I've been testing a product called SaneBox, which promises to save me from inbox insanity, and it's scary to see how much it's slimmed down my Gmail inbox. This got me thinking more broadly about the problem of email overload, and sent me looking for clues about how others deal with it.
SaneBox is often compared with the Priority Inbox, a Gmail enhancement Google introduced a couple of years ago (still offered, albeit buried in the user interface). SaneBox takes a similar approach to highlighting the most important messages and letting the rest wait until you have time for them. One way SaneBox improves on the concept is by connecting to your social media accounts--or, in one enterprise variation, to your Salesforce.com customer list--to identify your most important contacts and make sure their messages stand out.
In other words, the software tries to whittle down your inbox to just those messages that you must attend to as part of your business, or which promise to bring in new business.
Those messages that don't make the cut go into an @SaneLater folder where you can review them as time permits. SaneBox also sends you a daily digest of all the email that got sidelined, so you can fine tune the filtering of what belongs in your inbox. In addition to Gmail, SaneBox works with Microsoft Exchange and other systems that support the IMAP protocol (required to let the SaneBox agent organize your email folders).
[ Running the Red Queen's race? Facebook Overload: Just Getting Worse.]
"This stuff is not spam. It's meant for you, but it's just not important," explains SaneBox's Dmitri Leonov, whose business card reads "VP Growth." With his system, "your inbox is reserved for what deserves to interrupt the day," he says.
Mostly, the stuff SaneBox shuffles to the side consists of newsletters, commercial offers and notifications like "so-and-so is now following you on Twitter!" In my case, this includes a good number of newsletters I no longer care about but have just never gotten around to unsubscribing from and notifications that I'd probably choose to turn off if I made time to log into all the websites that are generating them and poke around their settings screens. Beyond that, SaneBox classified as unimportant a number of newsletters that I do still read occasionally, time permitting, as well as some pitches from public relations professionals that I might or might not care about.
Few of these messages were spam by my definition--Gmail had already filtered out the worst of that--but almost none were urgent. One exception: SaneBox misclassified a reminder about some expiring GoDaddy domain registrations, which could have caused me some grief if I had missed it. In principle, if I used SaneBox over a longer period of time, I'd be able to "train" the software to understand better what I think is important. Leonov says the software doesn't actually read the content of messages, getting all the information it needs from header fields (to, from, subject, etc.).
If nothing else, this exercise showed me just how out of control my inbox is. I mentioned that SaneBox sends a summary of messages it has filtered out. The summary is sorted by the name of the sender and, in my case, it only makes it partway through the B's before Google truncates the message. After I clicked to see the rest, it took me a long time to scan through the rest of these messages. Of course, if they had gone to my inbox in the normal fashion, I'd have been wading through them anyway and might have missed the more important ones SaneBox highlighted for me.
Social network streams of status updates are sometimes touted as an improvement over email, given that you decide who to follow or friend, rather than being pushed messages by anyone who gets their hand on your email address. Proof of the value of enterprise social networking software is sometimes framed in the extent it diverts message traffic away from email.