Advent 2022: 10. Gmail Inbox or Backlog Reduction

Today’s Advent Calendar post is about the Gmail goal type, an official integration that you can access from the New Goal page. There is an excellent Gmail goal help page of course. By default, this goal type counts only the read messages in your inbox.

If you ever feel overwhelmed by your Gmail inbox or guilty about unanswered emails, this goal is for you. I’ve created one several times over the years whenever my inbox got out of control, and then archived it when the inbox was empty, which always turned out to be a mistake. :smile: For the past several months I’ve kept my latest goal running to encourage me to keep my inbox near-empty all the time.

One thing I like about the goal is that after it’s fetched a datapoint, the next time it counts your emails that same day, if the value is higher than it was, it keeps the lower value instead of replacing it with the higher one. So when you get the goal to orange or better, you don’t have to worry about the state of your inbox for the rest of the day.

There’s a nifty side-effect of this. I have my goal set to an allowed value of zero emails, which makes me empty my inbox at the end of a day. But the next day if the goal fetches a value before I’ve started reading my new emails, the goal’s value will be zero for the whole day. This means that if a tricky email comes in that I don’t want to deal with, I can procrastinate / think about it for a day but I’m forced to handle it the next day. That’s an appropriate amount of procrastination!

The goal doesn’t have to track read emails in the inbox; you can set it to track read and/or unread emails that have a specific label, including Gmail’s built-in labels like “STARRED” (a label that’s assigned whenever you star an email). This means you can make the goal track any arbitrary set of emails by using Gmail’s filters to apply a label, or by applying the label manually.

If your inbox is out of control now, you could create a Gmail goal with the default settings (tracking read emails in the inbox) to make you reduce both your backlog and new emails at the same time. However, a slightly more complex approach may work better. Give a label to all the emails currently in your inbox and then archive them. Create one Gmail goal to track that label so that you can reduce the backlog over time. Create another Gmail goal to track read emails in the inbox to encourage you to keep your inbox empty, or near-empty from now on. (This is an example of the backlog method that’s described in the Redqueening, Inbox Zero, Backlogs, and Fluid Dynamics Beeminder blog post.)


I’ve used this, and it has really helped me keep my inbox down to sane levels!

I don’t even get that many emails any more - I used to get 200/day at work, now it’s more like 20/day. But I’ve whittled down my subscriptions etc so now at least half of those twenty actually need reading and thinking about :slight_smile:

This is a mixed blessing, as if I’m not careful they build up, but my Gmail goal has really helped keep this down (I did derail yesterday, but that just shows I need the goal!). I’m thinking of using a “push to Pocket” button for some of the essay-type emails, but then I fear I’d just need a goal to Beemind my Pocket backlog :wink:


I wanted to do this with Tutanota, and even wrote a script, but it’s really flickery.

So, I’ve settled down for an “inbox zero” goal.
If there is more than one email left, it’s not OK!

@clivemeister: incidentally, I save some articles for alter in a list of things to do… For which I have created a separate Beeminder goal :stuck_out_tongue:


i’ve thought about creating a gmail goal for ages, and i also knew about this backlog-reduction-system, but somehow it didn’t cross my mind to combine the two! (despite having read this advent post already when it came out in december, but i wasn’t really beeminding yet back then.) genius idea, i might actually end up doing it this way!

it’s a really smart approach for my own use-case as well! i currently float around 20-30 “unread” emails in my inbox. ideally there should be 0. but the oldest unread ones are years old—those and also A Lot of the more recent ones don’t wait for an answer, but rather are a memo for me to do an action (checking out a patreon reward, for example). so using this backlog-approach is probably absolutely the right way to go for me, as that would allow me to have two levels of “strictness”—keep the current backlog at a slower rate to whittle down (1 mail/week?), and be more strict/consistent/flat with all future incoming mails …

thank you for the realization that whenever i finally end up getting a premium beeminder subscription i can just as well create two gmail goals!