Tag: email

Weekly Playbook #5: Handling Email

For an overview of this series, see the debut post on my morning routine.


I’ve been using email for more than half my life. While it was available to me in college, I didn’t begin to use it until I started at my job a few months after I graduated. That was 1994 and I was 22 years old at the time. Nearly 27 years later, I think I’ve done a pretty good job with handling email. My inbox rarely contains more than a dozen message at any given moment. I frequently hit “inbox zero.” I’ve been through a variety of models for managing my email over the years, from an elaborate folder structure to the minimalist structure I’ve used for the last fifteen years or so.

Until recently, I kept up with my email more or less in real time. I’d clear out messages as they came in, respond as they came in, prune and refile throughout the day. As I developed my morning routine, one of the things I wanted to try was to see if it was possible to handle my email once a day, in the mornings, after I’d finished my writing. This playbook is what has come out of that experimentation so far.


  1. Reply to email messages I flagged the previous day. Use canned replies, if possible.
  2. Move the replied-to message to my Archive folder.
  3. Scan my inbox for messages that can be deleted without being read. Update filters to weed these out in the future, if possible.
  4. Delete the unneeded messages.
  5. Read the remaining new messages
  6. Take action on the email if action is quick. If it takes more time, snooze the email for a later date/time.
  7. Move messages that don’t require a response to my Archive folder.
  8. Flag messages that require a response and leave in my Inbox. I use the Pin function in my mail client for this.
  9. Compose any new messages I need to send


Example: Handling this morning’s email

My basic philosophy here is to try to deal with email once per day. So far, this doesn’t work out quite this way in practice, but I’ve found that it means I am checking email much less frequently during the day. And it does help me to make sure I am replying to email only once each day. Here is what my inbox looked like as I composed this post:

My morning inbox, before running through my playbook.

The first thing I do is to reply to any email messages in my inbox that I flagged the previous day. If possible, I’ll use a canned reply. I have a few of these. One common example is when I get unsolicited requests to do a guest post on my blog. If I find that I am writing the same reply over and over, I will also use this time to compose a reply that I will turn into a canned reply that I can use in the future. Once I’ve replied to a message, I immediately move into my Archive folder. This morning was nice. I had no email that I flagged for reply.

Next, I look for email that can be deleted without being read. Often these are newsletters I didn’t subscribe to, or notifications from service I use that I don’t need to see. For the former, I’ll see if there is an easy way to unsubscribe. I’ll also use this opportunity to improve my inbox filters so that messages like these never make it to my inbox in the first place. The MetLife Dental Claim email is a good example of a message I can just delete as I know it contains no useful information (just a link to the site).

Next, I’ll read through what is left. I always enjoy Melanie Novak’s posts which is why I subscribed to her blog. No action other than to read. For blogs, I’ll use the email as a reminder to go to the blog itself to read so that the blogs get the views. Besides, I prefer reading on the blog than in email. It makes it easy to comment. Once I’ve opened the blog in a browser, I’ll delete the message from my inbox.

The Ring message requires an action on my part, but it is not something I want to do now, so I’ll snooze that for Friday when I know I will have time.

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates, a great company I’ve worked with in the past, and from which I have received some of the most practical project management training I’ve encountered, to say nothing of their outstanding customer support training, which focuses on moments of truth. I saw that Dan is starting a podcast, and the action here was to get more information about the podcast and when it drops.

The message from Capclave (my local science fiction convention) has been sitting in my inbox for almost a week now, which is rare for me. Since it is going to take more than a few minutes to handle this, I’ll snooze it until Friday.

The nice thing about this morning is that I have no email that requires a reply, so there is nothing to flag (so far). This is where I tend to dip into email throughout the day, checking to see if there is anything I need to reply to and flagging it so that I can reply tomorrow. I also don’t have any new mail to send out, so it was a quick and easy morning for me. At the end of the process, my inbox looked like this:

My morning inbox after running through my playbook: inbox zero achieved!

I don’t achieve inbox zero every morning, but as I said, I usually don’t have more than a dozen messages in my inbox at any one time. One nice side effect of this is that people can expect to get a reply from me first thing in the morning, the day after they’ve sent me a message. First thing in the morning is also when I sent out my new messages, if I have any.

