I wrote recently about relying on search alone for my email inbox. Having brought that experiment to an end, and being an inveterate tinkerer, I’m itching to start another one. This one is a bit more radical: I’m going to sort my email inbox so that the oldest messages appear first.
What? You don’t think that’s a radical change? Stop and think for a moment what inverting the sort order would do to an average inbox — yours, for example.
First, it would surface all those ancient messages from years ago when you first joined the company. They’d suddenly be at the top of your list, getting in your way when you tried to do just about anything with your email. These ancient relics had settled to the bottom of your inbox like sediment in the ocean, to be slowly compacted by layers of email above.
Flipping the sort order will surface that old gunk. Much of that material you can simply delete because it’s no longer relevant. If you do find a few interesting fossils, move them to a folder for reference later. Getting rid of all that deadweight will be a relief.
Second, having the oldest stuff on top blocks your view of the recent and far more valuable work you’re doing now. If you’re a fan of Inbox Zero, this acts as a forcing function. It helps ensure that you’ve always got your deck cleared for action.
Every time you find yourself scrolling down to the new stuff, you’ll be reminded of the backlog that’s piling up. You’ll simply have to get those old messages out of the way so that you can handle the new stuff coming in.
Third, you won’t be letting your attention get hijacked by the latest items. Those new messages in large bold font can be so tempting, but you can’t get to them without ignoring the stuff you currently have at the top of your list. Letting those new messages jump the queue will become a conscious decision, not an involuntary reflex.
If you use your inbox as a glorified task list — as most of us do, sadly — putting those older items at the top is a great way to ensure that those things don’t get lost in the shuffle. And once you’re done with those items, you can delete them or move them into a folder out of the way, bringing the next item that needs your attention to the top of the list.
Fourth, it dis-empowers the nags and micro-managers in your organization. They rely on the fact that new messages will take priority over existing stuff. They’ve learned that bombarding coworkers with “Is it done yet?” messages is the best way to annoy people into doing things. Sorting new messages to the bottom drowns out all that noise. You can deal with things in the order you received them.
Fifth, it might help minimize the constant pressure of new things being added to your pile of work. There’s nothing more dispiriting than watching a stream of new messages fill the top of your inbox while you’re working on a time-consuming task. Having those messages appear at the bottom of your list might help reduce the sense of panic you get from falling behind.
…And those are just a few of the effects I can think of off the top of my head.
Can you think of other effects changing the default inbox sort order might have? Is it an experiment you’re willing to try yourself? Have you tired it in the past? Let me know in the comments below.