I’m going to dive straight into possible refinements to functionality here – each refinement has its own section – and I’d really like to gather your feedback.

If you want to wax lyrical about the “why” I’ve added a few paragraphs at the end.

Simplify Active Results

I think the big step is to abolish the separate “Active Results” tab, and simply add a box containing “To Dos” to the top of all search results, much like the different sections in Gmail’s own Priority Inbox.

So, if you click a Project, there will be a subset containing the active emails first, and then the regular Gmail search results below it. (Technically, the Gmail results would duplicate the ‘active’ results section, but I think that’s expected behaviour).

If you click on “Waiting On”, you will just see the active emails (as they are the only results).

And, the ‘Active Results’ controls will be simplified. Rather than a drop down of “Group By” and “Sort By”, there will be grouping buttons to hot switch between “To Dos” (split into statuses/deadlines), “Folders” (projects), and “Contacts” (people). Every view will default to the “To Dos” split.

I think there is a problem with having a sense of context/place. For example, if I go into Issues in our support account, it’s hard to drill into each individual issue. And once in an issue, it’s hard to progress to its sibling. I’d like to see the contents of a single folder, but easily jump between folders. The solution I prefer is a collapsible right-hand sidebar to switch between folders; but it might eat too much horizontal space. Other ideas are welcome!
(Please make sure you don’t miss I’m proposing a fairly big functional change: to stop a folder showing you all its emails AND all its sub folder’s emails; because it’s overwhelming. How do you feel about this?)

Keep Important Emails In Sight

We can add a Dashboard below the Inbox (which itself should be empty).

It will show you the emails for ‘Today’, emails in any other important statuses you select, and any projects you choose. There could also be the option to automatically show emails in pinned projects.

(If you ever used the Multiple Inbox Lab feature in GMail, this will be familiar).

Visually Reinforce Projects and People

This is a design process, and not yet fully worked out, but Pete & I want to do more to make it a no brainer to know whether you’re looking at a folder, a status/deadline, or a person.

Show Notes In Search Results

We can add a new search operator to Gmail, “in:note”, that would show a special set of search results, that only include emails with a note that matches your search term.

Ideally, any search you do would also look within the notes you write, and include those emails in the result. I’m not sure of the best way to do this. There are two major options:

  • Introduce a new section to the search results, called “Notes”, then you can expand to see the emails that have notes matching the search. So, you search for “amex” and the note about “Get the amex receipt from Bob” appears. The downside is that the same email to Bob that mentions amex may appear in the regular Gmail results as well.
  • We can store the notes as an actual email in the conversation thread, so Gmail will naturally include it in the search results if it matches any terms. This is more elegant, as there are no duplicate results, but it wouldn’t be visually obvious from the Gmail search results which conversations had notes. (If you wanted to only search for emails with notes, you’d add our proposed operator, “in:note”).

I think I prefer the 2nd option.

Work Within Projects By Highlighting Unread Items

If you automatically filter emails into projects, and then pin that project to the Review Bar, you essentially “live in” that project. As such, it would be helpful to have a section in the project’s items that just show new/unread emails — a mini inbox.

The “unread” count would also appear alongside each project in the Projects dropdown on the Review Bar.

Super Filters

This may only be of use to people who use Contexts, or perhaps Users (e.g. U/Andy, U/Lisa, like we use for delegation in the supp, but I’m thinking of an addition to the Review Bar to apply a “super filter”.

Suppose I have the context ‘Office’ (C/Office), and I’m in the office, I might apply the super filter ‘Office’. This would mean that all ‘To Do’ items – in fact the yellow counts everywhere – are filtered to only show items in ‘Office’. And this would be true in the proposed Dashboard too.

Why the little details matter so much

I think of ActiveInbox as a life support system. It puts your communication on rails, to help you and your peers glide towards your goals.

That means that the major benefit, after taking control, is guaranteeing that the promises that get made in email actually happen.

And so I’m scratching the ruffled currently-mad-professor-esque hair on my head, wondering how we could refine the way ActiveInbox gives you a safety net for doing those ‘active’ emails.

