How to turn your inbox into your knowledge management system

Email can feel like swimming against the current.

It’s over-stuffed with every slice of our life. There’s work… and meeting invites, app notifications, job opportunities, career-boosting insights and more!

We get it - your inbox can be a boring pain to maintain.

But there’s a fresher way of looking at it: it’s an amazing in flow of interestingness, of opportunities. If you think about it, it’s just a victim of its own success.

Capturing those opportunities while staying sane is just a matter of reframing how you process it.

Set up your downstream systems

Your inbox only becomes a problem if the information doesn’t have anywhere to go - if it’s allowed to pile up and multiply.

There’s only 4 types of activities you want to move an email into

1. A task manager

Emails are often you being asked to do something - or when you send one, you’re asking another person. That needs some kind of tracking to make sure it gets done.

Typically, email “tasks” are too small to go into a regular task manager. They’d be just as overwhelmed as your inbox. But they can be sub tasks in something like Todoist or Asana. Or you can use a dedicated email management task manager, like our own ActiveInbox. (ActiveInbox is unique for turning the email into a task, rather than adding it to a separate task - the latter is what everything else does, and it gives you two things to manage when it could just be one.)

Whatever you choose, almost every good task management system has an integration with Gmail. You can simply add an email to it.

2. Calendar

When meeting requests will come into your inbox, and Gmail has a quick menu to confirm them on your calendar.

But what if you’re just having a casual conversation, and now you want to set up a meeting?

Things like Calendly and SavvyCal make it easy to invite someone to pick a time and create an event. Why do this? You’ll know if you’ve ever suffered the back & forth of trying to manually suggest times!

3. Read Later

If you receive a lot of emails with interesting content, you want to keep them for when you’re ready to read in a relaxed state of mind.

But they still aren’t easy to make use of. They bombard us on varying subjects throughout the day, and when your brain is having to context switch like that, it can’t remember anything.

And if you also want Inbox Zero - i.e. having an empty inbox so you can feel confident that everything is under control - they need to go somewhere.

You’ve got two approaches:

  • Move them to a Read Later pile. That could be a simple Gmail Label (Breef helps you do this - just click the Read Later button while you triage). Or an app like Instapaper.
  • Keep the unread emails out of sight in one of Gmail’s inbox tabs, e.g. Promotions. Then use Breef to split subscriptions into goals (e.g. “Learn Investment Tips”), and read them all in one go later.

Whichever you do, set up a calendar time to go through it daily, using Breef to scroll its latest insights like Instagram.

4. Notes app

If you subscribe to subscriptions - aka newsletters - you’ll know how educational they’ve become recently.

But how do you actually remember what you read? Take Notes.

Notes mean you can recap what you summarized, but also, the very act of note taking helps you learn. Specifically paraphrasing and summarizing makes it stick.

Breef can do this if you click Save on the email, but there are plenty of brilliant note taking apps out there like Obsidian or Notion.

Triage with intentionality and speed

It’s natural to want to respond to an email the moment it dings into your inbox. But that interrupts your Deep Work, and as the literal author of Deep Work quips, “No billionaire ever came about because of being great at answering messages”.

You might want to create a routine for checking and actioning your inbox - e.g. every 30 minutes.

But whatever you do, you want to flow without distraction.

Breef’s Triage view will help you do just that.

It fades out the noise of Gmail, and lets you just scroll all emails in one go, making decisions as you go. It’s like Instagram, but for email.

Lower your reactivity

If you’ve read Getting Things Done - or its many repackaged lessons online - you’ll know about the “2 minute rule”. If you can act on an email within 2 minutes, just do it - and then delete it.

But this is at odds with one of the biggest findings in Deep Work, that the biggest frustration with email is that you “clear the deck” by replying to everyone… and then they reply right back. And you start again. It feels like an endless hamster wheel.

So lower your reactivity. Use Gmail’s inbuilt Send Later feature to have your reply go out at the end of the day, or the start of the next.

This isn’t only protecting your headspace in the short term. It teaches people to manage their expectations about you. That you will reply, and reply well, but not immediately.

In most cases, they’ll respect you more for establishing your boundaries.

Most emails aren’t hair-on-fire urgent, and by setting this expectation, people know when to use email with you, or when to call you. By forcing them to pick up the phone, you’ll both soon discover most things aren’t as urgent as you thought they were.

Be briefed, briefly, to be brilliant