Temptation bundling for inbox beeminding

First a quick review of various schemes I’ve thought of for minding my email inbox:

  1. beemind sum-of-ages (this works well for me for my Pocket queue, via beemind.me)
  2. 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.
  3. jellybeans: arduino pavlovian jellybean dispenser – every message you clear you get a jellybean with some small probability
  4. auto-expire: old messages automatically archive themselves
  5. messages held hostage: only show your N oldest messages so you have to get rid of old ones in order to see new ones
  6. oldest first: maybe reversing the sort order would be psychologically powerful (maybe especially if you could stick to a no-scrolling rule)
  7. 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.
  8. isolate the backlog, per Mark Forster
  9. beemind yesterday’s starred emails (idea from @chipmanaged)

UPDATE: I’m adding to this list. Thanks @mary 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 [1] 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”.


[1] 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.


This seems intuitive to me. People often say things of the form:

  • I’m taking a break because I’m done with work
  • I’m taking a break because I’ve done a ton of work and I’m exhausted

which both seem reasonable and it seems like this goal fulfils that without falling into the usual traps. And I agree 100% that you can’t make a rule like “No fun until all work is done” because there is usually infinite work.


Reposting from email reply:

Have you already tried everything to reduce emails coming in? Or rather, ensure the emails coming in are valuable enough, and made sure you have all the tools you need to deal with it quickly? 3 hours a day to maintain Inbox Zero just sounds like too much to me, so I would try everything possible to reduce that before trying to motivate myself to do it.


I think I could do more (especially with automated Beeminder emails crying wolf about possible server issues, etc) and that it has the potential to help with the general feeling of overwhelm. But also I think that for all the emails that could be prevented from reaching my inbox at all, hitting archiving on them is a small fraction of the time I spend dealing with email.

Still, you’re right, this is the first, most obvious step to take. Or to take in parallel.

Plenty of good advanced ideas !

Simply minding total number of items was good enough for me. Admittedly I must have a smaller flow than dreev, being less of a ceo.

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I like this hours per day processing emails OR watching Netflix framework. Being more responsive to email is one of my goals that I ave not been able to make progress on. Very clever concept to bake reward into the requirement-- and I’m going to institute a Beeminder for this for me. Looking forward to reading more about it when you get the chance!

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per an email with @dreev:

I really suggest you Forster this. Put your backlog in the backlog, and see if you still have a problem with it when you start with a squeaky clean inbox. If so, then think of fancy solutions.

I find that starting with a mess leads to keeping a mess.


I suggested reducing email first because I’ve noticed I’ve done that. Ever since I set up Inbox Zero on Beeminder, I religiously unsubscribe from almost anything that isn’t valuable to me on a regular basis. I receive so much less email now, which just makes me feel better about tackling the inbox.

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I like the idea, especially if it could be automatically Beeminded via RescueTime or Toggl; temptation bundling has worked well for me in the past so it’s an early tool I reach for.

I also really like oldest-first and yesterbox, though, both of which involve a behaviour change; I’m intrigued by beeminding sum-of-ages but I think it’d essentially be beeminding an “output” for me. I already know there are old emails lurking at the borrom of my inbox, and my inbox-five goal (slightly more generous than inbox-zero) periodically has me go and finally dispatch one of those “ugh zone” emails. Beeminding sum-of-ages seems like it would have that same behaviour pattern: on an eep day I’d go find something old and hype myself up to deal with it. But changing the actual inbox experience might prevent those emails from building up and accruing an “ugh zone” in the first place.

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Reposted from email:

…ok that’s actually REALLY clever and I may steal that idea for non-inbox purposes. Unlike you poor, poor soul, I maintain Inbox10 (I find 10 emails hanging around is a good number and allows me to keep emails that I need to reply to visible) without too much trouble, as long as beeminder pokes me.

