I think it's safe to say that how I handle my email is pretty atypical from how most folks handle it, judging from the reactions I get when I say that I actually enjoy running my own email server (as much as one can) and enjoy using email. How is that possible, one might ask? Because I feel like an outlier for my love of email I figured I'd give some insight to what I do, what I don't do, and how you can become enamored with this technology yet again.
I won't talk too much about my own email setup outside of saying what I use for clients and servers. Unfortunately that can get a bit complex and the person to actually tell you all of that is Michael Lucas who is writing what I consider the definitive document on how to set up an email server. Seriously, if you have any inkling to want to run your own server you should sponsor this book.
I'll start with the basics of how my email is set up. I have an Ubuntu mail server that allows me to send and receive mail and a local Dovecot IMAP server for reading my email. This allows me to use multiple clients like Thunderbird and Mutt, and allows me to also run rss2email without generating external traffic. I use Fetchmail to grab my email and a simple procmail recipe to handle some modest filtering (putting rss email messages into my RSS folder, filtering obvious spam, and the like).
Everything that isn't an RSS or obvious spam goes into my inbox. I don't do any special filtering or tagging on those. Basically whatever makes it through to my inbox gets processed with the appropriate attention.
And this brings up my first rule: don't be clever. I've seen folks try to filter, tag, bag, and otherwise try to automate sorting their mail. It always falls apart. The problem with being clever is that when it fails you have to not only undo your clever but you also have to then re-think how to continue to be clever. That's a hassle. If you instead eschew cleverness you don't have to worry about when the cleverness fails.
"But Craig", I hear you say, "what about the newsletters and other things that aren't as important". Here's the second rule: if it's not important enough to go into your inbox then unsubscribe from it. The best way to deal with the unimportant is to ensure it doesn't exist. As soon as something no longer has relevance to you then get rid of it. This takes some discipline but I promise you the joy of opening your email inbox and not seeing a bunch of crap in there is completely worth it.
I have (essentially) five types of folders: inbox, read / review, RSS, archive, and junk / trash. Let's talk about what goes into each folder:
- Inbox: This is all of your incoming mail.
- Read / review: Items that I want to read later when I'm ready to read them.
- Archive: Old items that I want to keep as reference.
- RSS: Items from the internet that I collect using
- Trash / Junk. These are pretty self-explanatory.
Note what isn't in there. I don't keep project folders (those all go into archive). Nor do I keep folders based on a person. Search has gotten so good that I don't have to worry about trying to find an email. Generally I can find it with either
notmuch or Thunderbird's search. And if you're using Google's GMail you have excellent search baked in.
OK, so now that we have the various folders let's talk about each one:
The inbox is where all of your new email is dumped. Period. Anything that isn't new email needs to find a new home outside of your inbox. I use the Getting Things Done methodology for processing my inbox. Essentially I do the following:
- Start with the top email, sorted by date ascending (e.g. 2023-10-08 before 2023-10-09)
- Skim the email. Usually I can get the gist of what is in the email by skimming it
- Decide on what to do with the email.
- If there is an action in the email and it'll take me less than two minutes, do the action and then archive the email.
- If the action will take longer than two minutes then note the action on a separate project / next actions list, and archive the email.
- If it's something that I will want reference later then archive the email.
- If it's something that I want to read later but don't have the time right now then it goes into read/review.
- If I've received everything that I can from the email and I don't need it anymore then I trash it.
- Move on to the next email, top to bottom.
Generally speaking it takes me less than twenty minutes to whip through an inbox this way. This was true when I worked as a systems administrator, programmer, or what-have you.
Here's the secret: it's not the volume of email that's causing you discomfort with email. It's the uncertainty around what all is in there. If you got fifty pieces of mail in your mailbox you'd do the same thing: whittle down the magazines from the bills, find the birthday cards, and trash the Save On junk mail. You wouldn't think twice about this. That's the kind of ruthlessness I want you to bring to your email.
Also, resist the temptation to leave an email in there as a reminder to do something with it later. It's best to collect that information somewhere else (next actions lists / project lists). Let your inbox just be for new email.
Once you have your inbox cleaned to empty then close it out. Give yourself permission to do other things. If you want to read your read / review you can but don't feel like you have to live in your email. You can relax. Give yourself the win.
One other trick that I use is sometimes I will sort based on from or subject to process a bunch of email messages at once. You might want to play with this as you get better with whipping your email into shape, but for now I recommend sorting by date ascending. Trust me, you'll find your own tricks as you get better at this.
Read / Review
This folder is specifically for items that you want to read later. That means there aren't any actions in here. This is just for informational purposes. This is where newsletters and other interesting items that aren't related to any actions go.
Once you've read an article either archive it or trash it. You can leave it in this folder if you wish but I rarely reference these articles later.
You will notice that this folder gets pretty large. Eventually you won't want to go in there because there will be too many items in there. Great. Select all and either trash them or archive them. When you notice yourself resisting this folder it's time to have a fresh start.
Archive is just that: an archive. Under
mutt and Thunderbird they can create year-based archive folders, but just having one large archive folder is sufficient.
Resist the urge to make other archival folders. Remember: don't be clever. Just archive.
Archives never get removed, but sometimes quotas will require you to remove attachments and such. That's the only time you should have to remove items from this folder. Otherwise consider it a bunch of Banker's Boxes with your email in it.
If you used Google Reader back in the day it's essentially the same thing, just using my email to handle this. This is a separate inbox for me and the only exception that I make for not dumping everything into your inbox. That's because my modality for reading RSS is different than my regular email. This is a folder I don't check regularly and will usually check once per day. This collects various websites that I follow online. Sometimes interesting things will get moved to read / review, but most times it just gets cleaned out.
Trash / Junk
This folder should be self-explanatory, but after watching some folks with their email I feel like a re-introduction is necessary. This is where things get tossed out when they're no longer useful. This is where notifications that are no longer useful go. This is where the restaurant deals go if you already ate there this week and have no intention of eating there until much later. This is where the daily email about your bank balance goes. It's where the six digit code to access your bank account goes. Basically it's where things go when they have no use once you've read them.
Junk is a special folder for things that I can't turn off. It's the folks that don't follow the CAN-SPAM act and have legitimate ways to unsubscribe and don't have an email provider that legitimately handles abuse@domain forwards. It's crap that I know is junk and needs to be treated as such. This is where
procmail comes in to file away stuff that will legitimately piss me off if I see this again. You do not want to make me motivated enough to open up my
procmailrc folder to add you to my list.
This is a general overview of how I handle my email. There's a few other things I use like Delta Chat that uses email for instant messaging but this article covers the basics.
The key points I want you to remember are:
- Don't be clever: The simpler you keep your email the happier you will be
- Clean out your inbox, and keep the inbox for new mail only
- Archive old email if you want to keep it, toss it if you don't
- Unsubscribe from / filter things that will piss you off, don't worry about the rest
- Email can be fun.
Email gets a bad reputation because folks don't understand how to handle it. We're not trained on proper email hygiene. Hopefully this will give you some ideas on how to better utilize your email and find the joy.