Email Management

Goals

For my work with emails, I have a couple of goals:

  • Answer in a timely manner
  • Never forget to answer
  • Notice when people do not reply
  • Reply to complex emails with multiple questions effectively

Implementation

A long time ago I read about a “inbox zero” strategy. It has three ingredients:

  • Sort your emails by time such that the oldest ones are at the top.
  • Archive/delete everything that has been done.
  • Store the send emails in the inbox.

Let’s go through those points (and others) in more detail.

Sort from Old to New

The sorting is the opposite of the one that people usually use. One then goes through the email top to bottom, that is oldest to newest. Usually new emails push all other emails down, now they are added to the bottom.

This way one starts to work with the emails waiting the longest for a reply. That ensures that emails get a response in a timely manner. Also no email will be pushed out of the screen by a flood of newer emails.

Archiving

Everything that is in my inbox is considered needing work. Once I have taken care of it, I will archive the email. In Thunderbird, this can be done with the a key. It will move the email to a folder YYYY/YYYY-MM. Monthly folders are good in my case because storing all emails for a whole year in a single file is a bit too much.

This archive is done offline, so my IMAP server only contains the emails that I currently work with. That means that I can search through emails a bit quicker and also I am not limited by the storage quota on the server. The downside is that I need to backup those manually and that I cannot search them on my phone.

If an email is just a notification for some other service, I will just delete it when I am done. There is no need to archive messages that only say that one has a message elsewhere. Notifications that contain the full message, like the ones from GitHub, are archived such that I can search them.

Send Emails in Inbox

When I send an email, it will be stored in the inbox. That might sound really strange. However, often people do not answer to emails in a timely fashion; one needs to ask them again or call them after a few days to hear that the email was lost among others. I want to have a reminder for myself that something has not been answered.

When there is a sent email in by inbox I will stumble over it every now and then. If I do not need a response, I will archive it directly after sending it.

Thread View

My email folders are in thread view, that looks like this:

../../_images/thread-view.png

Answers to emails are grouped to the original email. This makes the send emails in the inbox even more attractive: When I get the reply, it is grouped to the original email. If I want to take a look at the one that I have send, I can just go to that email. Also I can archive a whole thread at once, which is also a nice thing.

Unfortunately not all email clients give the needed In-Reply-To header. That looks like this:

In-Reply-To: <0782f86f-1f6f-be8a-047c-44746d1baed3@hiskp.uni-bonn.de>

The default Android email client does not properly do that, so when somebody writes an answer with that, it will start a new thread in my inbox.

No Spam Folder

My email addresses get a lot of spam, but I do not use a dedicated spam folder. The provider of my email has a conservative and effective spam filter that just discards everything that is spam. The remaining spam that gets though is filtered by Thunderbird. I dislike spam folders because you have to check them anyway to see the false-positives. Therefore I just have it all in my inbox and let Thunderbird mark them as spam.

Inline Replies

Answering email with a multitude of questions seems to be a daunting task for most people, at least that is my frustrating experience. One writes an email about a complex matters and the person will answer either the first or the last question of your email. Everything else is just ignored.

So let’s say I get the following email:

I have some questions for you: First, why do I write myself an email? It
seems very artificial. Second, why did you not just use some email
conversation that you already have on your computer? Apparently you have
lots of email.

Then I also wanted to ask you something. Would it be okay to ask you
some Physics question?

And I just wanted to say again that this email exchange is highly made
up and feels artificial.

I have formatted it as plain text because that is how I work with emails. I do not see the need for HTML formatting when you can just use Markdown that people can parse in their head.

There are a couple different aspects in that email that I would like to answer. A common practice is to just quote everything and then write above or below the quote. I dislike that because there is no real benefit of quoting everything. If one writes above the quote, the chronology will be backward, which is also not good. Instead, I prefer to use inline quotes of the relevant sections. So my answer would look like this:

> First, why do I write myself an email? It seems very artificial. Second,
> why did you not just use some email conversation that you already have
> on your computer?

The emails that I actually answer to are personal communications, so I
don't want to make those public. And that's besides the point anyway.
Perhaps this would be funnier for the reader?

> Would it be okay to ask you some Physics question?

Sure, don't ask to ask.

I have only quoted the parts that are relevant context for my answer. I think that the person roughly remembers what they wrote, so I just want to give some quick context. Then I have answered both parts of the email in two different blocks.

When composing a reply, I first start off by quoting everything. When I go through the email and delete the parts that need no answer. Behind every question I will then start a new paragraph and write my reply as shown above. Once I am at the end of the email, I can be sure that I have addressed all the aspects of the email and answered all the questions.

In case there are more things that I want to add, I usually put in a ---- to show that now a new context starts that is independent of the last quote from the previous email.

Selective quoting also prevents emails from getting longer and longer with each reply. My emails usually just contain the relevant sections, nothing more.