A kinder inbox

I'm in your inbox, telling you about inboxes

The year is 2014. In a glorious moment of self-actualization, you decide to finally focus your productivity on things that matter, and you pick Wunderlist/Things/Firetask as your sidekick to help you out.


The year is now 2016. In an awesome moment of self-actualization, you decide to finally focus your productivity on things that matter. You leave behind Wunderlist/Things/Firetask – didn’t work out, you’re using sticky notes currently. You pick Trello/Asana/Basecamp as your sidekick to help you out.


The year is 2018. In –

I suppose you get the point I’m trying to make. I’d like to talk about the trust we have in inboxes in the general term (like the list in a to-do app), and mention an inbox characteristic that is, in my opinion, disrespectful.


The OG inbox. Email is the timeless to-do list we hope doesn’t actually fill with to-dos. It’s not only an inbox, but it definitely fills with stuff we need to get to. Tasks arrive there without our control, too! It’s a bottomless list of other people’s priorities (oh god I hope you’re at least enjoying this email I sent to yours).

There were ideas floated around to formalize email as a medium for task management.

Let’s do better.

A simple to-do list

Ah! You’re the captain now. Nothing enters this list without you deciding it.

So you set up a single list, maybe you name it “Projects” or “Important” or “Up next”, and you put things in. You check them off when they’re done. The dopamine hit is nice, and stuff is moving. But a few months in, the bottom of the list has some tasks that, yes, should be there, but you know you aren’t getting around to doing them any time soon. You’re adding other important tasks a bit too quickly for the count to go down.

A few more months down the line, the list is more than 50% guilty bottom-of-the-list tasks you probably won’t do.

A year down the line, you realize that the list is clearly not a fresh start anymore, and it’s actually pulling you back. Using it to find focus is a maybe, but the dread and guilt are a given.

Breaking the cycle

I’ll name the invisible enemy: Bottomless inboxes. A bottomless inbox does not respect people’s capacity for processing things.

When issues pile up in, say, a factory, at some point, everything has to stop while the issues are taken care of.

When you live with discomfort at work and it accumulates, at some point it is too much, and you address it, or you begin to think about leaving.

When things accumulate in a digital inbox, there is no threshold. The capacity for pile up is infinite. Our mind is not. Meanwhile, our smart subconscious sees the daunting list, too low-priority, and too big to be worth tackling, and it whispers to us, leave, leave it all.

So we frame it as Moving Forward or A Resolution, and we leave, leave it all for a different system.

Making it better

I want to suggest two simple things to take into account, whether you’re building a productivity tool, or just organizing your own life a bit:

Things will fall off your planning. Use methods that allow for it. Many to-do systems have great inboxes but annoying triage. An inbox you can’t efficiently process is not one you end up trusting. Allow yourself to groom tasks ruthlessly: unimportant things shouldn’t stick around. Some things become unimportant before they’re done. Too few systems let you easily remove tasks without presenting it as this grave Are you sure? decision.

Your task lists should have a built-in limit. As far as software goes, I can at least point to TeuxDeux doing this. It’s got daily lists, and rolls over undone tasks to the next day. The Kanban system, too, has this idea of limited focus built right into it.

By personal experience, this limit to quantity is one of the most important aspects of systems like the Bullet Journal. Just like real life, you just can’t carry over undone tasks forever. You can’t keep filling a weekly or monthly plan with things you won’t get around to doing. So you drop them. All of this is healthy.

I tried a lot of task management apps before settling to a bullet-journal-ish method. I’ve just looked at the way I structure my weekly spreads, and it would be hard to add more than nine tasks and events (all together) in a given day. There’s no capacity for more.

Of course, most of the above observations are anecdotal. Maybe it’s just me! But there seems to be a common thread of wanting to manage the overwhelming inputs and demands of the world, without feeling like we let it down.

In picking (or building) an inbox, maybe our quest is not about thinking Finally, I can take on more tasks, but rather:

Finally, I can breathe!

❤ Loved lately

I have a soft spot for long-form journalism about crime and general mischief. It’s my reality TV, if you will. Let’s have this as the week’s theme!

The bicycle thiefYou know what would help you rob local banks and leave without being caught? A road bicycle. And, uh, Olympic training, if you can get it.

A Vast Web of VengeanceA peek into the world of monetized vengeance and harrassment.

HSBC’s Secret FilesBuzzfeed News is such an investigative journalism powerhouse. Here’s their dossier on how HSBC (basically, the bank of choice for International drug dealers) apologized in the face of sanctions, then kept right on with their dark clientèle.

Have a great week!