Organising Your Inbox

An interesting article via Slashdot: Hoarders vs. Deleters: What your inbox says about you. The tagline is, "You are your inbox", as your inbox reveals your personality, your mental health and even your up-brining.

Because "inboxes are metaphors for our lives," Dr. Greenfield says, there's no cure-all solution to inbox management. We're all too different. But he believes an awareness of our inbox behavior can help us better understand other areas of our lives.

"If you have 1,000 emails in your inbox, it may mean you don't want to miss an opportunity, but there are things you can't pull the trigger on," Dr. Greenfield says. "If you have only 10 emails in your inbox, you may be pulling the trigger too fast and missing the richness of life."

So how do you usually organise your inbox? Are you an archiving person? Or an deleting person? Or just letting your mails piling up there?

Not sure about you, but my habit of getting my inbox organised has few big changes over the last year. I think the article Aristotle Pagaltzis organised his mailboxes was very helpful. I have basically implemented a similar strategy, and it worked well.

First of all, my main inbox is on my mail server at home, and I usually access it from (1) IMAP via Thunderbird, or (2) local Maildir via Mutt. One is a great open source GUI mail user agent that renders HTML emails beautifully, and another is a fast terminal-based mailer that "suck the least".

Now, the strategies I've implemented are:

  1. Your sent folder is your inbox.
  2. Archive, but don't spend time categorise.

Sent Folder is Inbox

First of all, after using Gmail and its conversation view of email correspondents, I do not see why all email clients want to have a Sent folder! I know -- it kept all the emails that you have sent, but what about the emails that you have received? Oh, they get archived elsewhere. Or stayed in the inbox. Or maybe just get deleted. Now, when you scan through your Sent folder, how do you know the context that these emails were replying to?

Both Thunderbird and Mutt have great threaded view, where emails of similar subjects or related headers are grouped together. Instead of just grouping received emails, why not add all your sent mails into the pile, to form a real conversation view similar to what Gmail is having?

For example, here's a screenshot of part of my inbox:

Threaded View in Thunderbird

The threaded view of my inbox shows not only the emails that I have received, but also the emails that I have sent, and grouped them nicely together. I can now click on an email that I have sent (where Sender is "Scott Yang"), and see which message I was actually replying to.

To achieve this, you simply need to set your inbox as your Sent folder, so all the emails sent will be saved in your inbox first. For example in Thurnderbird, under Account Settings → Copies & Folders, set "When sending messages, automatically" "Place a copy in" → "Other: Inbox".

Thunderbird Account Settings

In Mutt, add the following to your ~/.muttrc:

set record="="
set sort=threads

It'll set the FCC to inbox (or whatever folder is set to) by default, and display mailboxes using threaded view.

Another advantage of saving sent mails to inbox is, when you are archiving and deleting a "conversation", the operation involves your sent mails as well. For example if I wish to move the whole conversation into another folder, the mails I sent will be moved together (if you selected the whole thread in Thunderbird), and they'll stay as a conversation in that folder.

Archive, Not Categorise

When I had just way too many emails, I started to archive them by putting them into different folders. However, the ways I categorised them are not always consistent. Sometimes you just don't know what label you wish to this mail under. And unlike labelling in Gmail, you cannot put the same email into multiple folders, if you think it belongs to multiple categories.

At the end I gave up categorising them. Just dump all the conversations that I wish to keep into another folder -- yes all of them into one folder. No labelling. No sub-folders. It has everything.

The point is, why do you categorise when you can search?

There are many email indexing products. Google Desktop, for example, can index emails in your Thunderbird mailboxes so you can easily find the emails you need with a few keywords. It is much faster than manually locating the category/folder, and scan through the emails. If you wish to use the "search" feature of your email client, you might as well save yourself sometime by not categorising them in the first place!

So far it worked well for me. If there's an email conversation I wish to keep, I'll just move the entire thread to my one and only archive folder, without thinking which folder.

So, it is how I organise my inbox these days. How do you do yours?