Reducing The Interface of Email

Processing your email and stopping it from commanding your attention is difficult to do. Depending on your job, maybe it’s nearly impossible. Merlin Mann covers processing the demands of your inbox in the Inbox Zero talk and extensively on 43 Folders.

Merlin talks about systems to process email so that the amount of stuff in your inbox doesn’t eat up your time, distract you, and ultimately stress you out. To sum up his talk, processing each email is about “deciding in the moment what you need to do about it, then moving on.”1 Even if you have a good system for that, the interface of email itself can be stressful. It’s designed with notifications, lists of things, and buttons for every task possible. By reducing this interface you can minimize the distractions caused by everything but the messages themselves.

Luckily, I don’t have to deal with high volumes of email but what I do get needs to be dealt with appropriately so I can get back to work. Over time, I’ve managed to develop a pretty good interface system to work with my processing system which reduces distraction and encourages proper capturing.

I use Mail.app. It’s not fancy, but it’s built-in and gets the job done. The things I go over will reference Mail but the theory could be applied to whatever program you use. The “design” of my system revolved around two things: avoiding unscheduled interruptions and reducing distractions while processing and writing emails.

Removing Unscheduled Interruptions

I finally switched Mail.app to only check for new mail manually. Lots of people have moved to it, and as I’ve slowly been transitioning away from notifications on my iPhone, I realized that I could do it on my Mac too. The lesson I learned from doing it on my iPhone was that email is way less urgent than you think it is.2 You’ll still need to process it when the time comes around for you to check it but at least you’ll have some time, uninterrupted, to get work done before you go back.

All the time, I see people tweeting anxiously with screenshots of their Mail dock badge complaining about how much email they have to deal with. Pro tip: Mail > Preferences > Dock unread count: None. You know you have stuff in your inbox, why add a reminder that will distract you anytime you glance down at the dock? If you’re checking manually, this badge has no use—and never had any benefit. It’s helpful to know what your inbox count is when you’re processing, but when you’re doing other work, it’s irrelevant.


Away from my computer, I’ve worked out a system too. Plain and simple, I don’t do work email on my iPad. It’s a place for me to read and write and do fun things. On my iPhone, in Settings > Notifications > Mail, I’ve turned off alerts, turned off the badge icon, but have messages show in Notification Center. Periodically, I’ll pull down Notification Center, check quickly at the subject and preview to see if it’s something that needs my immediate attention. If it is, I deal with it. If it’s not (most of the time), I hit the drastically undersized X to hide the notifications. Without the icon badge, the messages aren’t visually piling up prompting me to do something about them but also are marked as unread so whenever I go to check my inbox for real, they are ready to be processed.

Reducing Distractions

OK. So the time rolls around that you have to—reluctantly—check your email. When you’re in there, you have a job to do. Get in, process, get out. Anything in the interface that doesn’t help with that is unnecessary. So let’s remove it.

In Lion, Mail’s design was partially inspired from the iPad. Besides the standard chrome, it has the Mailbox List on the left, the Favorites Bar at the top, and the message list and panel side-by-side. The mailbox list and favorites bar can be useful, but most of their functionality can be accessed with keyboard shortcuts. This way, you remove the visual distraction but maintain the functional components that the interface prompts. The mailbox list’s main functionality is, well, switching between mailboxes. Simply, you can hide this by going View > Hide Mailbox List. See how much better that feels already? But what if you have a lot of folders and need the sidebar to drag your email into some random folder that you think is helping you stay organized. Well, first off? Stop that. It’s not helping. Create a single folder for each account called Archive and let Mail’s archive button or hotkey do the work. You don’t need the extra decision of where to put each email. Move it to Archive and let search do the work finding it if you ever need it again. If you really need access to the sidebar, it can quickly be revealed with ⇧ + ⌘ + M, or even cooler, dragging an email from the message list to the left edge of the window where the list is hidden will make it slide out, let you put your message away, and then slide back into it’s place. Magical.

But if you hide the Mailbox List how will you quickly switch mailboxes? Luckily, the favorites bar does that too but with one benefit: like Safari’s bookmarks, you can navigate to the mailboxes in your Favorites with the keyboard shortcuts ⌘ + 1 for the first favorite and ⌘ + 2 for the second, etc. Knowing these shortcuts also means that once you’ve set them up, you don’t need to show the favorites bar. Drag the mailboxes you need into the favorites bar in the order you want then hide it. For me, position number one gets a Smart Inbox called NULL, something that Merlin talked about on a recent Back to Work, which collects all emails with the subject that is equal to a whole jumble of characters that will never be a subject. The benefit of this is that no matter how behind I am on processing my inboxes, my NULL inbox, accessible at ⌘ + 1, is like my little oasis—an escape—where no one is asking me for anything and there are no support emails complaining about something that’s user error. #2 is my work inbox and #3 is my personal inbox.

Now What?

All of that interrupting and distracting interface has been replaced by keyboard shortcuts. One for archiving, and one for navigating to each mailbox. All of a sudden your Mail app looks like this. Awesome, right? Like some zen buddhist minimalist monastery. (That’s a thing, right?)

When I check my email, it goes something like this:

  1. Switch from NULL to work inbox with ⌘ + 2.
  2. Get new mail with ⇧ + ⌘ + N.
  3. For each email, read, process, archive with ⇧ + ⌘ + A (I changed this from the default in System Preferences > Keyboard > Application Shortcuts).
  4. Switch back to NULL, my oasis, with ⌘ + 1.

Why You Should Do This

Not only is this system much faster to navigate because that’s what keyboard shortcuts are for, but it reduces the amount of visual inputs and distractions. Once you get over the fear of not knowing exactly what’s in your inbox every second, you’ll be able to better focus on the work you need to get done until the time that email is the work you need to get done. When that time rolls around, you don’t have all of this unnecessary interface in your way so you can more quickly get back to producing something meaningful.

Because that’s what you want to be doing with your time.

  1. If you’re already a pro at this stuff, good for you. Maybe go read this instead.↩︎

  2. This gets covered in the Inbox Zero talk too, but until you actually do it, you don’t fully appreciate it.↩︎