Email clients hacks that almost worked

Email clients are incredibly versatile tools. And yet, over the years, I stopped making them do things they were not meant for. The hacks described here worked for a while. Sometimes years. But I ultimately switched to easier and better methods. In this writing, I reflect on what went wrong and why.

I have used a handful of email clients in the past. However, my daily usage has settled around Gmail, Outlook, or Apple Mail — native & mobile. Some readers, I reckon, might not relate to my experience. That's totally fair. Keep doing what works for you.

Hack #1: tasks management

Never been a fan of add-ons & extensions for GMail. They always felt like disparate applications tacked on the client — which most of them are. Why not keep them separate then? Email clients that don't have add-ons or extensions have their own built-in task management feature. With those, it's the visual estate that becomes an issue.

In Outlook, for instance, I keep the sidebar hidden in order to have a cleaner interface and more space for my messages. Especially on smaller screens. Bigger screens might not have this issue. Even then, that tasks manager is one more thing you have to learn in order to use your email client correctly.

A pragmatic solution is to use messages — conversations, or threads — as task lists. The problem — this will become a recurring theme — is that, as new messages come in, old ones tend to fall to the bottom of your inbox. And anything at the bottom of your inbox feels less important.

Hack #2: note taking in your inbox

I just recently gave this one up. I have tried using labels, colors, folders, tagged subject lines, etc. Putting tags in my subject lines was my favorite. Labels, colors, folders, etc. fall in the same category as the built-in task management feature described above. They suck up space, overload the interface, and make the email client hard to use.

Also, notes are meant to be ephemeral and unstructured. You want to be able to put notes on unrelated topics in one place. Email messages are semi-structured. They need to be addressed to somebody (yourself in this case) and have a coherent subject line. Sometimes you have to reply to the same message many times to simulate keeping related notes together. All these issues stem from the fact that the tool was not meant for note taking.

Hack #3: putting your bookmarks in your inbox

I recently wrote about bookmarks. The real genesis for the prefix technique described in that article was my attempt at bookmarking within my inbox. This was not for a long period of time though. These short, one-liners, messages started to fill up my inbox. And in the end, the constant urge for de-cluttering won.

The other issue I was having was with searching. Search results were inconsistent across email clients, even though I made sure I structured and tagged my subject lines. Google Chrome's auto-suggest in the address bar is vastly more efficient and superior.

Hack #4: putting your reminders in your inbox

Last one. Unlike in reminder apps, messages acting as reminders are not meant to show up at specific dates or time. Caveat: I have never used scheduled messages in any email client, so I don't know if they exist or work at all. But the main idea with this one is to keep the reminder message near the top of your inbox. You will, then, always be reminded of whatever the message is about by constantly seeing it.

Two things didn't work for me. The first has to do with deciding what messages should stay at the top of my inbox. In fact, having to delete or archive some of them. Failing to do so meant that important reminders might fall to the bottom of your inbox. Okay, someone is probably thinking about labels, colors, folders, etc. I already wrote about the burden of having to deal with those above.

The second problem is rather self-inflicted. Having to constantly be reminded of something is somewhat annoying and stressful. Especially if the due time is many days in the future. That's the advantage of reminder apps. You can set when they should remind you.

Alright, now what?

Well, our email clients aren't supposed to do everything, as I wrote in the opening. There is specialized software for those things we try to do within our email clients. Nowadays, my phone has all my reminders. Google Chrome keeps my bookmarks. On MacOS and Windows, there are sticky notes apps. And I put longer notes in a gist on GitHub.

My email clients and their inbox went back to being for messages only.

February 8th, 2020.