Filing my email

When I began using email in 1994, I was using a Unix-based email system that allowed for the creation of folders in the same way you could create folders in a file system. I had a fairly elaborate scheme for organizing my email into folders. back then, but about fifteen years ago, I moved to a much simpler scheme, consisting of four active folders. The four folders are:

  • Inbox – where I process new email.
  • Archive – where I store all email that I want to keep
  • Sent – where I store copies of email that I sent, including replies
  • Upcoming Travel – where I store current messages related to upcoming travel (confirmations, tickets, etc.)

It occurred to me that the power of search made it simple to find pretty much anything I needed without spending a lot of time figuring out where to file a message. So if a message doesn’t go into the trash, it goes into the Archive folder. Travel-related messages take a detour to the Upcoming Travel folder until they are no longer needed, at which point they go into the archive folder as well.

If I need to find something, I just run a search and can usually find what I am looking for within a few seconds.

My mail apps

Currently, I am using the Spark mail app for handling mail on my computer. On my phone I use the Spark mail app for iOS. I just like the simplicity and functionality of Spark better than the native Mac mail app.

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For Want of a Good Email System

When I first began using email, it was entirely text-based. I used a variant of mh mail beginning in 1994 and every now and then, after trying to do something relatively simple in my current email systems, I long for the days of mh.

Here are some things I miss about the old email system:

  • Simple integration with other tools. For instance, I could easily search my messages using regular expressions. You have to jump through a bunch of hoops to come close to doing that in Apple mail or Outlook today.
  • The ability to have scripts update your .sig file to provide useful information to mail recipients right there in the message signature. (At one point, I had a script update my .sig file with how many unread messages I had in my queue, and an estimate of how long it would be before I read any new incoming messages.)
  • The distraction-free feel of plain-text messages. There is some kind of mathematical relationship between junk mail and a messages markup content. Back in the days when most messages were plain text, it was harder for junk mail to grab someone’s attention.
  • Archiving email was simple. Folders were single plain-text files delimited in clearly documented ways. There were all kinds of tools for parsing mail folders, and for searching and extracting messages.
  • Minimal alerting. No desktop alerts when new mail arrived. No annoying chimes either. You checked your messages when you felt like it. It was more like going to the mail box to collect the day’s mail, rather than checking the new message count every 5 minutes to see if you missed something.

I am surprised that more email clients don’t support Markdown as a plain-text alternative to HTML and RTF email formats. Of course, anyone can type Markdown into a plain-text message, but it would be nice if email clients offered an option to render that Markdown the way some text editors provide a preview mode for Markdown.

I wish I could go back to a system of email like this. I know it is possible in theory, but in practice, I’d be out-of-sync with the rest of the world and I’m not sure how practical that would be.

Inbox overflow

Remember the game you’d play as a kid, where you couldn’t step on certain parts of the floor because there was lava there? That’s how I tend to treat my email inboxes: I process the stuff in there as quickly as possible and get it out. I am a big believer in the “Inbox Zero” philosophy. An empty inbox is satisfying and tells me that I am staying on top of things.

My personal email inbox currently has 24 items in it. Not terrible all things considered. There’s a lot of wedding-related stuff I haven’t refiled yet, for instance. It will be empty by the end of the day.

My work email inbox currently has 383 items in it, which is a personal record. On good days, my work inbox usually doesn’t have more than 10 items and I stay on top of it. But 383! It is a sign of how busy I am, how much I am slipping, that my inbox has nearly 400 items in it, dating all the way back to June 2. I wonder if I will ever catch up?

A British approach to the Nigerian email scam?

When I got back from the gym this morning, I received the following email message at my work email address (which is unusual because our spam filters are pretty good) and which looks to me like a British approach to the Nigerian email scam. This kind of thing is a waste of time, clutters up email and in general is incredibly annoying. I really wish that our spam filters were more intelligent. Here is the message:

This information is for you from Campbell Law Firm and we implore you to give it priority attention!

