The Rise of the Task Management Inbox

Much of today’s task management issues stem from using the email inbox as a task management system.  Thus far, solutions have revolved around re-educating ourselves on inbox management.  Now, a couple startups (and at least one large email player) are actually rethinking the way our inbox works.  As they carefully tread new ground, task management laypeople will benefit immediately, while productivity experts will initially struggle with this new paradigm.

If you have read about or adopted some structured task management system (think Getting Things Done or Manage Your Now), you’ll know that the modern digital inbox is supposed to be normally empty, like the physical one that inspired it.  Alas, it is instead perennially cluttered.  We mess with read/unread status and leave all messages in the inbox, using it as a very crude task management system.  Just like trying to take soup with a fork, this makes poor use of a tool that’s otherwise very good for its initially designed purpose, namely, bringing work or information into our flows.

Since email is so ubiquitous and standards-based, there wasn’t much thought given to changing it — instead, we were told to adjust the way we managed it, moving tasks to a proper management system and clearing the inbox regularly.  “Inbox zero” therefore became the mantra by which many professionals live when it comes to email management.

In the 21st century, however, everything is ripe for disruption, or so we are constantly hearing.  Startups like Mailbox (later acquired by Dropbox) and Accompli (recently acquired by Microsoft) set about rethinking the traditional inbox by implementing features such as quIck, single-gesture triaging of messages, and merging or blending calendar and tasks functionality into the inbox through features such as “pinning” and “snoozing” messages.

Not to be caught off guard, Google recently launched its Inbox product, a different UI for Gmail that implements these and other ideas in the same vein.  It makes a striking first impression: you don’t archive email, you “mark it done”.  You can pin messages, and then filter the inbox to see all of it or just pinned items.  Attachments can be accessed without opening their containing message.  Messages can be snoozed into the future, and new reminders can be created as easily as new messages.

I’ve been using the invite-only Inbox for nearly two months now.  I can immediately see the benefits for people who have nothing in the way of task management — to them, these changes make email much more intuitive and convenient to manage.  And in general, the entire experience is streamlined and easy to use compared to traditional Gmail.  But as is usually true in such cases, power users are left struggling with what feels like a half-baked, confusing experience.

Mailbox only does Gmail and iCloud accounts right now.  Google has clearly stated that Inbox will not replace Gmail as we know it for the foreseeable future.  It remains to be seen how Microsoft will evolve Accompli or integrate it with the rest of their offerings.  As a devout user of GTD for personal tasks, I’m actually suffering these timid initial steps of email evolution, but am truly excited to see task management reach a wider audience, and expect new insights can be gleaned about this paradigm so there’s more fit and less fight with our current task management strategies.

If you don’t have structured task management in place, I strongly advise you to consider adopting it as part of your New Year resolutions.  If you are a Gmail user and would like an Inbox invite, let me know and I’ll be happy to send one your way.

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