Before the swell of social-media emails hit our inboxes, we were already drowning. Then along came waves of daily deal offers, only making things worse.
Now, "Inbox Zero" -- the concept of responding to, filing or deleting every email, every day -- is such an against-the-tide effort that Merlin Mann, the efficiency evangelist who dreamed it up, has been writing a book on the topic for almost four years. Perhaps his time would be better spent writing than triaging. Clearly, we're all gasping for air.
Thankfully, there's another email movement afoot that recommends ignoring new mail notifications and embracing the storage that cloud services afford. But to get comfortable with leaving everything online indefinitely, you'll have to reexamine how you use email.
Think about how your inbox functions in your daily routine, then try downloading one of these apps to help you swim through the clutter and go with the (work) flow:
1. Alto: Group messages into customizable 'stacks.'
A modem tone will likely screech through your mind when you read this: AOL is about to revolutionize email. Head to Alto and sign up for the free beta service because invitations take a few days to process.
A free, browser-based interface that organizes messages into "stacks," Alto makes searching through emails dramatically easier. But fear not -- you won't have to blow 14 years of dust off your abandoned AOL Mail account to use it. Alto is simply a filter that analyzes messages from Gmail, iCloud and Yahoo, and presents them more visually.
Alto's intuitive functionality was inspired by real-world actions. For example, after hitting their home mailbox, many people immediately sort envelopes, putting them into stacks of bills, junk, catalogs and so forth. In doing this with email, Alto makes it easier to group messages into customizable piles such as photos or attachments, or starred by sender or even by keyword. Now, when looking for an Internet-provider's bill, you no longer have to type "Comcast" into the search field -- and get thwarted by hundreds of emails using comcast.net addresses. Instead, Alto automatically puts it in the "bills" stack.
2. Mailbox: The smart to-do list creator.
People who let their inbox rule their day are advised to download Mailbox, a new mobile app for iOS. This free app, which apes the innovative interface of the award-winning task manager Clear, completely rethinks email, turning it from a collection of mailboxes and messages into a time sensitive to-do list that keeps users on track.
Organizing messages into five different zones, Mailbox lets the user swipe messages from the inbox either to the left or the right, and displays brief previews of the content. Tapping on a preview opens a message so it can be replied to, forwarded or filed, but simply swiping it will swiftly sort the email. A short swipe to the right archives messages, while a longer one deletes them. A quick swipe to the left brings up a snooze menu that reschedules the email's arrival for later and a longer one adds the message to a series of customizable lists.
Giving users the ability to manage email with a single finger, Mailbox can be ideal for commuters or business owners on-the-go. The app was recently purchased by Dropbox, which gave the service some media buzz and much-needed oomph on the back-end. But it's only compatible with iOS and Gmail at present, limiting its usefulness considerably.
3. Postbox: The Communications Hub
A full-scale desktop app for both Mac and Windows, Postbox is not only a viable replacement for the operating systems' default email clients, it also can render some social media programs redundant. With Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter integration, email senders' job titles, company names and profile photos get pulled directly into the email headers, and users can quickly access their contacts' social media pages directly from the message.
Users can also update their social media status with Postbox, creating a single stop for all messaging needs. Unfortunately, comments, likes, replies and retweets don't get delivered with the program, but using Postbox in conjunction with the social media monitoring service NutshellMail cobbles together a more comprehensive solution.
Now in its third revision and priced at $9.95, Postbox packs other useful features like Dropbox integration and automated responses.