Do or Do Not, There is no 'Later'


I liked the clever hack in this post by Jeff Hunsberger (whose site is fantastic and full of little gems like this). But as I read the post I realized that whilst the overlying technological trick was cool, I disagreed with the underlying philosophy.

The Later Box — Technology Notes:

What Mailbox pointed out to me is that I need is a Later box. A place to stick emails that I don’t want jamming up my Inbox but I really do need to act on “later”. Ideally, the number of emails flagged in this way should be relatively few. If it is more than a handful, it is probably pointing to a different kind of problem — the last thing I need is an interim archive. I need two things — a place to hold emails until I return to my Mac and the discipline and discernment to act on them when I get there.

There’s something that just feels bad to me about a Later box for email. I think it’s because I’ve had plenty of other “Later boxes” and I’ve never benefited from them. The best analogy I can think of is this: Throwing all your dirty clothes in the closet so your mum thinks your room is clean. That’s a later box.

The problem with this strategy, and why I can’t love Mailbox or Triage no matter how hard I try, is that they both make you do something just so you can do it again later.

Why would you ever want to process an email twice if you don’t have to?

Here’s what I do when I go through email. Or rather, what I really, really try to do. (And believe me, I’m not saying any other system is wrong, just that this is what I feel is right for me. Relativism, I know.) I look at each email and do one of 3 things:

  • Reply on the spot.

  • Archive.

  • Pass it off to another system (almost always Omnifocus).

I would genuinely love to process email in Triage, but I just can’t, because it lacks any way to accomplish that last step. Mailbox is a little better: I have an IFTTT action set up that forwards starred emails to my Omnifocus maildrop address. But it’s clunky enough (and doesn’t allow any variation other than a plain forward) that I pretty much stick to email on the Mac now, using the Omnifocus clipper to quickly pop in tasks. This also has the benefit that once you put them in Omnifocus, it includes a reference to them and you can archive them.

I’ve been so much happier and more productive ever since I got out of my email inbox and started limiting the amount of times I check email per day. It’s tough, I grant you. You really need to work at ⌘-Q’ing out of Mail. It feels like you have to be on top of email 24/7.

Here’s the thing, though, emails in your inbox are happy to be there. They don’t care. No one is looking at it but you - you don’t need to weed it out like a flowerbed. New ones join them. Until you actually check it, you don’t have to think about them at all. You can’t, in fact, because you don’t know they’re there.

Take the email, do stuff with it, never see it again. That’s the ideal. Don’t schedule it to come back on you like some ill-advised Mexican food.