Taming the Mailbox

Like most people who have been on the net for a while, I get a lot of e-mail, the majority of it either junk, newsletters or spam. In amongst that are usually a few important e-mails that I need to deal with or respond to, like e-mails from friends, from Church organisations and so on. The problem of course is that quite often the important mails get lost amongst the piles and piles of other stuff that comes in.

For a long while I’ve had a quite complicated folder structure set up, and a vast selection of e-mail rules set up in Apple Mail to try and pre-sort the incoming e-mail and fish out anything important. Whilst it gets some of the important mail, at other times it totally misses things and they get mixed up in the pile, there is also the problem that mails sometimes come under two headings, but can only physically go to one location – leaving me having to decide where they need to go. However last week as a result of a mistake that messed up the whole mail database, and a suggestion as to how to do things differently, I’ve totally changed around the way I handle my mail.

The change goes back to dealing with a problem with spam. I went through a period a couple of weeks ago where I was getting a lot of apparent e-mail bounces. A closer look at the bounce messages revealed that one of my domains was being used by a spammer, to generate random return address on their latest mass mailing, so they were falling through the various redirection’s I have set up and dropping into my account as the default address. Not surprisingly this was getting decidedly annoying, so I adjusted the mail rules on the mail server and put anything that wasn’t an actual address into a separate mailbox. Whilst this solved the problem, I needed a way to see what was going on, so I tried to set up a second mailbox for this mail separate from my usual mail. To cut a long story short, in doing this I managed to totally scramble my mail database, complete with an archive of over 20,000 e-mails going back a good many years. Having said that, it wasn’t a total disaster, just a bit of a pain, as all I had to do was to backup the existing mail database, clear down the existing mail configuration and rebuild the database from the backup. At the same time I also picked up a copy of Mail Steward a well regarded tool that integrates in with Apple Mail to provide a useful archive of mail. I used this to take all the older mail, cutting down the number of messages I was keeping in the main mail database to just those received since January.

Unfortunately, one of the key things that I couldn’t rescue were all the multitude of mail rules that I was using to pre-sort the mail. As a result, I thought I’d take a look at whether there were any alternatives to my folders. Coincidentally, the Hawk Wings blog, that particularly focuses on Apple Mail had just posted an article referring to a great guide called ‘Get Control of Your Inbox’ which suggest just such an alternative, and then explored how to set it all up in a good level of detail.

The basic principle of the plan makes use of a clever feature of Apple Mail, the smart folder – for those of you with iTunes it is exactly the same concept as the smart playlist. Effectively, rather than physically move mail around, each smart folder is defined by a set of rules, and then Apple Mail uses the Spotlight engine to dynamically maintain the contents of the folders. The guide advises using smart folders to group your e-mails together – the advantage being that this gets over the difficult to classify mail issue I mentioned earlier, as the mail will just appear in more than one smart folder, as long as it meets the criteria. The physical folder pattern is quite different. The guide suggests using some of the principles of GTD, so there is one single archive folder, and then a set of active folders that contain only the messages that require some action. The basic idea is that you process the entire contents of your inbox into one of these folders – straight to the archive if it is irrelevant, or into various folders dependant on how quickly you can deal with the mail. For example whether it requires immediate action, is waiting on some other action by someone else, or whatever. Once a particular mail has been dealt with in one of these action folders, it is again sent to the archive. What this gives you are a set of physical mail folders containing only those e-mails that require action, everything else is in the archive. However thanks to the smart folders, I’ve still got the same groupings I had before.

Another key aspect of the plan is the need to process all the e-mail in the inbox quickly, so it suggests Mail Act-On a little tool that uses the mail rules engine to construct custom processing hooked up to key presses, so for example I could define a rule to send the selected mail messages to the archive just by pressing ctrl-A. Alongside this they also recommend Mail Tags, another plug-in from the same stable as Mail Act-On that amongst other things provides keyword tagging for e-mails. This for example would allow me to tag Church related e-mails in terms of whether they are related to a particular committee, the choir, or something more general.

Setting up the two plug-ins was relatively straightforward. I ran into a couple of hiccups, when for some reason Mail Act-On would only process some steps of my multi-step rules, but a bit of tweaking with the design of rules, and the choice of keyword tags sorted that out. Since the tags are able to be included in smart folder rules, the new keyword tags that I am using for Church e-mails have also given me a good deal more control over how Church e-mails are sorted, enabling me to keep the e-mails related to various committees separate easily. Mail Act-On allows me to quickly process the contents of my inbox, a lot better than my previous complex set of rules. It takes barely a few seconds for me to make the initial decision as to how to tag and file the incoming e-mails, and get them out of the inbox, giving the biggest advantage – that for once I actually have an empty inbox. Once I’ve processed the contents of the box, I can then go the various action folders and deal with those e-mails that need to be dealt with, without being distracted by the piles of junk.

If you continually find yourself crumbling under a pile of e-mails, even if you don’t use Apple Mail the techniques can be used in other mail clients to try and organise your own inbox in a similar manner.

Picture youve got mail, originally uploaded by Peace Cuh.

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