The Dream of a Single Inbox

I once read a disappointing book that nevertheless offered a good piece of advice: reduce your email addresses down to the minimum necessary. (One, if possible.) This one-email-address policy means one inbox: only one place to check for incoming electronic communications. Simpler is better, right?

Like many people, I’ve long had at least two email addresses: a personal one, and one for work. Two inboxes; two separate contexts. I’ve worked as a consultant for most of my career, and most of that time I’ve been self-employed. So my work and personal contexts haven’t been as clearly differentiated as those of other people. Now as an educator I have a third email address, yet another context to worry about. To muddy things up, there’s quite a bit of overlap between these contexts: some of my friends and colleagues also teach at my institution.

I use Apple’s Mail.app email client primarily because it allows me to check all messages sent to these disparate addresses in a single inbox. This mashes these contexts together, partly achieving the one-address dream. However, it also highlights how important context is to communication, especially via electronic channels: The exact message sent by the same person to my work email could have a different meaning if sent to my personal account or my school account. So even though I have a single inbox, I frequently find myself paying more attention to the TO: address in messages, which defeats the point.

All my email accounts are hosted on Gmail. The native way of checking Gmail is through a web browser, requiring that I visit each inbox separately. As a result, Gmail enforces a strict separation between these contexts; I’m never confused about whether I’m looking at my work, personal, or school address. So after many years of using a dedicated mail client, I find myself contemplating giving up on the dream of a single inbox and moving to email on the web. (I know I can view inboxes separately using Mail.app, but the unified inbox is the primary reason I use it. There are many other advantages to checking Gmail over the web.)

Another alternative could be to set up a visual indicator in Mail.app that lets me know where each message was sent to. This would allow me to keep the unified inbox, albeit at the expense of some visual clutter. I’ll experiment with this, and will report back on how it goes. (The question would then become: what do I do about all the other inboxes that have entered my life in the past few years. I’m looking at you, Slack!)