Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Email things

Couple of email thoughts. This stems from my never-ending attempts to, well, stem the flood.

First, I'm on the verge of deciding that any bulk emails that use mail-merge style methods to make them look like they were addressed personally to me are a form of lying. If I'm validly on a marketing list, and you're sending out mailshots to your audience, no problem. But then be up front about that. Say "Dear <servive-or-product> users", or "Hey people who might be interested...". Just don't pretend I'm special by calling me by by first name. If you do, and I rumble you (and the context usually makes that easy), I'll be annoyed.

Second, here's an approach I'm trying out with gmail. The aim is, as I say, to stem the flood. Well, not really. I get around 30 to 70 emails a day (excluding spam caught by Google) but that's not a flood. Most are quickly dealt with. No, what I'm really trying to do is tame by ADD-esque brain. I don't want to have temptation present itself throughout my day in the form of new unread emails looking seductively at me, eyelashes fluttering from my Inbox. I know, it's a sickness. I'm ill. Sue me.

Of course, one obvious solution is to shut down my mail client. The problem with that is, a lot of my work involves email conversation. So while I want to be able to shut off the receiving of new email, I still have to be able to send stuff.

Now in the olden days, with POP email, that was easily achieved. Just tell your client not to check the server until you were ready. But with IMAP and also with whatever it is that Gmail is doing, it's pretty much always on from the receiving point of view. I imagine there are ways to control that too, but I haven't found them.

So, here's what I'm trying. There are three components: a label (could be a folder if you're not in Gmail), a filter, and a working practice.

The label/folder. It's called "Pending" and, most important, it's hidden. In Gmail that means it resides under the "<n> more v" link at the bottom of Gmail's label list. Since I have only one hidden label, my link says "1 more v". Only if I click on it, do I see "Pending".

The filter. Well actually there are a few I use to catch well-behaved mailing lists and stuff -- things I want to read at the weekend and so on. And I have another set aimed solely at trapping spam that Google can't see. But other than that, I have one all-important filter and it goes like this:

IF the incoming message has an attachment OR the incoming message does not have an attachment THEN leave it unread, skip the inbox, and apply the label "Pending"

In other words, pretty much ALL MY MAIL GOES INTO PENDING.

The working practice. Every morning -- ONCE A DAY (that's my preference, but you could do more or less frequently) -- I do the following:
  1. Go to the "Pending" label
  2. Select every email in one go (i.e. hit "Select: All")
  3. Move them all to Inbox
  4. Click the 'Remove label "Pending"' button
  5. Go to my Inbox and run it through a GTD-style "get to empty" flow.
DONE. No more email handling for today. And no peeking at "Pending" just in case there's something juicy in there. (Do I always obey that rule? No. But it's a lot less distracting than if they arrive in the Inbox)

Now obviously this has implications for people who use email and want a fast response. But my theory is that this system will improve my overall average response, because it's lowering my distraction level. I suppose I could tune the filtering to allow urgent replies to get through. For example, I could provide a code word to important people who won't abuse it, and have my filter allow those emails through immediately. But for now -- well they can always pick up the phone, or IM/Skype me. There's more to communication than email!


  1. @fireguard,
    Wellllll, it's a close call at the moment. On the one hand the weather here is cooling down a lot right now. The natives love it but I'm thinking, "what's the point of Texas if it's not roasting?". So that works against TX.
    On the other hand, I have to remind myself that even today's weather is like the best kind of summer back in Scotland. It's hard for me to drag up those memories of dark dreich days as winter approaches in Glasgow. But when I do -- well, as Rabbie said, "An' bleak December's winds ensuin', baith snell an' keen". Shudder.

  2. It's lovely and crisp here - wouldn't change it for the world. As for your email approach, you do realise you've just told world + dog how to circumvent it?