbox Zero concept and related methods for taming the email beast. I know this so well that I’ve never really *tried* hard to get there. A few half-hearted, high-energy assaults on my inbox, adoption of some of the main principles, yes, but never achieved. And the progress I *do* make I never manage to preserve.

The truth is, a LOT of my email just serves as little flags of information that I can take in at a glance with no need to act on. The time it takes to find and delete all of these little flags, if I bothered, would be wasted. It’s enough to have them register in my brain via gmail or blackberry and then flow away in the stream that is my inbox.

What I *really* need isn’t inbox zero, it’s inbox infinity.

Inbox Infinity

I want my optimized inbox to automatically delete all messages on a rolling time frame, x weeks or days after receipt. With that as the default, I would set up rules for certain messages to auto-archive instead of delete. The bulk of messages received fall into the first or second treatment.

Everything else can then be batch processed using an “Inbox Zero” like system, where I respond, convert the message to a task, add an event to my calendar or tag and archive information I will need for later reference.

This in place, I’d only have to give mind and click-share to the messages I need to act on. The rest would just play their parts as messengers and beacons and then drift away on the river without my intervention. It’s a subtle difference, and might not sound like a big time-saver to many of you, but deleting and archiving by hand is actually a substantial (and worthless) part of my inbox maintenance.

What do you think? Are there hackarounds in Gmail that would let me do this?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott April 29, 2008 at 2:54 pm

I think the “inbox infinity” idea is fantastic! I’ve been very diligent about keeping my inbox at zero, but I generally don’t get too many at once so I can usually process them right away. However, I have noticed when I get a high volume quickly I tend to do what you do — leave them around in the inbox as little reminders.

Having a way to use your time only on the important e-mails (mark as a to-do item, process immediately, archive, etc) and let the not-so-important ones drift away seems like a much more logical and efficient use of your time.

I’ll bet there’s a way to write a filter in Gmail to do this…if I come up w/anything I’ll post it

Bruce Wagner April 29, 2008 at 9:58 pm

I have another idea…

I call it my READING email account.

I NEVER allow subscriptions to newsletters to enter my normal email — only PERSONALLY composed messages from one person, to me.

All newsletter subscriptions, Google News Alerts, and RSS Feeds (courtesy of the magic of the free, go to my READING EMAIL ACCOUNT.

My normal MESSAGING email account is bruce@…..

My READING materials are sent to reading@…..

That way,

(1) If I don’t get a chance to look at it, it doesn’t really matter.
(2) If I feel like reading, it’s all in one place. And,
(3) My normal email Inbox contains NOTHING but personal messages I need to deal with — no reading.

Bruce Wagner

Bruce Wagner April 29, 2008 at 10:00 pm

PS – I also have another email address, called todo@….

I forward all ToDo tasks to myself at that address. Then, I have all of them in one place, so I can copy them all to my GTD lists en mass.

Jeredb April 30, 2008 at 6:27 am

I hope to all that is holy that administrators at the University I work at do not see this post. They constantly complain about the amount email they get, but having email automatically deleted after a certain amount of time will only my my and my colleagues day much more difficult. Probably lots of restoring from backup tapes.

Declaring email bankruptcy and then truly following a system like Inbox Zero, is do-able, it just takes a little bit of discipline, understanding that touching email once and converting into a task or reply, etc. is critical.

Whew. Sorry if that sounded rant-y.

Stowe Boyd April 30, 2008 at 10:49 am

Have you looked at the Remember The Milk integration with Gmail? It doesn’t delete your mail at a future date, but it does allow you to tag it with the date you need to respond by, and archive it immediately. See

Amanda French May 1, 2008 at 10:00 am

This does sound like a good idea. Especially if a client was very careful to warn you when it was going to delete your e-mails.

I don’t know Gmail, but in Thunderbird you could easily hack together a fairly good version of this. Tbird allows you to filter by date and move all messages before, say, 4/1/2008 to the Trash. You’d have to update it every month or whatever, though, since it only takes specific dates, not “older than one month.”

Thunderbird, and I’m sure some other clients that I’ve seen, also have “Expunge Inbox on Exit.” I’ve always wondered who, if anyone, would dare to use that.

Amanda French May 1, 2008 at 10:01 am

Hey, bite my tongue — Tbird also lets you filter by “Age In Days” and “is,” “is greater than,” or “is less than.” Boom. Done. Move those puppies to the Trash.

Darwin Stephenson May 2, 2008 at 1:22 am

In a recent foray into corporatehood I managed the country’s largest Records Management Consulting Practice and e-mail management was a big part of our practice.

Here is the rub: An e-mail becomes a discoverable record the second you anticipate litigation. Once you anticipate litigation you have a legal obligation to preserve that e-mail. And this includes stopping any auto delete processes that normally occur.

Thus the concept of inbox zero is a touchy subject. What we really need is a method for archiving e-mail in a way that it isn’t overly taxing on the user (e.g. doesn’t take much effort) and that these archived e-mails are easy to retrieve when you want them.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you don’t normally purge e-mails and after anticipating litigation you start deleting then you look like you’re hiding the smoking gun. And if you keep everything forever then you’ve got everything you’ve ever written falling into the discoverable record.

Thus I’m advocating the Mission Impossible version of GMAIL. Once you read an e-mail you have 5 minutes to do something with it before it auto deletes. Or at least once you read something you have no more than 24 hours to either move it into an archive or it will be deleted.

@digitaldarwin on Twitter

Marina Martin May 2, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Get the GMail Macros Greasemonkey script and learn the GMail keyboard shortcuts.

Archive? Just hit ‘y’ when the message is open or ‘xy’ if you’re in list view. Use ‘j’ and ‘k’ to move up and down. (Hold down Shift to select multiple messages.)

Delete? Just hit Shift+3. Zoom.

I’d also spend a few minutes each day over the next couple of weeks focusing on creating email filters. I love Chris Brogan’s ‘bacn’ filter and set all ‘announcement’ messages (from Twitter, BrightKite, etc.) to skip the inbox and go to ‘bacn’. Every time a message is in my Inbox, I ask myself if I’ll ever see a message like it again and what rule I can set for it.

Out of 100s of emails a day, only a handful even hit my Inbox in the first place, and I can handle those with just a couple keystrokes.

Adam Boettiger May 23, 2008 at 10:06 am

Interesting about the discovery process. The way I have my email set up, I do archive everything, but I can delete liberally (and do), on the understanding that if I need something later on I can locate it quickly in the archive.

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