The concepts we have over regular email:

  • Treat emails as tasks, to guarantee all ‘active’ items get done (those with a status or deadline)
  • Focus on the big picture of projects and people (rather than little emails)

And the current solution:

  • Is a Review Bar that gives you access to “To Do” emails, and ‘active’ emails in Projects

Which has the benefits:

  • It’s a simple start point
  • The Review Bar is placed to always be in view, out of the visual melee of Gmail’s sidebar

And which has the problems:

  • Lots of people, especially new users, don’t understand the split between “Active Results” and “Gmail Results”
  • Even if they do understand the split, it’s overly-complex to get the results
  • The results themselves are buried in hidden lists – you must remember to click the Review Bar to find them
  • (A separate issue, but vertical space is also at a premium in Gmail)

So the goals of this thought process are to:

  1. Simplify
  2. Visually focus on “things” rather than emails
  3. Make it harder to forget to get emails done — keep things on your radar


This was written by Andy Mitchell



  • this is exactly what I have been waiting for. Everything sounds perfect!

  • Patrice Lamarque says:

    About “Keep Important Emails in Sight”. I would prefer to have the dashboard above the inbox. Currently, I use multiple inbox to show 4 sets of emails : Today, Next Action, Waiting On, Inbox. That way, my inbox is pushed at the bottom and I am not distracted by the unread that are coming all day. I can focus on Today’s tasks and I do my inbox triage only a few times a day.

  • ottopichlhoefer says:

    I second ‘supersearches’ — potentially they would unclutter my tag structure.

    • Hi Otto – that’s intrigued me, what is your tag structure, and how would a super filter simplify it? 

      I think there could be something very useful we can do here, if I can understand you fully…

      • ottopichlhoefer says:

        Well let’s say that I have a tag that is related to travel and another
        to the context (destination, reason of travel). I could use two
        tags (as an orthogonal structure) to identify the relevant emails.

      • Okay, so we’re talking about slicing different perspectives.

        There’s two other alternatives to this:
        1) The ability to “drill into” something. For example, search on the travel-tag, then right click the context label you see in one of the search results, and say “filter search results on c/contextlabel”. You’d then end up with a search for “p-travel-tag AND c-contextlabel”. 

        2) In the results for c-contextlabel (as shown in my diagram in the blog post), use the group-buttons to group by project folders. Hmm… I don’t like that as much, because if you group a folder by folders, you stop seeing “Today”/”Waiting On”/etc, which would confuse me.

        3) In the right-hand sidebar, have the option to “Filter Results On” (this is similar to #1). So you enter p/travel-tag, and then click a checkbox in the sidebar to filter on c/contextlabel. 

        Or we go ahead and apply a super filter. You choose to filter everything on c/contextlabel, and then work in that. 

        What do you think?

      • ottopichlhoefer says:

        OK — I need to explain two things: 

        1. I find it very hard to stay consistent with ‘Projects’ ‘References’ and ‘Context’ labels. What is a context today could become a project tomorrow etc. I am already thinking for a while about abolishing the ‘P/etc…’ structure. 

        2. I very much like gmails way of selecting tags — pressing ‘g’ and ‘l’ and there I am .-) 

        Now if I could select arbitrary labels by some combination of keystrokes which then would simply create a search string with an AND structure, that would make me perfectly happy…

      • Hi Otto,

        On your last suggestion… you can do that with Gmail now. 

        If I press ‘/’ it’ll focus on the search box, and if I type a part of a label and press ‘tab’ it’ll auto-complete the label name, and then I can type another label and press ‘enter’ and it’ll do an AND search.

        Do you not like this?

        I must admit, I don’t quite find it intuitive, but I’m not sure how we can improve it. Perhaps it’s just hard to think in terms of contexts and projects separately. 

        What do you think?

      • ottopichlhoefer says:

        Thanks for this information —  I never used it like that. I just tried but it does not really work ‘seamless’.

        1. ‘g’ ‘l’ puts me in the search box where I can select a label after typing part of the name.

        2. then I have to type ‘label:etc’

        It’s a little bit clunky. I would rather prefer to stay with label selection and not having to type ‘label:’ again.

        Also making these searches sticky/permanent using exclusively keystrokes I would find nice.

      • Susan Penter says:

         Hi Andy,
        Looking at this suggestion above (as I use contexts too) I think the 3rd suggestion would work well for me.
        I need to tighten up a bit on contexts or projects. Originally I set things up so that Contexts were used for projects with no ending ie a website I run as there will always be something new coming in whereas projects were distinct things that ended ie a stage production. However the project system really improved at some point in the AIB history so then I set up ie the website into a project with all different sub folders for sub contexts ie bug fixes, development, team talk etc. whilst context was then used for things like family or church which were more generic.

