Adopting the zero inbox approach and Google Inbox

I’ve long known that the way I treat emails is far from satisfactory. As director at Project Simply I also assume the roll of actively project managing most of our jobs, be they large, long term application development jobs or short, one offs. I’m often emailing my team, or emailing clients, emailing contractors or emailing third party companies that we’re collaborating with. These correspondences, alongside the multiple alerts from Google, Teamwork PM, Github, dploy, WordPress, hosting reports, account renewals and not to mention newsletters and delivery information for new impulse buys from Amazon and Threadless, create what I can only describe as an almighty internet barf in my Mac Mail, an unorganised spewing of data that flies my way and leaves me batting things off the best I can, until the next convulsion throws some more my way.

It’s quite clear that I needed to rethink the way I was receiving and reacting to these emails, before it led to disaster. In amongst the alerts, the informational, the slightly useful and the spam lay key messages, important questions from clients, new leads for new business and business critical info. A few too many times I’ve found myself remembering an email somewhere in my inbox that needed attending too, a little too late. I knew that with a new method, I could satisfactorily organise my emails into a priority that made sense- one that sensibly filed away the useful info and set aside the ones that needed a response or a follow up into a nice, easy to read to do list.

A year or so ago I attempted this with Mailbox, a rather delightful looking mail client that had a lot of buzz and a very enticing waiting list that made me feel like I was sitting outside an exclusive nightclub. This is how I learnt of the zero inbox approach, and while the idea excited me, I found the lack of a desktop app problematic. I needed something I could spend my day at a desk with, and while the phone app looked and worked like a dream, I found myself back in Mac Mail, trying to force the methodology into an application that simply wasn’t designed for it.


I left the idea for the time being, but then came along the shiny, material design blue-fest of Inbox by Google. I got early access when it was only available for users, and tried it out on my personal account. I instantly loved the sneak-peak semantic thumbnails that summarise visually the important content of each mail. I loved the non-linear bundles system, that recognises certain types of emails, such as purchases, travel or finance, and puts them altogether, automatically. I loved how closely tied the system was to the Google Tasks system, so I could easily turn an email into a to-do. I also loved the idea of snoozing emails. Very often I’m in a meeting, or deep in the midst of some code, and while I notice an email coming through, it’s just not possible to respond to it there and then. Being able to hit ‘snooze’ and have it pop back in the mailbox at a time of my choosing was a vital feature that I simply don’t know how I lived without. It felt like it was half way there to organising my inbox for me, but as it wasn’t available for my work email address, it drifted from my every day use, and I found myself back to the iOS and OSX default mail apps before long.

Recently, however, Google Inbox was released for all Google account email addresses, so I took it upon myself to adopt the new app, and the new way of treating emails. This blog post chronicles my uses, my love, my annoyances, and ultimately whether or not its a system ready to be adopted for professional, high volume email usage.

Day One

A slightly sunny Saturday afternoon, and I add Inbox to my shiny new iPhone 6 plus and iPad and turn off the default mail accounts. I add a bookmark to Chrome and then I spend about an hour or so going through the beast that is my inbox (7,000 little internet barfs inside) and perform a mass clear out. I mostly just select ‘done’ on everything, which pushes your emails into an archived section, out of the way. I’m not entirely sure I should be doing this to every email, but I can’t cope with putting serious thought into 7,000 emails. I feel a bit like when I’m tidying my house. As fast as I can, get it over with, shoving everything into draws, randomly. A problem for future me to worry about. Once everything’s out the way, then I can start afresh. Google rewards me with a zero inbox with a cute little picture of a material design sunset, or sunrise or something. I feel satisfied with my life.


Day Two

My beautiful empty inbox keeps getting interrupted by emails from companies I don’t care about that I wish would leave me alone. No, Monarch airlines, I’m not going to fly with you again. No Just Eat, I don’t want to reorder a curry through you, I’ve already eaten. Please leave me alone. They fall directly into my “Promos” bundle, which is great, although I don’t want them at the top of my inbox, so I have to hit ‘done’ next to them. Which feels strange, as I haven’t “done” anything.

Later I need to find someone’s phone number, and I know they emailed me recently. The search works really nicely, and returns both a little summary about the person and all emails that mention him, so I can easily find the number, much quicker than in mac mail.

I’m a little concerned that the Chrome tab doesn’t tell me how many unread mail I have, and there doesn’t seem to be a notification on OSX. My phone’s pinging away, so maybe that’s not so much of an issue.

Inbox doesn’t appear to have an ability to add HTML signatures, and I know that they’re a little dated in this new world of conversational, text message style emailing, but I do feel as though they’re needed when sending professional emails, especially from a digital agency. I find a useful Chrome extension called Gmelius which appears to resolve that, by adding in HTML signature imports from Gmail and a few other handy features such as an instant remove from mailing list button (take that Monarch!).

Day Three

Right, it’s my first workday using the new approach. It’s 7.20am and there’s already a collection of emails sitting in my previously empty inbox. I lie in bed and remove a few unimportant notifications, add a reminder to cancelling a hosting account and pin a couple of client message down so that I can address them when I’m in the office.

Sitting at my desk presents me with a couple of issues with the desktop version. Firstly, there’s no little number next to the favicon in my Google Chrome tab, which is a bit annoying, especially as the main gmail website has this feature. Did the inbox team forget about it? Or did the traditional gmail team keep it to themselves because they were angry and jealous of their new hip younger sister? A little later, I find another thing lacking about the browser version. I can’t drag files into my emails. What is this, 2011?!  This seems like a strange, glaring miss. I find that I can drag files in from finder in the new ‘compose email’ box, but not when replying to already existing email threads. Another omission, there’s no OSX notifications as of yet either, so I’m relying on my phone to ping, and then addressing the emails within the app.

Despite these issues, I’m feeling remarkably well organised, and have all my correspondences in order. There’s no nagging feeling in the back of my mind that perhaps, just perhaps, I’ve missed something. After an afternoon meeting I clear off my messages and reply to those I need to. My inbox goes back to being empty. Go me.

Day Four

Certain little things are really annoying me about the browser version of Inbox. I can’t right-click on file attachments and copy them into new emails. This is something I do quite a lot. I’m starting to find the search facility a bit frustrating too. It’s fast, but it doesn’t seem to take me direct to the message that I’m searching for. And what is with drafts? They build up like a beast, so you end up with a billion draft versions written out (see the featured image). It also seems to cut off certain aspects thinking they’re not necessary, but actually they’re vital parts of a chain of conversation. My Inbox is empty, I’m more organised, but I’m starting to get grumpy. I’ll continue for the week and see if the grump turns into a hump.


Two weeks later- love and annoyance

So two weeks have passed since adopting my zero inbox approach to work emails. There’s been some great moments, the sheer ecstasy of clearing out all my tasks and being greeted with the pleasant animation of the sunset just before leaving to watch England play New Zealand at cricket, for example. There’s been a lot of agony too- a strangely poor web browser version being the main culprit, missing key features and the handy ability to swap files around here and there with ease. In terms of making me more organised, I’d definitely say that the zero inbox concept has made my workday better. I feel like I know exactly what’s going on, and even when inundated with tasks from emails after a long meeting, I can refer to my todo list and keep it tidy and manageable. The snooze feature works great, although slightly depressing when 10 snoozed emails of problems fly through to you at 8am on a Monday morning. Ultimately, I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending Google Inbox for other business users, not yet. But the concept of a zero inbox is definitely something I would recommend to everyone. Especially those with a very, very dynamic email account. For me, I’ll be sticking with Google Inbox for the future, hoping that the missing features are just around the corner, or a plugin will come along to make my life complete.