The Relief (And Boredom) Of An Empty Inbox

Hey screens all email and lets you cover up read messages with an image

I use Hey for email, and it screens emails by default. You have to approve every new sender, and file them as Imbox (important), Feed (newsletters), and Paper Trail (transactional stuff). After a week of this admittedly manual labor, my inbox was quite organized. And surprisingly empty. Right now I have two things in my inbox. I usually have zero.

It’s remarkable how little truly important mail from humans we get, and how much our inbox is clogged with bots.


The Imbox name still makes me immediately cringe, but the concept is not cringe-worthy at all. By filtering emails I set what’s important, and that’s the only email that gets to interrupt me. Everyone else is there, they just have to shut up. I didn’t realize it until I stopped, but with normal email we’re bombarded with messages.

You bought this…
Do you want to buy that?
Did you hear the news?
Behold, a cat!

We of course leave them unread, and then our Inbox looks full, even though it’s 90% not important right now. And the important people and priorities in life get buried. Manually filtering senders in and filing them does wonders for one’s email experience. Compared to GMail, it’s positively Zen like. Honestly boring. Please email me, most days it’s crickets.

Hey is a great and brave implementation of this idea, but you could theoretically do it on GMail or whatever. The experience just wouldn’t be built around that from the ground up, so it would probably suck.


Google killed the RSS Reader (forever missed) and the US government persecuted the young creator of RSS to the end of his life (Aaron Swartz, even more missed). Out of the ashes of the blog arose the email newsletter, and it’s an interesting time. You may be reading this through my email newsletter and you may even be a paying subscriber, shukran.

The problem with shoehorning the blogosphere into your Inbox, however, is the inundation of your Inbox. The Feed solves this simply by just putting it all on another screen, where you can read it at leisure. Like an RSS Reader. I also put school and family newsletters in here. It’s a Feed without Facebook lurking around. When I’m bored I read it and I get a nice, curated time-waster of emails I’ve screened in. It’s so much better than opening Twitter and pointing the firehose of the entire Internet at my eyeballs.

The Paper Trail

Just now I got sucked into a marketing email, wondering whether I should order seeni sambol buns now. I don’t need to order seeni sambol buns now. That happened once, but for next time I’m screening that email out. I still get it, it just can’t get to me. Hey calls this the Paper Trail.

Email has become public-key cryptography for the masses. With public-key cryptography, you have one public key that anyone can read and one secret that unlocks it. Which is basically what an email/password combination is. It’s not actually encrypted, but the basic concept of public/private keys is what email has proved most essential for. We use email to login to everything now.

Just like Email devoured the blogosphere, it also became the dominant form of ID. We use our public address and private password to do all sorts of transactions. And those transactions all produce email which is A) boring C) distracting and D) constant.

I need all this email, but I don’t need it right now. So it just gets filed away to the Paper Trail, which I can check periodically, and maybe get some buns if I want to.

Hey Email

Hey is from the guys that made Basecamp and it’s a well-thought out, creative, and risk-taking take on email. I’ve also used an app called Spike that made email more like messaging, which was very cool, and there are certainly more players, playing around. GMail has turned into a piece of rigid industrial plumbing, but it’s certainly not attractive or fun. Which email actually can be, from my experience.

The paradox is that a clean and organized inbox is also a boring one. But to me that’s a good problem to have. It’s certainly better than the constant stress of an ‘unread’ inbox. The truth is that most emails in your inbox should go unread. And you don’t need to feel bad about it.