As Simple as Possible: The Two-Folder Mailbox
Many people try to surf the wave of emails flooding their mailbox by defining a folder for each and every project they take on. That sounds very organized, but actually shifts the problem: filing mail properly becomes a project of itself. Simpler is possible.
All right, I confess: I’ve been very creative folder-wise for years, too. At one point I counted 187 folders in my mailbox. Some had many messages in them, some one or two, and a sad few were like wall-flowers at a debutante ball, just waiting for me to go and find some messages for them. Filing the oodles of messages into the right folder took time and effort, a combination that conspired against actually doing it. The only time I actually did the filing was when I was procrastinating: I’d rather file than write that report.
So where were most messages stored? The inbox, right.
Two folders to rule ‘em all
These days I just make do with two folders: Inbox, and Archive.
All my mail comes into the Inbox. When I’ve processed them, they’re either deleted, or they end up in the Archive folder. As I tend to hoard virtually all business related mail, this folder has gotten pretty big, about 11,000 mails or so.
Oh, all right, there’s Sent, Draft, Junk and Trash as well, but they’re built-in. I don’t use them, in the sense that I spend any time there.
What I do use is a little bit of software magic.
As my main mail program, use Apple Mail. This has a functionality called Smart Mailboxes, which are basically stored searches. That is, I can tell Apple Mail to search for all messages with a subject line containing “GTD”, with a From email address ending in @davidco.com that were sent in the last six months. I can then tell Mail to store that as a Smart Mailbox. Whenever I click that Smart Mailbox, Mail simply performs that search and shows them in that Smart Mailbox.
So if there’s a project, I simply define a Smart Mailbox that allows me to pull up all the messages pertaining to that project. The messages themselves are, and remain, in the Archive folder. If the project is finished, I can simply delete the Smart Mailbox.
Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out the search criteria for a project. There may be two or more different projects going on that could have “GTD” in the subject line and be from the David Allen company. For those cases I use MailTags. MailTags, among other things, allows me to attach one or more keywords to any message, and also enables Mail to use those keywords in the Smart Mailbox searches.
But the main reason I use MailTags is that it allows me to attach a Tickler date to any message. Frequently there is a message that I don’t even want to see until, let’s say, next month. I put next month’s date as the tickler date, then chuck the message into Archive. I can also attach a Tickler date to mails I send out.
To see the messages that tickle me, I’ve defined a Smart Mailbox as follows: “MailTags Tickle Date”, ”is before“, “1 days from today” or “MailTags Tickle Date”, ”is past due“. I also tell the Smart Mailbox to search both in Archive, and in Sent.
Clicking the Tickled Smart Mailbox gives me all the messages that I received and now need to look at, and all those I sent out that I need to chase after.
So there you have it: simple, easy.
If you’re on Windows, the free Thunderbird has a feature similar to Smart Mailbox called Saved Searches. So far I know there’s no feature or plug-in (yet, I’m sure) that replicates the MailTags functionality. I’m not aware of any plug-ins for Outlook that replicate the behaviour of either Smart Mailboxes or MailTags, but then, I haven’t used Outlook seriously for ages. Anyone want to chime in on this?