        For me a big part of this is the, at present separate, suggestion of being able to archive projects etc from within the system rather than having to go into the settings tab and work it all out.

        Reading otto’s further comment I think we have some over lapping issues where things change from projects to contexts etc. I think it would help management of the system if (if it is feasible) you could not only archive from within but also edit.  It is hard to pin this down exactly but to be able to look at a context section of mails and decide that they really need to be a project or visa versa.

        Further thought:

        At the moment I find it difficult to do any sort of weekly/monthly review. When things come in that need actioning by a certain date that is simplified by adding a date however many things are simply action or next action (although I have set up U/urgent to help) many of the messages however end up coming in cross conversations so elements of the action may be contained across a few threads and at the moment there is no way of linking this except by a note (most of my correspondents do not use Gmail!) so I sometimes find that I have umpteen conversations that I have to read through when trying to solve one problem similarly when I have solved the problem I finish the conversation I am in but do not necessarily go and look for other conversations relating to this to finish them. This is due to the fact that when the first one appears it is fairly generic ie P/website name/bug fix and at that moment there is no need to create a specific sub folder for a specific bug as it may be fixed within the day and one conversation or after a few weeks and multiple conversations. IF it is in anyway feasible it would be great if there was a way to append a conversation to an existing conversation (as it is usually with the same person) the problem is that they have started a new one instead of replying to the ongoing one.

        Sorry I have written I lot more than I intended but I hoe it has given some clarity as to what I am trying to achieve.   


      • Hi Susan,

        I’ve been torn about ‘linking’ one conversation to another for years. 

        One the one hand, it’s an obvious solution to the problem of joining related emails. 

        On the other hand, it’s inelegant. It duplicates the purpose of labels, and it always feels fiddly when I try to design it – like I’d forget how to join them.

        I think a better solution is to improve labels such that:
        a) They’re really easy to rename (so if you get the name wrong at first, you can refine it).
        b) It’s very easy to switch between projects in the Project view, so you can flick between siblings.

        In this way, they actually become like tasks. Basically all project labels would be a bucket. So you might have something like “P/Book Holiday 2012/Arrange Taxi”.

        And a supporting solution is better Related Emails. The ability, on any email, to open up a popup and see emails sent around the same date, by the same person(s), and maybe in the same project. 

        Would that work for you?

      • Susan Penter says:

         I think the better related emails solutions may well help. I find that different parts of my life become important at different times so although different conversation strands relating to a topic are all within the Action label the entire Project may be put on hold for a few weeks so when I come back to it I then open one resolve it and forget about others that then linger. This could then be safe guarded by the related messages.

  • Dale Holden says:

    Hi Andy 
    Very interesting  i have to say i am not a newbie but just do not get the point ; never have never will Gmail Results / Active Results! You must have had a big session in the Dr Brightons. But what i do like is the sort feature Group By Sort by feature why that could not just be added to the Gmail tab i am not sure.

    The project tab is good but this to trips up newbies as many think if they add an item to a project they will always be able to reference it. But as you know you only view items with a status so if it has no status or has a Finished you do not see it. I would like a completed status  slight greyed out so if i have a project say book  a 6 months trip round the world and i am ticking off things to do i can see very quickly what is done not just what needs doing.

    As always it is down to personal opinion and would be interested in other users view. Love the notes search i was going to drop in this week as a suggestion. I use this a lot more now than i did  and was wanting a search only on notes. If it combines a search across everything it will useless like your example searching Amex across Gmail will hammer you but searching notes for Amex only would be better.

    Other ideas look fine but it does need refining i agree. Have you considered the option i really miss time specific sending of emails? I know we have other plugins but i hate filling my screen with different plugins. Have other users made any request for this ?



    • Hi Dale,

      We could definitely add a “Finished” section to the Projects view.

      I’m not proposing making the Group By disappear, just change it into buttons with fewer options so it’s simpler to use.

      Time specific sending – another discussion 😉

  • Andrew Gross says:

    Concerning notes, I like the separate notes field.  I will summarize the next action or what I am waiting on here so I don’t have to open the thread… I can scan that day’s view of “waitings” or “actions” and see what’s happening.

