Email for procrastinators

Sunday, 23 Oct 2005

In the spirit of the Getting Things Done cult that seems to be the rage these days, herewith a short note on how I handle my email; wherein I break the cherished rule that you should only ever touch a piece of email once.

Preliminary remarks

After arriving at this system by slowly adapting to the implications of my mailer’s features and sanding my habits down to remove vain diligence from the process, I thought it might be useful to others, so I decided to share. Let’s be clear first that it works for me and my particular set of what I shall amicably call “quirks.” In short, it assumes the following:

The setup

With that in mind, here’s my setup:

A mailer with solid threading support is vital. Threading is the single most important tool in organising mail. Many mailers suck at this even today. If yours has no threaded view, throw it away.

(Back when I switched to an all-threaded world view, most people I told about it thought it an alien way of working. About two years later, the designers of Gmail rightly made thread view the only way of working with mail and now it seems perfectly natural to many people.)

Working it

In my approach, the inbox is what everything revolves around; and its purpose is strictly to keep track of email that requires action. Anything that has been acted upon and completed is filed away. Completion is somewhat hard to define as a criterion, but you’ll know it when you see it – essentially, a thread stays in the inbox if a reply is still pending, either one you need to write or one you are waiting for. Since the mailer is configured to save sent mail there, the inbox allows effortless tracking of ongoing exchanges. Due to threading, each exchange will remain neatly grouped regardless of length, instead of plunging the inbox into a visually intractable chaos. Should things still get cluttered, you can always file away the start of a thread.

Newly arrived mail in the inbox should be marked as read before you close the mailer, even if you haven’t read it. If you’ve read it, file it away; if not, its presence in the inbox is all that matters for the purposes of organisation. This makes mailbox monitors a little more effective and removes the psychological pressure of categorising things according to importance.

For filing away, do not get mired in an elaborate system. I have four folders: correspondence, geekery, work and misc. Anything work-related goes in work, anything else computer-related in geekery. misc is a bin for automatically generated mails I want to keep, such as online shop order confirmations; it has very few mails. Anything else goes in correspondence. The key is that you should not have to spend any time thinking about where to file to, because it is wasted. Regardless how elaborate your rules are, you will never remember where you put a particular mail. Stick it all in a big box and let your mailer’s search facilities deal with finding old mail. Computers do a much better job at searching than humans.

When dealing with mailing lists, do not mark mail as unread once you’ve read it. If at all possible, do not leave your mailing list folders before either reading or skipping all of the new mail. Obviously, thread view is crucial here: you can mark an entire thread’s new mail as read at the touch of a single button if you’ve decided it’s not interesting to you. If you want to procrastine on any replies, instead of leaving the email(s) in question marked as new, copy it/them to your inbox.

And that’s it. It’s a mouthful, but once you’re set up, there is very little effort involved in following this approach.

For mutt users

People who use my mailer of choice can implement this scheme simply by adding the following two settings to their .muttrc:

set sort=threads
set record=<the same value as your $mbox setting>

For the rare case where you need to sort by date, remember that o will let you change the sort order.

Needs covered

This system evolved into its current shape because I have noted that I always work best when I pick the low-hanging fruit first, and so often postpone reading a mail or replying to it when I know it will require a lot of time, effort, and/or concentration. Attempting to combat this tendency has only proven to be a good recipe for dramatically decreasing my overall efficiency and effectiveness. Further, I feel uncomfortable about missing potentially important information (to a nearly neurotic extent in past times, but this is a tendency I learned to successfully control).

These inclinations in combination created a situation where I used to constantly waste energy just to get an overview of pending actionables. Consolidating this function entirely into my inbox has very nearly eliminated the time I spend organising my mail, and yet I can always find any old mail I need in moments. Anything that awaits my attention is in my inbox, marked as unread; mailing list folders light up when they have new mail; the few filing folders are for archival only.

I don’t know how well this scheme would hold up under more than moderate amount of traffic addressed directly at you. It might not work so well for highly networked people. Beyond a certain rate, it will certainly break down – at least without modifications. But for anyone dealing with a less than cataclysmic influx of mail, it should be adequate.