3 min read

Managing Email

I recently lost control of my email. The combination of mailing lists, alerts, table of content notifications, and actual email from friends and colleagues was reaching a few hundred emails a day. The insanity had to stop! Here’s how I regained control.


Before describing my solution, let’s consider what a good email system should provide?

  • Notifications of relevant new messages.
  • A process for keeping track of important and unanswered messages.
  • Automatic archiving with excellent search capabilities.
  • Portability and easy access.


I implemented my strategy as I switched to a Gmail account, which required that I catalogue and cancel all of my email subscriptions. Rather than re-subscribing to these, I redirected as many as possible to NetNewsWire. Many journals now provide feeds for their table of content alerts (e.g., Nature) and most of the important newsgroups are available through Gmane. The advantage of news feeds over email alerts is that I can easily group the alerts and choose when to refresh the subscriptions. Typically, I refresh my feed subscriptions in the morning as I caffeinate. I can simply flag important threads or articles for followup later if necessary and my Inbox is no longer cluttered.

Switching to Gmail also immediately solved several other issues with email. First, I no longer worry about storing and archiving email. All of it stays on Google’s servers. Second, this also solves the problem of deciding which messages to keep. Previously, for every new message I had to decide whether to delete it forever or store a copy. Although this only takes a few seconds for each message, when you receive hundreds of messages this can add up. Now, I don’t worry about it. I know that with the combination of Gmail’s search capabilities and my Mac’s Spotlight technology, I can find messages almost instantly. Third, Gmail is available from any webbrowser — now, so is my email.

That’s great so far, but I still have a variety of unfiltered email and I want to only be alerted to important or relevant messages. This is where Mail.app’s smart mailboxes and rules become important. The most important rule is that a message from someone who is not in my Address Book is immediately redirected out of my Inbox. I’ve also implemented a variety of aliases that allows easy filtering of email from my Inbox. All of these filtered messages are gathered together in a folder which I, generally, peruse once a day.

Now I’m left with an Inbox containing only messages from people that I know. As new mail arrives, any mail that survives my filters is sent to Growl and an unobtrusive notification apprises me of the sender and subject. I can then choose to ignore the message if I’m busy or switch to Mail and read the message if it appears to be important.

As I process my messages, I implement the GTD workflow: if responding takes less than two minutes, I respond; otherwise, the message is flagged for follow-up. Finally, I have two smart mailboxes: flagged messages; and messages received today. Since I’ve asked Mail to group messages by thread, today’s messages also pull in all of my previous correspondence on the subject. Messages in these two mailboxes are what appear in my main message window. When I switch to Mail all I see are flagged, and therefore important, messages and current conversations.

This all may seem elaborate, but I find it works well.