I realised this week that for some years I have been applying Inbox Zero indiscriminately to all e-mail that I receive, but this does not make sense, and has some downsides.

My version of Inbox Zero works very well when applied to mail addressed directly to me, and for mail to certain mailing lists, where each post to the list might as well be addressed directly to me, in addition to the list. However, I also receive by e-mail the following things to which I now believe Inbox Zero should not be applied:

  • discussion lists like debian-devel, notmuch@notmuchmail.org, etc.

  • mail to aliases like ftpmaster@debian.org (except when that mail is in reply to mail written by me from that address)

  • automated notifications received via Debian team mailing lists, where I’m not solely responsible for the Debian package in question, such as notifications received via the Debian Perl Group’s mailing list

  • RSS feed articles supplied by my (years old but still going strong) rss2email cronjob.

I believe that applying Inbox Zero to these sorts of things is not only incorrect but is actually harming my engagement with these mediums. Let us distinguish

  1. processing e-mail – this means applying the Inbox Zero decision procedure to incoming messages, at set times during the day (I do it once, around 4pm)

  2. browsing and sometimes catching up RSS articles and list mail – looking through unread items, replying if I think I have something useful to say, leaving things for later, and occasionally marking all as read if I’ve not had time for that group of lists lately.

These should be kept apart. The easy case to see is why you shouldn’t apply the browsing/catching up approach to e-mail which should rather be processed – that’s just the original wisdom of Inbox Zero. And clearly you don’t want ever to have to resort to just marking all mail addressed directly to you as read.

What goes wrong, then, if you misapply the processing mentality to e-mail which should, rather, be browsed/caught up? Well, the core of Inbox Zero is deciding whether to read and reply to something right now, add it to your todo list to handle later, or decide the mail cannot be dealt with quickly but is not important enough to go on that todo list. If you apply this to RSS articles and discussion list mail, then the third option is basically ruled out, because almost nothing on mailing lists or on blogs that I follow is important enough to go on my list of Real Tasks. But then you’re faced with either reading the article/post right now, or discarding it. There is no option to leave the item marked as unread and then maybe come back to it, or postpone discarding it until you’ve decided to catch up the group. Applying Inbox Zero to discussion lists and RSS feeds creates a false sense of urgency.

I’ve realised that my implicit response to this has been reluctance to subscribe to new mailing lists and feeds, because I don’t have things set up to allow me to read them in a leisurely way. But then I’m missing out on discussions and writing that might be relevant and beneficial to me if I could only approach them when I’m in a frame of mind other than “time to get my inbox down to zero”.

This also means that subscribing to new mailing lists just in order to post something has an unreasonably high cost: introducing all mail on those lists into my Inbox Zero processing window.

So, what’s needed is to make the virtual folder views which I use to read new mail correspond cleanly to the distinction between mail to be processed and mail to be browsed. I.e. for each virtual folder it should be clear whether mail there is to be processed or to be browsed. Then I can continue to use my processing views once per day, and access the browsing views at leisure. (Indeed, I’ve created a keybinding to cycle through the new browsing views, and another to catch them up.)

As I mentioned, some list mail ought to be processed. For example, I want to process rather than browse the debian-policy mailing list, as one of the Policy Editors. With notmuch, it’s easy to include this mail in the relevant processing views (I’ve long had one processing view for weekdays and another for weekends).

Additionally, I’ve used a bit of Emacs Lisp to create a dynamic “uncategorised unread” view which catches mail to be browsed which (i) doesn’t show up in one of the other virtual folders for mail to be browsed, and (ii) doesn’t show up in one of the processing views. So now subscribing to a mailing list is cheap: mail will end up in the uncategorised view, and I can decide whether to leave it there for a low traffic list; create a new virtual folder for the list (trivial as it’s all just more Emacs Lisp, no actual moving of files required); or unsubscribe.

I’ve been experiencing nostalgia for my time in secondary school when my friends and I had all sorts of interesting stuff flowing into our mailstores, from RSS feeds to each other’s blogs where we’d post both our own content and links elsewhere, RSS feeds to stranger’s blogs, and e-mails sent to each other with links. We didn’t have to worry about processing anything back then, as our e-mail accounts were used for intellectual enrichment but not the completion of tasks. I think I can recapture something of that with my new virtual folders for browsing.