  • Jack N says:

    Your graphics look nice, but how would they look if you had 15-20 items in each category as I often have? Maybe it would be worthwhile to mock those up as well.

  • John Bowen says:

    Speaking of filters, I would love to be able to create my own custom filters and SAVE them..and be accessible from the toolbar…of course I will feel dumb if AIB has this already and I didn’t notice 🙂

    • Hi John,

      Saved Searches is another thought I’ve hovered over for years, but I’ve always felt there should be simpler ways of solving it that don’t require saving things. 

      Can you share the single most useful saved search you’d come up (and where it would fit into your workflow, and why it’s useful, and why there’s no other way of doing it, etc.)? 

    • Mister Bowen! 

      There is no need to feel dumb – I’ve resisted implementing Saved Searches (as I’ve called your ‘Filters’) for years. 

      I’ve resisted for the simple reason that I think the Review Bar + Active Results should give you the power to see the “right things” by default, without resorting to special saved searches. I.e. that Saved Searches are inelegant.

      The one suggestion that nearly made me change my mind was a person who starred things on mobile that he wanted to do later, kept absolutely everything in the inbox, and wanted a way to see “Unprocessed Items In The Inbox” (i.e. “in:inbox -is:starred”) when he returned to his desktop. But even that isn’t a perfect argument, because his approach is breaking the desired ‘inbox zero’ workflow of ActiveInbox. 

      So I lay down the challenge… what would you want to have Saved Search, and why? 

      (I secretly hope you can persuade me!).

      • John Bowen says:

        Andy…sorry for the delay in getting back to you.
        well here is a try to persuade you. At the most basic level we all want to be perfect in our use of AIB, but that is in a perfect world. 

        1. I need some flexibility to work AIB/GTD within my own personal framework.

        One thing that hangs me up is that the world is on a 24 hour clock and the end of my work day is not necessarily the EOD for others I work with. Often I will be “Waiting On” for a reply to question or task that I have asked for and I assume will get the answer before the end of day, so I will mark the deadline to be “Today”.

        What happens in reality is that I don’t often get an email reply till late in the evening that I catch on my mobile (and we know AIB doesn’t do mobile 🙂 ). If I haven’t rolled over the deadline before I have closed up my computer for the day, that “Waiting For’ email will roll off the list and be lost in the abyss. That is why now, even though I expect a reply today, I set the deadline for tomorrow, just so I don’t lose it. Purists would say that I should roll the deadline before I quit for the day..but while traveling or other demands, this just isn’t practical.

        My best time to process my inbox is in the morning before work starts, so I need that extra day to see what has rolled from yesterday. So I run a query to collect my overdue “Waiting On” that are 2 day old. 

        I wouldn’t want to force others to have one more “Overdue” query, but I would like to add that query to my list of To-Do’s.

        2. Trying to limit the number of apps I run, I need the ability to use AIB as my project manager and reference book.

        There are situations where I need to data mine my email for purposes of supporting my work at a level more basic then GTD. Because AIB is my organizational tool, I want to be able to customize it to handle search queries that I have either have to store elsewhere or write every time I need the information.

        AIB does a great job of writing the top level filter strings, but I often customize them for my use to answer a question or find some data buried in my email. I may want to include a key word in the search string, but I don’t want to add the numerous labels I already have. For instance I want to know about all of the tasks I need done for release “ver1.12”. I could add a label, but that just adds to abyss of labels that I have. It would be much easier to just save a search string to AIB.

        In regard to notes..Notes are very important to me, I like to be able to see them separately when viewing my list for a day or project or whatever…a great feature. However I have two pet peeves about Notes:
        1. The ability to only add a note after an email has been sent or replied too. It is inefficient and I would like to be able to put my thoughts as to why I am sending this email at the time i create the email…not having to dig the email out again and add the note after sending.
        2. When I create a note, I try to put a date stamp in the note so I can see when the note was created and when it was edited. I would love to have a button or whatever to insert a time stamp in the note. I  guess it sounds lazy like, but it helps speed things up.

        I hope I have given you some good reasons to consider “Saved Searched” !