While on the inbox topic, I would like to suggest again that there be some way for beeminder to beemind more than one gmail inbox – right now I have my personal inbox beeminded and it works great, but I can’t also beemind my work email at the same time, so it’s always full of emails I’m totally going to read, someday, for sure.

(also, I’m glad you brought up your contradiction with the queue post, because I was going to; I still think that “+1 if you did the thing or there was nothing to be done” is 100% fine, and I still use it all the time in my own beeminds!)

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I’m doing that and it works ok but the incoming email is so relentless that it’s common for a whole new massive backlog to appear over the weekend, or any time even a small new backlog appears, the slope is immediately slippery and it steadily turns into a large new backlog.

Seconding the two (or more) Gmail inboxes.

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I used to care (for years) about my email. I had everything in neatly stored in folders and often managed to reach inbox zero.

I don’t anymore and have gained over one hour per day in actual work. :slight_smile:

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Slightly related, I just got access to Superhuman and it’s true, you can speed through emails insanely fast.

  1. auto-expire: old messages automatically archive themselves

I used to do this, using Google Apps Scripts. It worked well for me. Any email that aged away was probably one that wasn’t really important, anyway, given I was procrastinating on it for so long. I also had the script label any emails that aged away so I could quickly find any really-important emails that suddenly disappeared from my inbox.

I no longer use that script. I find that Gmail’s send+archive+open-the-next-email all in one step, plus a recurring task in Todoist, is sufficient for my relatively-small email load.

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Wish me luck!

Re. emai goals: I feel similarly to @apolyton. I’m thinking of ditching my email-zero goal. I don’t feel like I’m getting much out of maintaining to that degree; it often ends up being pointless busywork that isn’t producing much in the way of actual return on the time invested. That said, it has resulted in me really working to optimize my filters and sorting, so maybe the value is less in the decreasing size and more in the way it’s motivating me to be more efficient, which will keep paying off even when I eventually don’t have a goal anymore.


Re. temptation bundling: This seems like a neat idea. I’d have trouble picking an activity, though. It’d have to be something I like enough that I wouldn’t be irritated by having to do it to avoid derailing when there are other fun things I might want to do with limited free time… but not something I like so much that withholding it from myself turns out to be a kind of punishment.

Though… I could DEFINITELY see using it for work vs. non-work projects. I have 4 graphs that track how many hours behind schedule I am on various projects (from OmniPlan, using an Applescript) I could see having a graph that requires that I put in x hours per month reducing any accumulated backlog OR, say, learning Italian. That’s something I shouldn’t really allow to split my attention, but if I’m all caught up and on track (i.e. 0 hours behind on all four), maybe it would be okay to let that slide a bit and indulge in splitting my attention.

Hmm… Food for thought.


In theory, anything that with Inbox River you choose to let flow by, you can, with Inbox Zero, choose to archive. In practice, you feel too guilty taking an explicit “f*ck that” action. So in that sense Inbox River is a handy psychological trick where you don’t have to fully admit to yourself that you’re ignoring certain emails.

So far so good and I don’t doubt that that’s the perfect balance for many people. But I’m too delusionally optimistic. I persist in believing that things I let flow by in Inbox River I’ll actually come back to. But of course once they’re out of sight out of mind in the Endless Sea that the river flows into I forget and I drop balls, sometimes balls that are very bad to drop.

(Of course snoozing messages is a big monkey wrench in all this, though also a powerful and valuable tool. I have some overcomplicated fine print for not letting snoozing defeat the whole point of inbox zero.)

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Posting my email reply:

When you go through your email for inbox zero, are you replying to each individual email that requires a reply, or otherwise doing stuff for each email? Because you can just move it to a folder and add the stuff you have to do to a list, GTD-style. That way you can get to inbox zero faster. The point of inbox zero is not necessarily to complete all email-related tasks, just to list them so you don’t have unknown stuff in your email. A lot of your suggestions have the problem that they hide possibly urgent emails.