Too busy for a catch-up right now? Take a look at Breef for Gmail’s sign up page for the lowdown. The Attention Management article I wrote for it is something I’m a little proud of too 🙂

There was a gap in ActiveInbox

For as long as I can remember, and even with ActiveInbox at my back, I’ve always hesitated to go into my inbox. A sharp inhale of breath. A feeling of “ugh”.

(Once I’m in there, there’s normally at least a few emails of great delight… it’s the initial opening of that door that causes so much hesitation).

But I’d never quite faced up to it. I’d felt that ActiveInbox’s ‘control’ features should be enough. This cognitive denial was a confusing thorn in my side, that something didn’t feel right.

Back in September I started tinkering

Once I accepted my denial, and forever being the product nerd, my first choice of weapon is always “what can I make that’ll fix this”.

I stared at my inbox. It lumpily stood there, indifferent to my accusing eyes. It was immediately obvious there were a lot of newsletters in its belly.

This is something I hadn’t paid much attention to. They’d long ago become a meaningless backdrop to my day. But now they were clearly occupying most of the space. Things I rarely read, but kept because “maybe the next one will be amazing”.

By sheer numerical dominance, I reasoned they were probably a good place to start.

It’s not that I didn’t want them, in fact I was aware I was missing out on the newsletters I actually do love. But as a package I was ignoring them.

So Breef Mk 1 was all about newsletters. For cleaning up the ones I never read, to (re)discovering the ones I love. (I’d heard a rumour of a vast resurgence of quality writing in newsletters throughout 2020, and I wanted into the cool crowd.)

I tried testing it with Google Ads (plot spoiler: no one cared for the premise), and with a few of you here (who were kind, but still largely indifferent).

And because I couldn’t tempt people to use it, the bit that had originally excited me the most – using the hivemind to discover great new writers – wasn’t possible.

The flurry of excitement and energy dissipated.

At that point, I was ready to give up

But there was one curiosity I couldn’t shake. As part of ‘making newsletters great’ I’d implemented infinite scroll into Gmail to read them as a single feed (infinite scroll is what you have on Twitter and Instagram).

It was something of a last minute whim. Probably more of a nerd challenge of “can I actually do this?“. But once experienced it was… a revelation.

Breef’s scrolling made the inbox fun

That happy accident saved Breef. It gave it a new purpose: do the inbox faster. Do it with focus. Do it without distraction. Make it feel small.

From there on, things more easily dropped into place.

The next – and my favorite – feature happened while playing with infinite scroll. I kept thinking “this is so slick, but I wish the emails’ subject matter didn’t bounce around so much – right now I want to deep dive into ‘marketing ideas'”.

Thus “topics” was born. Choose an email, give its sender a tag, and Breef will sort the inbox so they’re clustered together.

On the surface, it looks similar to Gmail’s own ‘Promotions’ tab, but in practice if feels wildly different. The Promotions tab still lumps all your newsletters together, from all walks of life, and all levels of quality… it’s still just as swampish as your normal inbox. Whereas…

Topics let you work with intentionality

Your mindset becomes goal-orientated… “Now I’m going to do vital emails > Now I’m going to read productivity inspiration tips > Now I’m going to learn about industry news, etc.”

Or put another way, it’s like ActiveInbox’s control, only now it’s all automatic for lower-value emails (because frankly, who has time to manually categorise every new newsletter email?).

Looking back, it’s easy to say it was obviously going to be useful. It’s exactly what Slack had built their value on: breaking everything into channels of focus. (Of course, looking forward at the time, with a 1000 possible competing ideas, it wasn’t so clear!)

Breef is still taking its first brief steps

So far only a few (brave, wonderful and frankly patient) souls have tested Breef. It has still got a few blemishes.

The Breef website has a waitlist signup and images to see it.

I’m prioritising giving access to people who are happy to screen share with me for 10 minutes while they install it, just so I can spot those blemishes and smooth them out. (My eyes are useless in this situation – they’re so used to Breef they overlook everything that shocks other people.)

But there is a future to Breef that I’m really excited about. I want to build the community to discover the wonderful newsletters that are starting, I want to evolve the analytics to give you recommendations to clean up your inbox.

In fact I’m toying with the idea of having Breef be a digital coach. So that not only will it make your inbox faster with these new features, but it maintains a constant vigil of your inbox habits and makes suggestions that will improve your work life. If you manage a team, it could be the coach that brings about a performance lift in how you coordinate together.

Breef’s sibling relationship with ActiveInbox

ActiveInbox found its place in the world a long time ago, giving individuals a trusted way to say “I’ll do this later, on a schedule that works for me”. It began as a GTD workflow and still works best with those who follow it.

In the last few years, a lot of my work – and momentum – has been tied up with fairly bureaucratic things. I seem to have to devote much more time demonstrating to Google our security is top notch, and dealing with data privacy & tax law changes in the EU (which as Brits we’re now no longer part of, creating even more work. “Thanks Brexit.”). I love and adhere to the principles, but honestly, I want to push the form-box-checking off the nearest cliff 🙂

Looking back at 2020, I largely think the new features I actually managed to squeeze out for ActiveInbox were a misstep. I think I’d lost my touch for features that matter (it’s a muscle, and it had weakened by 3 years of doing other things), and it added complexity to a product that is functionally complete.

If I had that time again, I’d rather it had been spent simply doing maintenance on ActiveInbox. That is still ongoing of course, and will get more of my attention now Breef is no longer an all-demanding baby.

The big decision though is that from now on, rather than overloading ActiveInbox with ‘more’, I want to try new ideas separately as new laser-focused products.

Breef is the first example of a new product with a single purpose, but there are other ideas I really want for us, that I hope will help everyone.

One last thing

I hope you sign up for Breef (registering now includes a discount).

But I also finally published an article on Attention Management that I’ve been drafting for a very long time – it’s my own private notes on how I prioritise and make decisions. It’s quite personal, so I don’t think anyone will see it as a prescription on the ‘right way’, but I hope you find might some bits you can apply day to day.


This was written by Andy Mitchell