The ZEN of email

5 minute read

The ZEN of email

I love email. Yes, call me romantic, but receiving a long email from an actual human does not often happen these days. When it does, I really love reading and answering them.

Many years ago, around 2008, I did review my use of mail. Following my GTD approach, I created a simple process to deal with all emails. It was GTD based, but I did not want the mail to be my GTD process but just an inbox.

No more folder madness

I stopped the madness of saving the email in thousands of folders and ended up with only two folders, Inbox and Archive. The inbox is the default inbox of your email service, and new mail will end up there. During the day, the email that I do not delete will be moved to the archive.

I back up my archive once a year. But, after many years of doing that, I realised that I do not go back and search for email, so I might end up stopping at some point. For now, I’m still happy having a backup.

Email is not GTD

In my GTD system, I do not have a single inbox, but three:

  1. Digital inbox: pictures of anything to review, audios with ideas, and even small texts go into this inbox. That might happen on macOS or iOS, and I use Day One for this (I’ll cover that in another entry).
  2. Physical inbox: Papers of all kinds will go to my wallet or my backpack.
  3. Email: is an external digital inbox.

Since email is part of my GTD system, it will get processed during the day, and nothing will be left pending there. After reading every email, I’ll decide if any action is needed. If so, it will go into my GTD system. Otherwise, It will be moved to the archive to be kept or to the trash. So, the possibilities are action, storage or waste.

Here you can see how a simple process helps you decide and take the right action for every email. There is no corner case or strange situation. If there is an action, it enters the GTD. If there is no action, I either keep it or trash it.

No noise

Like every email user, 90% of my emails are newsletters. Also, a long time ago, I did unsubscribe from all superfluous subscriptions, and that makes my inbox cleaner, less distracting and more interesting.

I did a simple refinement of my email inbox. It is an idea that I stole from HEY (more about this in the next section). Using automatic rules, I move all my subscriptions to a “News Feed” folder. That makes my inbox even cleaner and focused. That “News Feed” folder is a low priority depot; I just look at it every couple of days or less. Almost everything there will be deleted; occasionally, some actions are derived from its content, like read this or investigate that. But In general, it is just light information that I like to read.

Hey, almost

I do not use Basecamp because I do not need it, but I follow the company by listening to their podcast and reading their books. I like their approach to product software development and communication. Some time ago, they presented “HEY”, a mail service with a twist. I was instantly in love with it, but just by the fact that they give some love to email. I liked their approach to a simple workflow that covers the regular use of email. I did try the service and really like it.

I was about to sign in for the service when I assessed my use of email. I get between 10 to 20 emails a day, almost zero spam, and it takes me 5 to 10 minutes a day to process it. It doesn’t look like I needed it.

Also, the thing that worries me the most about email is security and encryption. And HEY doesn’t solve it. Or at least not entirely. They have an excellent web page talking about that.

Moreover, there are excellent email services with and without security. Even if the UI is horrendous, I liked ProtonMail. Also, is very interesting, and the prices are fantastic. I can use POP/IMAP and use my S-MIME certificate to sign and encrypt my communications with both of those services.

The missing Piece: Encryption

Email should be private in the same way that regular mail is. We should not allow free email services to read and scan our communications. I understand that setting up the S-MIME certificate on the phone and the application is complex for non-technical people. Notice that free email services are not interested in people adding a layer of encryption. Then they could not scan the content.

Seriously, we should stop using free email services and set up our encryption keys properly. Or even better, move to ProtonMail. They will manage that for you.


The right email set-up provides value and ease of use fundamental to my GTD system. Adding security to that makes me enjoy it even more. Unfortunately, not many of my friends and colleagues enjoy email as much as I do, and they are not used to write long explanations on email.

I really miss the times when we wrote letters. I expected the email to be the natural substitute, but instead, we jumped to less interesting chat technologies.

Finally, I did go with ProtonMail for mail and VPN, but I’ll explain that in another entry.

PD: Saving your memories

Since 2011 I have been a Day One user, and I love it as much as email. So whenever I have a long thread of email with a friend or a colleague. I exported from email and added an entry on my Day One Journal. Then I tagged it as VIP. It is a way to keep my memories and interesting conversations in a single place (and encrypted).