I hate email again

How To Solve Email Overload

Email was destroying my life, so I destroyed email.

Back in 2013, I decided I could no longer deal with the flood of email I received every day. Something had to change and I spent weeks testing different applications and creating a new workflow aimed at simplifying my email routine. It worked. I landed on an app called Mailbox that would completely change the way I handled email, and things got even better once Mailbox, now owned by Dropbox, released a Mac client. I had the same experience on my smartphone and PC, and it was reasonably smooth sailing.

Then Dropbox ruined everything.

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First, a bit on how Mailbox works.

It was among the earliest applications that are really built for “inbox zero,” which is an email strategy where the goal is to clear emails out of your inbox as quickly as possible and keep your inbox message count at zero. Mailbox makes it remarkably easy to achieve that goal. Swipe gestures let you archive or delete emails instantly as they arrive if they don’t require any action on your part, and a modified filing system coupled with a full-featured snooze mechanism let you quickly organize emails that do need your attention.

I loved it. I went from having thousands of unread emails in my inbox at any given time to having zero emails in my inbox nearly all of the time. And the best part was that once I retrained myself and got into the habit of handling email this way, it took almost no time at all. In the morning I would wake up to a full inbox and have it whittled down to zero in mere minutes. Then, throughout the day, I would handle email messages in chunks as they arrived, tearing through each batch in seconds flat.

It was all so easy. It was glorious. And then it was over.

Dropbox announced earlier this month that it will shutter Mailbox early next year. The company’s goals were unclear to the public when it first announced plans to acquire Mailbox, and apparently they were ultimately unattainable. It’s a sad time for users like me, but it happened and now we need to move on and find a new email solution that’s just as good.

The problem is, however, that there isn’t one.

Mailbox wasn’t perfect for everyone — one had to fully adopt the process for which Mailbox was designed in order for the system to work. Mailbox also wasn’t the most comprehensive email solution out there, and it certainly wasn’t the cleanest. In fact, the company’s Mac client was so buggy that it could make your blood boil at times. But as I noted, every feature of the app was designed around Inbox zero, and it worked very well.

I’ve been on the hunt for a new email solution ever since Dropbox made its announcement, and I’ve tried about two dozen combinations of mobile and desktop apps at this point. The bad news for former Mailbox users is that I haven’t found anything that measures up. The good news is that if you’re willing to make a few compromises, there are some workable solutions out there.

No solution will give you all of Mailbox’s features, unfortunately. You’ll have to choose which features are most important to you and then find a mobile/desktop client duo that has as many of those features as possible. I landed on Outlook for iOS and Airmail for Mac.

Outlook is a good email client for the iPhone. It’s very clean, very fast, and quite stable. That last item is key — I found several email apps like Spark that offer flexible features more closely resembling Mailbox, but most of them were unusable due to bugs and other stability issues.

Google’s Inbox app is also a nice option, but for me it’s completely and utterly unusable because, ironically, it doesn’t offer a unified inbox. Most people have more than one email account they use regularly, including people on the Inbox team at Google, and I’m not sure how they can bear to use an email client that doesn’t offer a unified inbox.

Outlook has all of the core features one might need in a mobile email client, and it also has the basic scheduling features that are of the utmost importance to me.

Mailbox taught me the beauty of email scheduling — when an email arrives that I don’t need to deal with immediately, I set to vanish from my inbox and reappear at a time when I will want to deal with it. The problem with Outlook is that it’s scheduling features are very limited.

You can set something to return to your inbox “in a few hours,” “this evening” or “tomorrow morning,” or you can manually enter a time. A better solution (like the one employed by Mailbox and some other apps) is to allow the user to configure the times they want for things like “tomorrow morning” or “later tonight.” For example, Outlook’s “tomorrow morning” is the next day at 8AM. By the time 8AM rolls around I’ve already been working for hours, so I’d like the option to change that to 6AM so it’s closer to the time I start my day.

The biggest problem with Outlook, though, is that there isn’t a companion app for desktop computers. This is odd because Microsoft does make an Outlook program for PCs and Macs. It also maintains an Outlook.com web-based email client. Neither of these solutions offer an experience that is anything like the mobile app though, so there is absolutely no consistency.

Since, Outlook for Mac is far too sluggish and overcomplicated, I use Airmail instead. It’s very simple and clean, but it includes most of the features you’d want in a lightweight desktop email app that is compatible with Gmail. The biggest annoyance for me is the complete lack of scheduling support, so I need to open a message in Outlook on my phone when I want to snooze it, which obviously isn’t ideal.

The biggest lesson here is one that I completely omitted from my earlier coverage that focused on dealing with email overload: stay nimble. New solutions pop up all the time and sadly, old ones you might rely on can be killed off at any time. Keep evolving and keep trying new things. Though I hate email again right now and haven’t yet found a solution I like as much as Mailbox, something will come along that checks most of the boxes I want checked.

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