Could Superhuman be your email savior?

A $30-a-month email app might sound crazy — but it could be the key to escaping inbox insanity.

superhuman silhouette wearing cape
Clker-Free-Vector-Images / JR Raphael

If we're gonna have an honest discussion about email, we need to get a few tough truths out of the way first. Think of 'em as ground rules for the conversation we're about to embark on:

  1. Email is atrocious. It's a soul-sucking hell-hole that steals hours of your day and never lets up.
  2. Most modern email tools fail to create a fully effective framework for navigating the deluge of email we busy professionals find ourselves facing on a daily basis — a truly inspired system for taming the madness and keeping our inboxes organized (ideally while keeping our sanity at least somewhat intact).
  3. Email is also unavoidable, and when handled properly, it can be an absolute asset for practically any business or professional purpose.

Now, if you don't agree with any of those points, let me save you some time: This article isn't for you.

But if you find yourself nodding along in agreement, congratulations: You've come to the right place. I, too, drown in email on a daily basis. I, too, spend far too many of my working hours (and sometimes also my allegedly non-working hours) wading through email. And I, too, am an eternal seeker of that elusive inbox utopia — the mythical environment that makes even the most active inbox manageable and maybe even (gasp!) enjoyable to master.

A company called Superhuman claims to have cracked the code. Superhuman has technically been around in some form for almost a decade, but you'd be forgiven for failing to notice — or maybe even for reading about it at some point and immediately writing it off. Up until recently, after all, it was available only on an invite and waitlist basis, and it lacked full cross-platform support.

But those restrictions are now no more. Anyone can sign up for immediate access to Superhuman, and with the service's recent addition of an Android app in addition to its native Windows, Mac, and iOS offerings and all-purpose Chrome-based browser interface, it's available anywhere you want to be.

And man alive, lemme tell ya: If you're drowning in email like I am, it is definitely deserving of your attention.

The Superhuman email experience

Before we dive into the details of what Superhuman's about and what it can do for you, it's critical to consider some quick caveats about the service — 'cause this really isn't your typical email client:

  • First, as we alluded to a second ago, Superhuman is not for everyone. If you're more of a casual email user or someone who doesn't live in your inbox for work purposes, it probably won't make sense for you.
  • Second, as of now, Superhuman is compatible only with Gmail or Outlook accounts. If your email doesn't go through one of those platforms, it won't work with this service. (I'm focusing primarily on Gmail for the purposes of this article, by the way, but the same concepts apply in both domains.)
  • And third, Superhuman ain't cheap. The service costs a cool $30 a month — or $25 a month if you pay for a full year at once. (That same pricing also applies to team scenarios.) That's $300 to $360 a year, which is by most standards a lot for an email app or any sort of productivity service. Heck, a fully featured Microsoft 365 Personal subscription runs less than a quarter of that price, at 70 bucks a year, and it includes access to all the core Microsoft Office apps along with a full terabyte of OneDrive storage.

Ultimately, only you can decide if such a price is justifiable — or, perhaps, if such a price can be expensed to your organization. What I can tell you is what the service is actually like to use so you can be armed to make such an assessment.

After spending the past month living with Superhuman as my sole email app across every type of device and platform I rely on, I'd encourage you to think carefully through three specific areas where the service really shines:

Superpower #1: Interface and philosophy

At its core, Superhuman is ultimately an alternative portal for interacting with your email. And it really does take some impressive strides toward reimagining every aspect of that experience and transforming the way you engage with your inbox — if you're willing to commit to its concepts and fully embrace its email management philosophy.

Silly as it may seem, that latter part is key. On the surface, yes, Superhuman is an exceptionally nice email interface — one that removes all the clutter from the standard Gmail setup, both on desktop and on mobile, while adding in all sorts of genuinely useful extra touches. It achieves that impossible-seeming balance of a clean and minimal interface and an environment that’s packed with functionality, as I put it in my recent collection of the best cross-platform productivity apps, and that's no small feat.

01 superhuman email interface JR Raphael / IDG

Superhuman's interface is both minimal and filled with powerful features. (Click image to enlarge it.)

But beyond the surface, Superhuman represents a whole different way of thinking about your inbox. Its approach reminds me of the short-lived Google Inbox service — not in an explicit sense, in terms of its specific interface or the exact ideas it presents, but in the way it empowers and encourages you to adopt healthier, saner email habits that lead to those "eureka!"-inducing empty inbox moments.

