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Taming Email Overload With SaneBox

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Calling email overload “a crisis in communication”, TechCrunch Founder Michael Arrington issued a challenge back in 2008: “Someone needs to create a new technology that allows us to enjoy our life but not miss important messages.” The entrepreneurs at SaneBox read this and other articles by Fred Wilson and Bijan Sabet, and set out to build a better inbox. After a month of testing, SaneBox has really helped control my inbox and risen to Mike’s challenge.

Many solutions to email overload have been proposed with limited success. Arrington wrote about a service called “Attention Auction”, since renamed attn.me, where people pay you to get their emails read. Some folks just quit email. Companies try to ban it. Others write short emails and use systems that force you to keep it brief. Some kill your email subscriptions and someone even tried moving their inbox to the bathroom.

Another method to tame the inbox has been to remove the non-important stuff. As the number of emails keeps increasing, the only real way to solve email overload is to prioritize. Arrington manually did this when he wrote how he would “scan the from and subject fields for high payoff messages. People I know who don’t waste my time, or who I have a genuine friendship with” he would open.

Google automated this when they introduced Gmail Priority Inbox. This feature helps, and has its fans, but to me it wasn’t good enough.

Before Priority Inbox launched, the team at SaneBox, founded by Stuart Roseman, was in private beta testing a similar concept. Gmail’s solution surprised them. SaneBox VP of Growth, Dmitri Leonov, recalls those were scary times for the company. Many of their users switched to Gmail, but most came back shortly after.

I tried Priority Inbox, but SaneBox works better for me. It’s not going to magically eliminate all your email or get your inbox instantly to zero. But, your inbox shrinks and you stay focused on the higher priority messages. SaneBox says its moves 58% of the average users email out of the inbox. Your mileage may vary.

When asked why the small self-funded team at SaneBox believes it can solve the problem better than giant Google, Leonov says “this is a very difficult and expensive problem to solve – one giant edge case. The kind of personalized analysis that we do requires a lot of infrastructure on a per-user level, which is cost prohibitive for a free service like Priority Inbox.” After a free trial, SaneBox users pay up to $5 a month for the service, which claims to save people an average of 2 hours per week.

Sanebox’s solution lets you train your inbox, but unlike Priority Inbox, you can see all your trainings and adjust them. It’s also easier, quicker, and more powerful than building your own custom filters or email rules.

By reducing your inbox to important emails, you have less mental attention switching costs. It takes time to switch from important to unimportant emails. So the less time spent switching, the more productive you are. And you can get to the lower importance emails when and if time permits.

SaneBox says it’s like having a very good executive assistant who stops unwanted visitors at the door, keeping you more productive during the day. SaneBox is also modeled on the excellent GTD (Getting Things Done) ideas of David Allen, such as focusing on the most important thing “now” and avoiding distractions.

Before explaining how it works, you need to understand what it is not. SaneBox is not a plugin or a download. SaneBox is not in the spam control business. It doesn’t read the body of your email, change any headers or store email on its servers. Even though most of SaneBox customers use Gmail, it works with almost any email service.

Once you set it up, it scans your inbox headers to determine if the message is important and should stay in your inbox. It moves unimportant messages to the @SaneLater folder (or label) using its own smart filtering algorithms combined with your personal trainings.

Right off the bat, SaneBox works pretty well. If you add your social networks, it will prioritize emails from people you follow on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. If something comes into your inbox that’s not important, just move it to your @SaneLater folder. SaneBox’s algorithms recognize the difference between personal and corporate or bulk email coming from the same domain.

I find I only need to check my @SaneLater folder once or twice a day. It’s much quicker to go through these lower priority emails when they are all batched together. Your @SaneLater emails don’t get lost. You can always find them in their folder and they appear in searches.

SaneBox also sends a @SaneLater message digest list to your inbox at the time interval you set. You can always move an email from @SaneLater to the inbox, and these trainings can be remembered for that one email or all from the same address. Each contact training can be adjusted via the SaneBox settings page.

SaneBox has two other very useful features. Move an email to @SaneBlackHole and you won’t ever get email from that address again. It’s much quicker than building your own custom filter or unsubscribing.

There’s also a @SaneRemindMe folder for emails you want to make sure get followed up. When you send or reply to an email, add addresses to the to: cc: or bcc: like tomorrow@sanebox.com, Friday@sanebox.com, Dec31@sanebox.com, or 3h@sanebox.com (in 3 hours), and SaneBox will send you a reminder email at that future time. This feature is similar to what Nudgemail and followup.cc offers. But with SaneBox, if your email gets a reply, the reminder is cancelled.

SaneBox does have some competitors beyond Google’s free Priority Inbox. OtherInbox offers a free “Organizer” feature that sorts receipts, newsletters and social media emails into folders. OtherInBox was a TC 50 finalist in 2008. I found it took a long time to search through my emails and it didn’t do nearly as good a job as SaneBox. It also created more folders than I wanted. They were bought by email certification and reputation monitoring company Return Path, whose mission is to help marketers and publishers reach an audience. That’s quite different than a startup like SaneBox whose clients are its paying email overload sufferers.

Another player in the space is the paid service AwayFind. Its goal is to get only the 3% of super urgent emails to you even when you are not near your inbox. That’s a different solution than SaneBox which tries to get a majority of your emails out of your inbox.

Here’s a video overview to SaneBox: