First a quick review of various schemes I’ve thought of for minding my email inbox:
- beemind sum-of-ages (this works well for me for my Pocket queue, via beemind.me)
- yesterbox: you can’t see any new emails until you’ve dealt with everything from yesterday. no more red queen race where the finish line moves on you as new email comes in.
- jellybeans: arduino pavlovian jellybean dispenser – every message you clear you get a jellybean with some small probability
- auto-expire: old messages automatically archive themselves
- messages held hostage: only show your N oldest messages so you have to get rid of old ones in order to see new ones
- oldest first: maybe reversing the sort order would be psychologically powerful (maybe especially if you could stick to a no-scrolling rule)
- icebox: label anything that you wish you’d deal with as “zzz”. it’s like a folder of shame and if you have a particularly sharp pang of guilt you know where to find it.
- isolate the backlog, per Mark Forster
- beemind yesterday’s starred emails (idea from @chipmanaged)
UPDATE: I’m adding to this list. Thanks @chipmanaged et al for the ideas!
Of course most of those require building something, probably with Google Apps Script.
But here’s a new idea I just had. First, pick an amount of time per day that would definitely be enough to maintain inbox zero. Say it’s 3 hours (I’ve been spending 2 hours/day – beeminder.com/d/email – and it’s not quite enough). Also pick the most self-indulgent, decadent activity that’s reasonable to spend significant time on, because it recharges you or is inherently worth spending time on. Watching Netflix being the obvious one. It should be something more fun/compelling  than even the shiniest distractingest nerd-snipingest emails in your inbox.
Now beemind spending 3 hours per day processing emails OR watching Netflix, with the constraint that you can only watch Netflix when at inbox zero. You even have to check between episodes and dispatch any email that came in.
Why not just have the rule that you can only watch Netflix when at inbox zero? Because you may just never hit inbox zero. The Beeminder goal forces you to put in the time to get there. And the Netflix part is to keep the task of inbox management from expanding to fill the time allotted for it.
What do you think?
PS: I’m slightly contradicting myself from a previous “Beeminding work from a queue” discussion where I argued against adding a clause in your goal’s fine print that would make a +1 mean “worked on the thing OR there was nothing to do on the thing”. I still dislike that idea. And for quantified self purposes, with the temptation bundling idea, I think you should have additional separate graphs for time spent on email and time spent watching Netflix as well.
This post brought to you by me apologizing to @galtsubery for answering his email a couple months late and him being like “y’know there’s a tool to help with that inbox zero problem” and me being like “yeah, I’ve beeminded that shizzle 6 ways from Tuesday but, wait, I just had a new idea that I’ll put in the forum… dreev.commits.to/post_inbox_temptation_bundling_idea”.
 If you don’t believe in fun or recreation, you could swap out the Netflix part for anything that you have a strong inherent inclination to do, or maybe something that has genuine urgency. Or perhaps socializing or even eating. Anything that motivates you to get to inbox zero as fast possible.