Inbox When Ready: Our Favorite New Way to Handle Email Overwhelm

An up close photo of a keyboard with the escape and help keys visible. Some star confetti in on the keyboard.

You open your email fully intending to focus on one task; you immediately get distracted by other emails. Half an hour later you snap back into the moment and recall you had an original purpose... didn't you? Now all the potential tasks you see in your email just plan overwhelm you. Has this happened to you? Does it happen often? 

I admit it, this has happened to me Repeatedly. But what is the solution? More willpower? A visor covering most of your screen? Ah, we have found a better solution! It's the new Chrome extension, Inbox When Ready. Here at Mindful Technology™, we use, love, and highly recommend it. 

Over the past three months I have used the Inbox When Ready extension, and my favorite part is being able to stay focused. I don’t have to look at my entire inbox unless I want to. And when I do take a peek, I have as much breathing and preparation time as I need so I don’t feel overwhelmed when it is open it.

We have appreciated what Inbox When Ready is doing for the #mindfultech email space so we caught up with founder, Peter Hartree, to learn more.

What inspired you to start Inbox When Ready?

The extension was inspired by BJ Fogg's behavior model, which predicts that the best way to change behavior is to optimize triggers and ability. In this context, the desired behavior is sustained focus when working with email. This is achieved by suppressing a trigger (the visible inbox) and reducing ability (by locking you out of your inbox at times you specify).

The extension is also inspired by the work of Cal Newport and Tristan Harris.


BJ Fogg's Behavior Model

BJ Fogg's Behavior Model

Tell us how Inbox When Ready works.

Inbox When Ready is a Chrome extension that adjusts the Gmail interface to protect your focus and improve your email workflow. It will help you check your inbox with reasonable frequency, batch process your email on a regular schedule and minimize the total time you spend in your inbox.

What has been your favorite part of working on Inbox When Ready?

To begin with, this project was all about improving my own less-than-ideal email workflow. I made the first version of Inbox When Ready in a day or so, with the simple goal of making my Gmail inbox hidden by default. Then I could write a new email or search my archive without getting distracted. I found that this simple UI change was a big win for my focus – I went from seeing my inbox 10-20 times a day unintentionally to just once or twice intentionally.

A screenshot of a Gmail account with the Inbox locked and no emails visible.

I realized that other people might find this useful so I published the extension on the Chrome Web Store in October 2015. Since then I’ve spoken with hundreds of users and developed the extension in response to their feedback. Now Inbox When Ready helps people reclaim more than 10,000 hours of focused work each month. I find this very motivating.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you in starting Inbox When Ready?

The biggest challenge is that I’m severely time constrained. I can work on this project about three days/month, and this won’t change anytime soon since I’m strongly committed to my day job at 80,000 Hours. I’m actively looking for collaborators — I'd love to hire or partner with someone who can work on product development and/or marketing and growth.

How do you see this project contributing value to the community trying to use technology more mindfully?

Software designers correctly think that it’s good to make (good) things easy, but we often design for narrowly defined tasks (e.g. check your inbox) rather than broader values (e.g. stay focused on what you care about). The narrow "make task easy" perspective makes user interface design easier, but the results sometimes restrict our ability to discover and express our values. For example: if we make it easy to consume some X, we also makes it easier to over consume that X. The current email UI paradigm effectively puts a bowl of candy on your desk – it's much too easy to impulsively over consume your inbox, at the expense of other things you care about. Inbox When Ready tries to correct for this.

A screenshot of a Gmail Inbox with a circle around a button that says, “Show Inbox.” No emails are visible.

As software continues to eat the world, there's a growing recognition that software designers need to engage more deeply with the challenge of designing for our fundamental values. People will demand software that helps them discover and express their values, and designers need to figure out how to build it. I hope Inbox When Ready will play some small, useful role in this process, perhaps by convincing the Gmail design team to make some changes.

We are impressed with the increased time management (and thus tech life balance) this product offers. Check out Inbox When Ready's website and the short screencast video below to learn more! 


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ProductsKatrina Smith