Also like Google Inbox, it requires a full commitment to using the service, living with it, and going all in with its methods to fully appreciate its advantages and get the most out of them. I had this realization a handful of days into testing the thing, when it dawned on me that I was clinging onto my carefully conceived Gmail-centric inbox management habits and trying to half-heartedly check Superhuman out while still keeping Gmail open.

Spoiler alert: That won't work. Superhuman's methods of organization are so customized and specific that the only way to know if the service makes sense for you is to dive in head-first, leave your old email system behind, and give it a solid week or two of adapting to its ways to see how they work for you.

To wit: One of the service's most foundational features is something called Split Inbox. It’s like a smarter and infinitely more customizable version of Gmail’s tabbed inbox approach, combined with a vastly improved and power-infused take on Gmail filters.

The way it works is actually quite simple: Superhuman allows you to split your inbox into any number of categories that you want, for any purpose, and then define and control those categories easily — no complex rule creation or deep menu diving required.

Once you've figured out what splits you want, you can add any individual email into any category with one quick command and then instruct the system to have all similar emails follow suit moving forward.

So far, I've created splits for subscribers (reader feedback and responses from my various newsletters), confirmations (automated emails from Docs, Calendar, Trello, Notion, and the like), bills and payments, and newsletters I subscribe to and read. Beyond that, anything personal and important-seeming lands in my primary split, known as "Important," and anything else — random hooey, mostly — lands in an "Other" area at the end of the list.

02 superhuman email splits JR Raphael / IDG

Superhuman's Inbox Splits system makes it easy to keep your inbox organized. (Click image to enlarge it.)

The result is a much more sensible and manageable inbox, where stuff that doesn’t necessarily demand your immediate attention doesn’t show up in your primary area and instead gets separated out and kept together with other similar items for minimal distraction and more efficient batch processing.

It takes a bit of time to get everything figured out and working the way you want, but once you do, keeping up with your inbox becomes immeasurably easier. And anytime a new email exception arises, it takes all of two seconds to direct the message into the appropriate place and make sure any subsequent emails get handled the same way.

But, again: It's a big change from the way a traditional inbox works. And it's also its own unique organizational system, meaning you won't see its effects show up when you look back into your regular Gmail or Outlook view. Your Superhuman inbox could be perfectly organized and immaculate, while your Gmail or Outlook inbox could still look like a cluttered mess. You have to give up on whatever systems you're accustomed to relying on, do a full inbox reset, and immerse yourself in the Superhuman philosophy if you want it to work for you — exactly as I observed with Google Inbox many moons ago.

You truly have to perform a trust fall, in other words. And if you allow yourself to do that, you might just be surprised at what you find.

Superpower #2: Shortcuts and step-savers

Basic interface aside, Superhuman's most noteworthy superpower is the series of smart shortcuts it injects into your inbox experience.

These are particularly prominent on the desktop front, where you have a mix of keyboard shortcuts — some following Gmail's own standard keyboard shortcuts and some going beyond that basic set of options, such as the ability to add and also remove recipients from any email as you're typing in the body field — along with a brilliant command-seeking system that lets you perform virtually any action from anywhere with a few quick keystrokes.

No matter where you are or what you're doing, you can hit Ctrl-K (or ⌘-K, on a Mac) to summon Superhuman's command prompt. From there, you can type a letter or two to pull up and execute any command imaginable — even if you don't remember the direct keyboard shortcut for it (or if it’s a more uncommon command that doesn't have its own dedicated keyboard shortcut).

So, for instance, hitting Ctrl-K and then typing spl will pull up the command to add an actively open email into any of your existing inbox splits. Hitting Ctrl-K and typing cs will fire up the command for copying an email's subject line. Hitting Ctrl-K and typing a will summon the command for creating a custom reminder that brings an email back into your inbox at any day and time you desire.

cross platform apps superhuman JR Raphael / IDG

Pressing Ctrl-K (or ⌘-K) from anywhere lets you find and execute any command imaginable in no time. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Superhuman's mobile apps have a taste of that same setup, too: When you swipe downward on the main inbox view in that environment, you see a trio of commands at the top. Letting go immediately after the swipe activates search by default, but you can also slide your finger slightly to the left to move to "Refresh" or slightly to the right to get to "Command."

If you activate "Command," you get a menu like this:

04 superhuman email command mobile JR Raphael / IDG

The Superhuman command prompt, as seen on Android. (Click image to enlarge it.)

It’s not quite as useful on the mobile front as it is on the desktop, where your fingers are already on the keyboard, anyhow. But it’s still an easy and efficient way to find and activate any option on your phone.

