Inbox Zero on a Budget
Update: Several years after initially posting this, I'm finally taking my own advice. I've moved from Superhuman to plain 'ol Gmail and you should too. Happy emailing.
Wanting to save $30/m - and because this is the type of thing I can’t help but waste my time (yes, more than $30's worth) and energy on - I decided to see how much of Superhuman I could recreate in plain old Gmail.
TLDR - You can’t match the full experience of Superhuman. But, you can get a surprising amount of core Superhuman functionality and level up your email productivity by leveraging advanced Gmail features. Most users - and anyone opposed to paying for hype/luxury apps - can benefit from incorporating these changes.
One of the key wow factors of Superhuman is the ability to flow through your email without ever touching a mouse. You may be delighted (or angered) to find that most of the core Superhuman keyboard shortcuts are lifted straight out of Gmail. You can jump from one to the other without noticing a change in basic commands like compose, reply, forward, select, archive, etc. or navigating to inbox, sent, labels, or snoozed folders.
Additionally, Gmail has a very thorough list of customizable Shortcuts (opens in a new tab) that you can continue to tweak to your liking. I believe changing Snooze to "h" to match Superhuman was the only adjustment I made.
It just goes to show how important onboarding can be: Superhuman is teaching people how to better use the free tools they already have!
Result: Pretty solid - I can basically pass the no mouse test in Gmail, but every once in a while there is a hiccup that feels clunky. For instance, when snoozing, you can’t type a time or date. This seems so minute, but after you’ve done it once (typing “tomorrow” or “4:17am next friday”) it feels like running into a wall. Of course, you can select the existing pre-sets by pressing up/down and hitting enter.
Another key Superhuman feature is creating custom splits based on labels, stars, sender, or other basic queries. To enable this, you can use either Priority Inbox or Multiple Inboxes.
The default settings for Priority Inbox works pretty well:
You will end up with lots of different things in the Everything else section, however. You can customize it further, to show certain labels or custom search criteria in each section, but it’s not quite granular enough. So for instance, I could have a “label:alerts” split, but I can’t limit this split to only inbox items, so it will show me all messages within this label, whether they’ve been archived or not.
One advantage of this approach is that it translates to the mobile app reasonably well. The only downside is that it’s a little clunky to move from one section to another rather than swipe/tab through them.
Using Multiple Inboxes gets closer to the mark, but it gets complex to manage. You can configure your sections with more sophisticated logic and include only emails in the inbox (not archived), which you can see in my logic (label:inbox).
This comes with a few shortcomings to be aware of. First, sections can’t be created, updated, or toggled on the fly, so you’d better be sure of your setup or you’ll have to fiddle with it frequently. Second, the sections aren’t mutually exclusive so for every inclusive query parameter you add to one section, you’ll have to negate it from all other sections with an exclusive query parameter. Otherwise you could see the same email in three places. You can only see a preview of my queries, but you’ll notice a lot of !s.
Note: It seems like Gmail's official documentation for search parameters and logic is outdated. I had to remove all ANDs and ORs and replace them with nested parens and brackets, which caused me some headaches. For just an AND, you don't need an operator for some reason adding it can break the logic, even though it works in regular Gmail search. Weird.
Result: Not bad - but requires a lot of maintenance. Any adjustments need to be made across all of your sections so you’re bound to have an errant, head-scratching email show up.
The lack of mobile support is the biggest detractor for me, with the app reverting to the standard single inbox when this feature is turned on.
Lastly, no matter where you position the splits (above, below, side) Gmail will guide you through the standard inbox (or “Else”) first. You have to remember to jump to the top to navigate through your most important sections first.
Superhuman’s Snippets feature allows you to insert pre-written text snippets or even entire emails, including subject line, recipients, and sender email. There are a few ways to support this functionality.
Text Replacement / Expansion
There are a ton of text expander utilities out there (like TextExpander (opens in a new tab)), but I haven’t had the need to mess with them yet. Instead I use iOS/Mac system text replacements (System Preferences > Keyboard > Text) as a hack to replace some typed abbreviations with pre-canned strings. These will work in nearly any app and are shared between Apple devices, including iPhone.
For email templates, you can use Gmail’s native template feature. This is hidden in the compose menu and is probably never seen or used by most people. It does the trick for full on email templates, but of course can’t be invoked with a keyboard shortcut or in the middle of a message.
Result: Neutral - I don’t use this enough for it to bother me. I'm not a super-connector VC, but I know many Superhuman power users are big proponents of this feature, along with Instant Intro.
30 minute onboarding demo
Unfortunately, you can’t replace this. You’ll need to call a friend or find another zoom meeting to fall asleep on. Look I just saved you 30 minutes and 30 bucks! 😝
A quick summary of some of the things that broke for me:
- You can’t recreate every action without using the mouse. And for those asking, you can’t use the keyboard shortcuts in the iOS mobile app. You can in a mobile web browser, but that’s already painful enough.
- No mobile support for most of the features I’ve outlined.
But surprisingly, the biggest issue for me was managing Splits.
I receive a ton of system alerts, task updates, and other messages sent by platforms where I am an observer. For any work related app, I disable push notifications and stream everything to a single place, my inbox.
In Gmail I can’t hide these, unless I filter them to a folder. But when I do that, there’s no way to triage them. Like all things, if you keep it out of sight it will stay out of sight.
So the driver for me to pick up Superhuman again was missing a few rare, but critical system alerts, after filtering them for months. Having a timely daily (or 2x daily) way to let these build up and clear them out without hiding them under the rug, is a good way for me to keep these in check. I don’t actually get and send a lot of 1:1 email, so this is my core use case.
This was a fun exercise in maximizing functionality with minimal tools.
I am using Superhuman again, specifically for the split inbox features I mentioned above.
Yes, it’s expensive, but it saves me a ton of time and more importantly the headache or stress of missing something critical. But, I know that in most cases I could get by with the free version. And if I wasn’t willing to pay more purely for experience, I wouldn’t need to. Let that be a lesson anytime you are considering an "upgrade" to your stack.