Mailbox, I quit you

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I switch email apps on the iPhone like Derek Jeter switches girlfriends. I’ve used them all, and only begrudgingly use the latest version of the Gmail app because it’s the least terrible I’ve found.

That’s why I got really excited when I read Ellis’s piece about Mailbox, which seemed like it would solve all my problems. A fast, clean, simple email client that is dedicated to triaging email quickly? I hopped in the queue, checked in frantically as my place crept from 300,000 toward zero, and then spent twenty minutes in a taxicab setting up the app and learning its ropes once I was finally allowed into Mailbox’s exclusive club.

That was last night. This morning, I removed both my Gmail accounts from Mailbox, closed the app, moved it to the deep recesses of my sixth home screen, and switched back to Gmail. Why? Because Mailbox doesn’t get how I use email.

Mailbox’s whole appeal is about achieving inbox zero. I like part of the idea — using your inbox for things you need to deal with now, and filing everything else somewhere else — but the app is specifically and explicitly designed to make it far too easy to bring your inbox count down to zero without actually dealing with your inbox.

I’ve started using a new email system recently, and I love it. The full rundown of the system is here, but the practical setup is this: when something comes into my inbox, I either archive it, respond to it immediately, or star it. My "Starred" folder serves as my running to-do list, with everything I need to deal with, and my inbox is only for emails I’ve yet to see or consider. It helps me keep my inbox count low, and keeps me from losing important emails in the flow of my inbox.

Mailbox, in a way, approximates this same effect. Archiving or deleting a message is one left-to-right swipe away, and swiping right-to-left opens a filing system. But rather than filing it into a system that will help you get things done, Mailbox instead incents just dealing with it later — later today, or tomorrow, or in a month. You get the dopamine hit from getting something "out of your inbox," without ever actually getting anything off your plate. All you’re doing is saying "that’s for future me to deal with," and future you is going to think you’re kind of an ass for dumping all your email off on them. But I found myself doing just that, because Mailbox’s badge shows the total number of emails in my inbox (not just the unread ones) and I can’t stand seeing that "65" blaring accusingly at me.

It’s kicking the can down the road, filing for the sake of filing without ever dealing with something. I’m a habitual postponer of tasks, and I don’t need a tool that makes that trivially easy to do. I need an email system that helps me manage the flow of email I get, and deal with the emails I need to deal with — don't even get me started on Mailbox's missing mute function. Mailbox makes me feel like I’ve dealt with my email, but doesn’t help me actually deal with it; I can’t afford to feel productive unless I actually AM productive.

I wanted to love Mailbox. It does a lot of smart things — I created my own "To Watch" and "To read" labels, for instance — and it offers one of the best email interfaces I’ve seen. But I need an app that makes me better at email instead of just making me feel better about it. So Gmail, I’m back. I’m sorry I ever doubted you.