Tuesday, March 11, 2008

First assume all new email is useless

When I download email none of it goes in my Inbox. In fact, I don't have an Inbox. I work on the assumption that all new email is useless.

Many reports tell us that between 80% and 90% of all email is spam, so for starters only 10% to 20% is at all likely to be useful. Then, if you account for being on mailing lists, being CC:ed needlessly and receiving automatic updates such as order confirmations from Amazon.com, you'll see that almost all email is useless. Only a tiny fraction of the mail you receive is useful. And by useful I mean requiring action.

I use Thunderbird and my email folder structure looks like this:

When email arrives it is automatically sorted using POPFile into the folders: Family, GNU Make, Misc, polymail, POPFile and Spam. These six folders are the categories of mail that I receive:

  • POPFile: Since I wrote POPFile I get lots of mail about it and I use this is a general box for other open source projects I work on and anything else about anti-spam
  • polymail: Anything to do with my commercial product polymail and my consulting business
  • GNU Make: Anything to do with GNU Make or the company, Electric Cloud, that I co-founded
  • Family: Anything from my family
  • Misc: Order confirmations, airline tickets, PayPal statements, etc.
  • Spam: spam

POPFile uses Naive Bayesian text classification to automatically sort my email (with just a point and click interface for training) and then six rules (which never need updating) move the incoming mail based on POPFile's classification to one of those folders.

Of course, POPFile can be used to sort mail in any way you choose: my categories are unlikely to be yours. You might use POPFile to sort Work from Home from Spam. At least one journalist I know uses POPFile to sort Interesting from Boring from Spam so that he only gets to read interesting press releases.

When I identify mail that does need action taken I move it to the ACTION folder (which is the closest I've got to an Inbox). Moving mail there is a snap because I use the QuickMove extension for Thunderbird and have ALT-number keys mapped to each folder: one key press and the message is moved into or out of ACTION.

To keep on top of things I publish the number of items in my ACTION folder on my web site. Here's a live view over the last 24 hours. Currently, 9 items need dealing with.

My rules for managing email:

  1. Assume that all new email is useless
  2. Automatically sort email into folders on delivery
  3. Take control of your Inbox: only you put email in it

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.


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