Escaping the Tyranny of My Inbox

As I look at my smartphone this morning I see that I have 47,201 unread messages.

That’s for all six of my active email accounts: personal, consulting, and work for my current company and three side projects.

568 unread messages for my work account alone.

The sheer number of messages is depressing. It’s like trying to solve world poverty: at some point the numbers get so huge I feel like I can’t possibly make a dent in the problem.

But that’s not even the worst problem. Just going through the day’s messages sends me off preparing dozens of must-have-right-now responses. Even getting through last night‘s messages means I postpone my week’s priorities by hours, if not days. And perhaps most insidious of all is the emotional burden of constantly feeling behind. Good business practice means being professional, and professionalism requires responsiveness. We all know this. In my head I’m constantly worrying that by NOT clearing that box I’m damaging my professional relationships and possibly leaving huge opportunities on the table. My inbox is chock-full of notices from the online communities I’m interested in, pointing to content that I would no doubt LOVE. Even the helpful Gmail ‘Marketing’ tab, which so usefully groups all the messages from the sites I visit, probably contains some amazing offers that would revolutionize my life … and which I don’t have time to read.

Don’t even talk to me about Twitter.

Context-Shifting Is The Devil

This has been going on for as long as I can remember. I’m not alone. But I’m a product guy, so I’ve thought a lot about WHY this is happening to me. And here’s what I’ve come up with: context. In the past 30 minutes before writing this post, my inbox forced me to context-shift sixteen different times – I’ve moved from investor relations to customer support issues to confirming that dermatologist appointment to processing alerts from my marketing automation platform. And then back again over the same territory multiple times. Just the context-shifting and duplication of focus probably wastes a huge chunk of my time. So what’s the organizing principle forcing me to tackle these issues in this order?


That’s last-in-first-out. The organizing principle of – I would say – 100% of the email clients in the world today. If your manager told you to always work on the thing most recently requested of you, you’d probably quit. And you’d be right to do so: that’s an asinine way to organize your time. And yet we allow our inbox – where we spend 40% of our work lives – to manage our attention that way without questioning it.

I think it’s high time we fixed that.

A Smarter Inbox

First of all, can we get rid of that metaphor? “Inbox” is a holdover from a pre-information age era that is over. Back in the grey-flannel-suit days, your inbox was the ONLY means of communication at your disposal, and was invented to funnel the raw material for the SINGLE job you did at your desk. Let’s be honest: it was invented for typists, which didn’t have to intellectually grapple with the documents they were processing – they just had to do so in 50-words-per-minute or less. At least physical inboxes were actually incapable of holding more than a certain amount of messages, and when they were full they signaled publicly that your workflow capacity was misaligned with demand. If inboxes included every item in every newspaper you cared about (provided separately), plus everything that happened on your phone, and it also followed you around all day, the idea of your “inbox” might come close to what it has become. These days it’s a stupid idea. Referring to the problem as an “inbox” problem automatically limits our thinking on the subject.

Let’s also get past “messages.” There’s a big difference in response expectation between one-to-one messaging, one-to-many (sending a tweet, courtesy notifications) and many-to-one (receiving a tweet, advertising). Some messages need “replies,” but the rest require very different forms of action: clicking on a link, adding to a list, etc. Our email treats them all the same, of course.

Let’s talk instead about communications UX. I want an experience that groups my messages by context and by importance. When I’m thinking about investor relations, I don’t want to think about my dermatologist. And when I *am* thinking about my dermatologist, I want to clearly distinguish between the in-the-moment dialogue I’m having with my doctor and the background reading I requested on that new mole on my elbow and the Groupon on skin care products that came in last week. But not mixed together – displayed separately. It would also be nice if I automatically saw background research on my doctor and a feed of useful tweets or blog posts on the subject at my disposal – “messaging” that wasn’t  pushed to me, but intelligently pulled based on my current context.

This UX wouldn’t be hard to build. It could ride on the rails of the existing email and social media accounts. It should be pretty smart on its own, but I’d be okay with training it – both overtly and by letting it watch what I do with the messages I process over time. It should be designed beautifully for whatever device I’m using and tailored to my favorite way of absorbing information (newspaper, magazine, slideshow, etc.). It should also be smart enough to NOT show me things that are irrelevant or out of date.

So why doesn’t this thing exist? I’ll add it to my Startup To Do list. If anyone wants to help me build it let me know.


Michael Sattler

With a career spent in founding and technical leadership roles with new and enterprise-level organizations, Michael Sattler is a veteran in technology strategy, operations, and product management. He’s spent decades in B2B and B2C SaaS product development, software and application design, engineering operations, new venture creation, and innovation practices.

He has scaled and managed technical teams from 2-50+ across three continents, led large-scale cross-functional program management, and founded or co-founded six companies.