Are you the sort of person who needs to read and file every email they get? Or do you delight in seeing an email client icon proudly warning of hundreds or even thousands of unread items? For some, keeping one’s email inbox with no unread items is more than just a good idea: it’s a way of life, indicating control over the 21st century and its notion of productivity.
For others, it’s a manifestation of an obsessively compulsive mind. The two camps, and the mindsets behind them, have been a frequent topic of conversation here in the Ars Orbiting HQ. And rather than just argue with each other on Slack, we decided to collate our thoughts about the whole “inbox zero” idea and how, for those who adhere to it, that happens.
Back when I had an office job and writing for Ars was a side gig, I was all about inbox zero. We used Exchange in my day job, and I was all about categorizing emails, sorting them into folders, and ruthlessly deleting unwanted messages each day. Some of this might have been brought on by the fact that, by default, we were only given a meagre 250MB storage on the server; learning how to make local archives and backups became a necessity, and in the process you learned to separate the wheat from the chaff. Another factor was probably the nature of my job; as anyone who sits through several hours of meetings a day surely knows, staying on top of one’s email becomes a welcome diversion during the many boring bits.
But in the last few years, that all changed, and the real reason was webmail. At first, it was just with my personal email accounts, but the trend accelerated in early 2017 when Ars migrated from Exchange to Gmail. Now, like my personal accounts, I was accessing it via Inbox. This does some things well but, like all webmail interfaces (to me at least), isn’t nearly as conducive to a good bit of spring cleaning as an actual desktop application. Automatically bundling emails into groups—Promos, Updates, and so on—kept them out of my way, so in addition to never being read they never got deleted. Before long this all built up; at the time of writing, my personal Gmail account tells me it has 2,661 unread messages. (If you really want a fright, iCloud shows 6,261 unread items!)
What I needed was a good email client, at least to bring my work account back into control. Apple’s Mail.app has suffered from a general if nonspecific malaise for years, and so I canvassed my coworkers for suggestions. On OS X, Airmail 3 seemed to get the most recommendations, and that’s the one I went with. After it spent several hours downloading my messages, it was another day or so’s effort to sort, cull, and then mark-as-read roughly 3,400 unread emails. At the end of it, I felt a small measure of accomplishment. Now, if I can just summon up the willpower to do the same for those other accounts…
My email is stored on Microsoft and Google servers—I don’t want the makers of a desktop or mobile application analyzing my emails or storing them. I am willing to pay for a quality mail application, like I did with Airmail, because free applications often come with invasion of privacy. Airmail says it doesn’t store users’ messages.
Airmail has one “feature” that annoys me—it automatically creates Airmail-specific folders in your email accounts. But this hasn’t been a problem since I deleted the folders and disabled that functionality to prevent the folders from being recreated.
I do have years of experience with the Outlook desktop applications on both Windows and Mac. It always seemed like Outlook should be the best option, and it certainly had the necessary features. But I invariably ran into deal-breaking bugs on both Mac and Windows that repeatedly forced me to reinstall the application or delete and re-add mail accounts. Even the widely-praised Outlook app for iPhone often failed to retrieve email temporarily or just stopped working altogether.
I finally gave up trying to force Outlook to work for me at least a year ago, and my mail experience has been a lot more pleasant since.
My email client of choice is Airmail, because it doesn’t, in my opinion, suck as badly as all other email clients. Unfortunately, at my day job, I have to use Outlook. Outlook combines really poor calendar management with a sucky email experience, leaving death by therapeutic chocolate as the last remaining line of treatment. Webmail interfaces were designed by cruel people with the express intent of sucking all meaning and joy from life. They—the interfaces, not the designers—come with the added benefit of torturing you by looking remarkably like Outlook.
Email, in short, is to be avoided. Unfortunately, email cannot be avoided. My policy is the following: work emails from students and people I know personally get replied to within two working days. Emails from Ars Technica staff are treated much the same, and email from readers is read (but not necessarily responded to) within two days. Emails from family members get replied to within a year. Everyone else can go whistle. Whenever I get on a train (about once a fortnight), I go through all remaining unread emails. I block all the email addresses of PR flacks who can’t even be bothered figuring out what I write about, delete almost everything else. After an hour or two of this, I promise myself that I’ll do clean-up more frequently in the future. This is the cycle of email life.