The Overwhelm Inbox

Jun 6, 2016
Joe Buhlig
~3 mins

The purpose of my inbox consolidation project is to cut back on the number of places I go to make decisions about my “open loops”. Between feeds, social media, and our always-on expectations, it becomes a habit and struggle to keep up with the mass of apps and information thrown at us. My theory was to create an aggregated inbox via email that combines these potentially overwhelming sources of inputs. The hope was to build a system that helps me scale back on the time and impulse to repeatedly process these inboxes.

Using email as a base for this is the simplest solution since it can be connected to almost any service out there. Most systems already have an email notification system built-in. By turning these on, I go from repeatedly checking websites to see if anything is new to processing the important parts at a dedicated time. But not every source of new information has this ability. For me, the outstanding inputs are RSS feeds and social media.

For social media, I had to first be honest with myself. What do I really need to know about? I know that I want to keep up with more than I should so I’m immediately faced with scaling back. For the inputs that make the cut, I use IFTTT to send me an email about each item. For example, I have a rule that emails me when I am mentioned on Twitter:

IFTTT Recipe: Send Twitter mentions to email connects twitter to gmail

Another set of overwhelming inputs is the huge variety of articles that I want to read. It’s already a habit for me to send these to Pocket from any social media app or browser I’m using at the time. To funnel these from Pocket into my email, I’m again turning to IFTTT:

IFTTT Recipe: Send all Pocket articles to email connects pocket to gmail

Now for the big one: RSS feeds. You can set up recipes to send new feed items to your email with IFTTT. However, I am subscribed to about 100 RSS feeds. That would require 100 recipes to make it work. No, thank you. Instead, I found a service (feed.informer.com) that allows me to create a single RSS feed out of multiple feeds. In my case, I created two of these “digest” feeds that I then used in these recipes, which is a lot more comfortable. This has the added benefit of eliminating an app, Feedly, that I was previously using.

IFTTT Recipe: Send email from feed digest connects feed to gmail

Of course, it’s easy to see that this leads to a potentially enormous number of emails. A fair amount of these can be deleted without opening them; I have everything I need to triage them in the subject line. But the key is to clear it out once daily. If I hold to that and avoid the temptation to check more often, I am given the freedom to spend more of my mental energy on important tasks. It also makes it easier to leave my phone somewhere other than my pocket or within reach at my desk.

The other, unintended, benefit of this has been visibility into the sheer volume of tiny bits of data that are available to us. We can easily consume thousands of pointless and potentially detrimental inputs that are better left unnoticed. Pulling all of these into one place provides a picture of information overwhelm that is catered specifically to you. I never realized how many sources of information I’ve tried to keep up with until now. It has led me to ruthlessly curate and cut back in ways I wish I had done sooner.

And as I expected, this is led me to change the purpose - and therefore layout - of my phone’s home screen for the better. But we’ll save that for another day: