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How do people deal with email?

5 June 2013 21:50

As part of writing a new mail client I'm wondering about how to change my email-life, and how other people process/handle their incoming email.

I sort my incoming email into folders at delivery-time using procmail. Mail is generally filtered into mailboxes on the basis of the company that sent it, the person that sent it, or the machine which generated it.

Because I manage a lot of machines personally I've split things up so that I have a folder per host. So on a morning I might have unread mail in the following folders:


The per-machine mailboxes usually contain a single mail every day from LogWatch, along with output from any cron-jobs. For example today I received the mail:

From: Cron Daemon
To: [email protected]
Subject: Cron [email protected] /home/steve/bin/download-check

URL http://nodejs.org/ - no longer matches v0.10.9

Generally speaking I don't need to read the per-machine messages. I'll keep the most recent 100 for reference, but only need to look if something seems "off" on a machine. But if I don't look I'd not see the node upgrade notice, so find that I do read them after all.

This suggest to me that email isn't the right way to handle this kind of thing. Instead I should use a notification system - at work we have a central service called MauveAlert (yes, Red Dwarf reference). Mauve receives "alerts" of various kinds, via UDP. The alerts are then fanned out to appropriate people via XMPP, Email, or SMSs.

I have a similarly-inspired system I use on my Debian Administration cluster. A (node) service runs non-stop collecting UDP messages and showing them on a dashboard. I look at it throughout the day to see when slaughter runs, etc.

Anyway in conslusion I get a lot of mail. Some of it is related to random projects, and all ends up in the steve.org.uk/ mailbox, some of it relates to machines, and gets filed away, and I have regular conversions with folk so I have a .people.kirsi/ folder which receives a lot of attention, for example.

ObRandom:daily() - Mark ~/Maildir/.machines.*, etc, read.



Comments on this entry

icon mirabilos at 12:39 on 5 June 2013

I get all² incoming mail¹ into INBOX.

â‘  Not spam after bayesian tagging using bmf, that goes into Spambox.

② Except for one high-volume mailing list I do not really read at the moment – but my MUA doesn’t act on unread messages in that folder.

I then proceed to peruse the new messages in INBOX, reading or deferring them as necessary. Or just deleting. Every once in a while, I skim all messages in Spambox; usually, I just pipe them all into a script that blacklists the sender IP for 24 hours, then delete them. False positives get piped into a script to train bmf instead (same with false negatives: spam that ends up in INBOX).

I tried a filtering setup once. I quickly went back to having everything put into INBOX (and deferred some of the mailing lists to “nomail” and read them via GMane, if at all, now, either Loom or NNTP) after I found out that having more than one incoming folder distracts me a lot, as I find myself switching between them and checking for new mail a lot.

icon CArsten at 12:42 on 5 June 2013

Well, I tried many different ways even going to the extend of letting procmail filter incoming email by mailing list and put each one into its own folder. However, the only gain that brought me over time, was to choose from which lists I should unsubscribe as the number of unread mails piled up in those boxes.

In the end (current model), all arrives in my inbox and stays there for 6 months after which they are automatically moved to my archive (one maildir folder per year). This way I end up with an inbox of usually less than 50k mails which is relatively straight forward to search through (iceweasel, kmail either in IMAP or disconnected IMAP mode).

That being said, I'm currently tempted to test virtual folders offered e.g. by dovecot with the goal to have a "clean" virtual inbox with only recent unread and related messages plus one for tagged mails...

Does this help your endeavor?



icon Steve Kemp at 12:45 on 5 June 2013

Thanks for sharing :)

My mail is scanned for spam at SMTP-time, or later using crm114. I find that having mail in multiple folders allows me to focus on what to read efficiently.

In the past mutt's sidebar used to make that possible, but now lumail makes it very simple.

e.g. I know I've made an order via Amazon, so I'll see a mail confirming that, or informing me of a delivery. I don't need to open the mail whereas if I saw "INBOX (3)" I'd be unable to resist reading it immediately.

I can, and do, ignore mail for hours at a time even when I'm online. I can just read those from my partner, or relating to a particular company, etc. That's the kind of thing that is harder to do if you have a single inbox.

icon Steve Kemp at 12:48 on 5 June 2013

Carsten - It does help my curiosity, if nothing else.

I like the idea of virtual folders, but I've not really done anything along those lines yet - with the single exception that I've hacked up a function which will show "All Unread" messages - regardless of folder. That actually made me pretty happy.

I can imagine similarly limiting the display to messages which match a given pattern, but I've not considered how to present those yet, since all my current "folder" selection code relies upon there being a real folder.

Perhaps "~/Maildir/.virtual-$foo" will be created and handled specially? I'm not sure.

icon Bruno BEAUFILS at 17:04 on 5 June 2013

I am sure that everything in this post is unuseful, but for me (it forces me to write things down).

I do have two INBOXes on two different imap servers. One for work one (the legacy one) and one for personal stuff.

I do not do any automatic filtering other than with a lot of `folder-hook`, `save-hook` or `spam` commands as well as some macros applying saving rules (for LogWatch email for instance) in my muttrc.

Everything is synchronized through offlineimap on my main host (laptop) at will (not automatically but through a simple mutt macro calling offlineimap).

Until 6 months I filed them myself in a physical folder according to a "tag" (people/firstname_lastname, groups/groupName, ml/[email protected], etc.). I did file messages after reading them or considered them as not important enough to be read for now (just through the subject). The purpose was to make references and searching an email easy for my aging brain (who likes categories ;-)

The main troubles with that approach were that I lose threads information, was not able to tag an email with more than one category without making a copy of it (since it is a physical folder), and end up to not reading or postponing a lot of stuff.

I am looking since 6 months in a new way of managing my emails and tested different approaches, none being completely adapted enough for now.

I have created two folder in each imap server NeedsReply, NeedsReading. I move each email directly in `YYYY/mail` or `YYYY/spam` or in one of the two previously cited folder which are dealt with at least once a day. I am looking for a way to manage tags through `X-Label` with mutt which is a real nightmare. I definitively need to give another MUA a chance and will give `lumail` as soon as I get some free time (not before a month at least).

I move all my emails (from 1993 to now, something like 15G of data)in this simple structure : one folder per year, old folder structure converted in `X-Label` values (which allows me to make a lot of free space by removing duplicate), and indexing everything with `mu` (from maildir-utils) everything half an hour.

Tags (and virtual folders) is in fact what I am really looking for.

icon Jon at 19:44 on 5 June 2013

At home (and for a long time at work) I did a minimal amount of filtering: spam and listmail only, really. Everything else to INBOX. Then, when read, move it to 'archive'. (That folder sometimes gets carved up by scripts or MUAs into archive/2010, 2011, etc.)

However at work now, I send a copy of every mail received to a separate archive address and delete everything. More MUAs support an easy to reach delete command (or gesture) than archiving, so it's more efficient for me.

icon Adam at 22:07 on 5 June 2013

I filter to individual folders using procmail. I use Mutt.
I also have inotify to tell me the subject and from of any incoming email (this is currently all, but could easily be selective). The notification is a discrete pop-up that goes away after some seconds, but can be dismissed as well.

In Mutt I use the 'c' keybinding (think it's default) to cycle through folders that have new emails, and hit to visit the ones I want.

I've just found out about Lumail (thanks to H-Open) and am very interested in it. I've been following nmh and thinking of trying that, but may hold on to see whether Lumail is more what I'm after. Not that I don't like Mutt, but that I have an undefined itch with email.

icon rjc at 13:27 on 6 June 2013

Long time ago I used to use "fetchmail + procmail" to get emails over POP3 (IMAP4 was not that common back then) and filter them into local maildirs.

For quite a while now, I have been using IMAP exclusively with all my emails arriving into INBOX. I use several accounts, out of which personal, mailing lists and work, are the most important ones.

I used to keep all of my uncategorised read emails in my INBOX, while saving categorised ones into their respective IMAP folders, but nowadays I tend to lean closer to "INBOX Zero" philosophy.

All emails still arrive in my INBOX, I save the ones which I might need in the future into their respective categories' IMAP folders while simply deleting unwanted ones, taging SPAM, leaving the ones which require attention (reading and/or replying) in INBOX, while automatically moving all uncategorised read emails into 'read' folder. There are currently less than 100 emails in the 'read' folder - I go through it infrequently and if I find more than three emails of the same "type", I create a category (another folder) for them. I don't bother creating categories for a single or two emails.

I don't tag my emails with more than one category at a time - did not need to. I either choose a broad one or split them into distinct ones.

I don't use separate "need attention" or "need reading" and "need replying" categories as I tend to forget even about the 'postponed' ones. Everything needing attention being left in the INBOX simply works better for me.

I don't keep mail offline any more and if any needs attention, it's usually a reply, for which I need to be online anyway. I do, obviously, make sure that the important information, which I mind need while being offline, is.

I use Mutt for all of that and find its 'c' and 'y' keybindings and other macros invaluable.

All of the above, currently, works for me.