  • Amuz says:

    Concerning Multiple Inboxes: I use this feature. Whatever you do to “keep important emails in sight” please in heavens name don’t break my multiple inboxes setup, which is as follows:
    1. Important (as per the google feature) and unread
    2. starred
    3. Action (as per ActiveInbox)
    4. Everything else thats in the inbox

    Achtually “keeping omportant emails in sight” is something that I already gave, it’s the starred emails.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Hi Amuz, 

      Do you use Stars alongside ActiveInbox’s Status labels? 
      I find that interesting – can you tell me why you do it? (E.g. using star as “top priority”). 

      As fear not, it’ll be a compliment to Multiple Inboxes; it won’t break it. 

  • Lena Rotenberg says:

    First, thanks for asking us. However,  can’t wrap my head around these proposed changes. You all have been thinking about them for a while, but to me they’re a LOT to process in the abstract. I’ll know how well I like a new version after I’ve had the opportunity to apply it to my own email and my own workflow. My suggestion: do what Google does with Gmail. Roll out the new radically changed version but allow us to revert to the old if we don’t like it, at least until all the bugs are removed, most good suggestions made are adopted, etc. You have a winning formula now that we’ve gotten used to. Please consider not forcing a radical change upon us without leaving a back door open. .

    • Lena, you raise a very valid caution! 

      I’ve been developing the new Active Results in the last week as a Preference, and it’ll go through multiple rounds of testing: just within our team, to a small group of alpha testers, then here on the blog, and finally as a mainstream release. 

      And it’ll be as a Preference right up until the very final decision on whether to approve the changes or not!

  • thenuttman says:

    I agree with your overall thought process of simplification and making it harder to forget or misplace things. I also agree with one of the other comments that you should ensure a way for users to select the features they want to enable.

    I’m not sure how others use ActiveInbox…but for me, the biggest advantage (not to take away from all your hard work) is simplifying a labeling system (label as Next, Action and Waiting) and that awesome toolbar at the top that shows me how many things I’ve marked waiting…ugh.

    But anyway, the biggest thing is allowing me to quickly filter my inbox…and get my crap out of it and to Inbox Zero.  The goal of a stress free life 🙂

    Now…with that said, the biggest issues I find with this way of handling things (for me) is…

    A. My lack of follow-thru with updating Waiting items
    B. My lack of follow-thru with marking things as done (i.e. deleting the deadline date)

    I’m not offering any advice or thought really…just my ramblings.  So, let me end with this…here’s how to get me to use Active Inbox more holistically and make email a better world:

    1. Make my entire email experience more aesthetically engaging so that I
    2. Want to remove the to-do items that are making it less beautiful

    All emails are to-do items…read, remember, act, do, mark-as-spam…they all require an action. You’re doing great work making our inbox work for us better and I love it. Thank you for wanting comments so that I can feel important for a second 🙂

    • Oh Eric The Nuttman, this is a wonderful bit of insight!

      And on the contrary, I’d say the advice of more refined aesthetics, faster ways to clear the inbox and a better “Done”/”Finish” button are important. 

      But back to those problems… 

      Why are you not following up on Waiting On items? 
      Should you even have to? One thing we’re musing is having the ‘Waiting On’ status change to ‘Action’ automatically if a contact replies. 

      If you can share an example of a typical kind of email you mark as a Waiting On, and when it gets complete, that would be very helpful (e.g. “Dealing with Bob the coworker”). 

      PS As for Deadlines… there’s a blog post coming up about deadlines, it would be excellent to get your thoughts on that too. 

      • thenuttman says:

        Usually the “Waiting On”…are waiting on me.  They are important items that aren’t date related; just something I need to get to and don’t want to forget. 

        If the Waiting On is truly a sent email to someone else…it becomes hard to mark it “Waiting” because I usually hit “Send and Archive”….it’d be neat if, while writing to someone there was a feature that instigated the pushing of the Waiting (or using the [W] idea I’ve seen done in the body of the email)…and then when the person I email hasn’t replied in 48 hours or something, it reminds me that they’re slow.. 😉

  • StefanStanislawski says:

    Its too complicated to absorb but the current way of showing active and gmail (I think?) results as tabs next to each other has always puzzled me.  I like the idea of buttons to flick between deadlines, status etc.  That’s as far as I got and I like that bit – the rest I cannot follow in the few seconds of thinking time I can spare.   Perhaps you can prototype with a few customers so you know it works and is designed well before general release.  

  • gjennd says:

    I’m v keen to know if “Super Filters” have been implemented? What is the current situation with these please?