Other noteworthy Superhuman step-savers include swift commands for unsubscribing from any email you're viewing, for blocking any sender from ever reaching your inbox again, for whipping up an instant intro reply that shifts a sender into BCC so you can interact with a secondary recipient, and for creating and attaching a custom calendar event with a Zoom or Google Meet link included.

Speaking of your calendar, another nice touch is how Superhuman automatically pulls up a sidebar showing your Google Calendar and/or Outlook agenda anytime an email you're reading or writing mentions a date. That way, you can see at a glance what your schedule looks like for the time that's being discussed and know instantly if you have any conflicts. You can also navigate through your calendar with a single keystroke and create a new event on the fly as needed.

05 superhuman email calendar JR Raphael / IDG

Anytime an email mentions a date, Superhuman automatically pulls up a sidebar with your calendar for easy reference. (Click image to enlarge it.)

And then there's the most ambitious moment-reclaimer of all: Superhuman's Snippets system, which makes it as easy as can be to store commonly used phrases, paragraphs, or even entire emails (including attachments and specific addresses to be inserted into the recipient, CC, or BCC fields) and then drop 'em into any draft in the blink of an eye.

06 superhuman email snippets JR Raphael / IDG

Superhuman's Snippets are a spectacular way to save yourself from typing the same stuff over and over (and over and over...).

Again, it's not something an average email-using individual is likely to find life-changing. But for anyone who sends mountains of emails and ends up writing the same basic stuff time and time again, the amount of time and energy such a system can save is immense.

Superpower #3: Experience-enhancers

The more time you spend using Superhuman, the more thoughtful touches and helpful enhancements you encounter.

A handful of subtle yet significant examples that have stood out to me so far:

  • Whenever you open an email, Superhuman pulls up a context-providing panel that surfaces helpful details about the person you're interacting with — including neatly formatted biographical info from their LinkedIn profile, if one is publicly available, along with links to your past email interactions.
  • Anytime you want to copy an entire email, you can skip the usual hassle of highlighting and simply hit Ctrl-C while the email is open — then hit Ctrl-V to paste it anywhere on your computer.
  • Remember those reminders I mentioned a minute ago? They're one of Superhuman's most useful features, in large part because of how simple they are to set. Anytime you're viewing an email or even writing an email, you can hit Ctrl-Shift-H (or ⌘-Shift-H) and then use plain English to describe when you want the message to return — next Friday, in two days, in three weeks, whatever — and you can opt to have the reminder appear only if the email hasn't received a reply by your chosen date.
  • With both reminders and Superhuman's send-later option, you can use specific time zones as part of your commands — a supremely sensible touch that lets you work around the location of anyone you're emailing without having to do time-consuming time zone conversions in your head.
07 superhuman email scheduling JR Raphael / IDG

You can schedule an email or reminder for anytime in any time zone while you're reading and writing in Superhuman. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Speaking of time, Superhuman is almost shockingly fast, with most commands taking place instantaneously and without any lag or delay, regardless of your connection status. And it brings lots of welcome little bites of delight into the typically drab and depressing inbox environment, too, like a rotating array of inbox zero wallpaper "rewards" that appear anytime you clear out all the messages in any of your splits.

08 superhuman email inbox zero JR Raphael / IDG

Serenity now: a couple of Superhuman's inbox zero reward wallpapers, as seen on Android. (Click image to enlarge it.)

The Superhuman decision

To be completely candid: As a tech journalist, it makes me slightly uncomfortable to say only positive things about a product or service. But truthfully, I couldn't find anything meaningfully negative to say about Superhuman outside of the fact that it's so pricey — and that it requires that habit-challenging learning curve when you first start using it. Those factors aside, it really is just delightful to use.

This is all a lot to say about a simple-seeming email service, I realize — but at the same time, as we've established, Superhuman isn't your average email app. And it absolutely isn’t an email app for everyone.

All considered, what I'd tell you is this: If you deal with a large amount of email as part of your job, are obsessive about organization and efficiency, and/or simply want the best, most effective, and most pleasant email experience available, Superhuman really is something special. And it'll spoil you for any other email arrangement.

Suffice it to say, I fall into all of those groups. And my time with Superhuman has already transformed the way I think about email and my relationship with my inbox.

If you can relate, Superhuman might just be the email savior you didn't know you needed. And maybe, just maybe, the time it adds back into your life could be worth the cost it requires.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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