Illustration: Andrea Chronopoulos

You vs. Your Inbox

The Most Effective Way to Manage Your Inbox Is Also the Easiest

All the productivity bells and whistles only make things harder

John Zeratsky
Published in
8 min readFeb 19, 2020

EEveryone has their own “distraction kryptonite” — the thing that irresistibly pulls them away from spending their time on activities they care about. For some, it’s the aspirational images of Instagram. For others, it’s the global pulse of Twitter. Some find the lure of breaking news or niche discussion boards impossible to look away from.

For me, it’s email.

I know how lame that sounds. But here’s why: Since I no longer work at a big company, virtually every email I receive is intended for me. I never get copied on big threads or added to team updates. When an email appears in my inbox, there’s a good chance it contains good news — an invitation to speak or collaborate; an update on a project; a kind word from a reader.

Email plays right into my natural human tendencies. Like all of us, I am compelled by unpredictable rewards, so I check my email again and again, like a gambler playing a slot machine. I care about what people think of me, so I’m drawn to messages that give me that information. And reciprocity bias helps to explain why, when someone gives me something (even an email), I feel an urge to give them something back (like a reply).

On an average day, I get around 50–80 messages. It doesn’t sound like a ton, but I’m a solo entrepreneur, which means most of those messages require me to do something. It’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to stay on top of it all.

I used to be a designer for tech companies, so when I mention my email problems to other techie friends, they tend to suggest technology-based solutions: “Have you tried Tempo?” they ask. “Spark? Newton? Superhuman? Mailbox? Boomerang?” Because I worked at Google for 10 years, many of them also point to the vast universe of Gmail features to try: priority inbox. Multiple inboxes. Filters. And then there’s the confusingly named and much-loved app Inbox, which Google shut down last year.

The answer is yes. Whatever it is, I’ve probably tried it. And after running through that very long list of email-organization products, I’ve concluded that…



John Zeratsky

Supporting startups with capital and sprints. Co-founder and general partner at Character. Author of Sprint and Make Time. Former partner at GV.