Pursuant to our fundamental commitment to human rights, social justice and equality which still underpin everything that we do whether in the courtroom, or out in the wider world, we wish to seek your cooperation and guidance, if you could perhaps provide us with detailed information as you share the same last name with our late client who died on July 7, 2005 London terrorist bombing leaving no trace of his immediate family members information.

Over the years, we have worked indefatigably and uncompromisingly to locate any of the relatives of our late client and all to no avail hence, the need for this correspondence. We would be delighted to have you as the apparent heir of our late client hence, you share the same last name and could possibly be somewhere in his family tree. We have been mandated by his bankers to provide any of his family members to claim his lawful assets with the bank because it is legally incumbent on us to do so as the legal representatives to the deceased.

We have decided to take this chance with you as our last resort to have you stand as the apparent heir of our late client since you both share the same last name as we have secured an order of mandamus from the Probate Registry to locate any member of his family to claim what rightfully belong to him and for this reason, it remains your legal right and responsibility to protect the interest of your family in this regards.

Contact me in person for additional information and to discuss the modalities of this brief. Your earliest response is imperative and shall be appreciated if you provide your Resume Information to with your feedback.

Thanking you for your kind attention in anticipation of your response ASAP.

Respectfully submitted,

Alexander Marshall QC, Campbell Law Firm,

320 Bethnal Green Road Bethnal Green, London E2 0AH

Tel: +44 (0) 701 112 8147. URL: [removed for security purposes]

EDUCATION: LLB (Hons), (University Coll., London ). QC 1992, Recorder (Criminal/Family/Civil) 1993 to date.

Now, with a telephone number, website and address it would seem to be legitimate. I did a quick search and could not find anything related to this specific type of spam online. However, there are a few things that remain highly suspicious:

  • While the From: line of the message is from the address alex.marshall@campbell-law.co.uk, it appears to be spoofed. The Received header is from “nobody by wc3.forethought.net”. So is the Sender and Return Path
  • The message says “if you could perhaps provide us with detailed information as you share the same last name with our late client who died on July 7, 2005 London terrorist bombing leaving no trace of his immediate family members information.” And yet there is no mention of my last name anywhere in the message, which is suspicious as well.
  • I know of no one who would fit the description of the person this letter refers to.
  • The URL for the law firm, which is removed in case it is a Trojan site, is “under construction”.

The bottom line here is that even if this email were legit, I don’t think I’d be interested in getting involved in what would ultimately be lots of paper work and cost lots of money. But of course, it’s not legit, it’s spam camouflaged as something that seems more intelligent than the Nigerian email scam.

Replica watch spam

I rarely check my spam filtered mail at work because I simply don’t care enough. If someone sent me a message that accidentally got caught by my spam filter, I naturally assume it was their fault. (It’s different on my personal email because fewer people have my address and the spam control software is much, much better. But I digress.)

At work I get a daily summary of the messages that were flagged as spam. I never look at this message, but this morning I was curious. There were 23 new messages flagged as spam in the last 24 hours. What I found interesting was that several of these messages seemed to be about replica watches. Some sample subject lines:

  • The best Replica!
  • Watches!
  • replica watches, rolex replicas, fake watches
  • Low Cost Replica Watches
  • The best Replica

I found this to be odd. I mean, there was a fair share of the usual spam (“Can’t find a good drug s tore?”, “GOt Meds?”, etc.) but replica watches?

It made me wonder if watches are back in now? I don’t use a watch. I have a good sense of time and I try and minimize the number of gadgets I carry to reduce redundency. I have a cellphone that tells time, so why wear a watch? But if 20% of my spam is about replica watches, I assume watches are once again on the rise.

It begs the larger question: can spam be used as a meter for social trends? I get plenty of spam for Viagra (usually spelled V|@gra in a clever attempt to fool automated filters). I get plenty of spam for stock tips. Both the little blue pill and the blue chips are hot items these days. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the people selling blue chips are taking the blue pill more frequently than others. So perhaps spam has the value of being attuned to social trends. It helps keep you hip and in the know.

There is one exception that I’ve noticed. I get a lot of spam with the subject line: “Re: Hi”. That trend seems to buck the tide. No one says “Hi!” anymore. (It’s all wussup or how’s it going or duuuuude.)

A typical email conversation with coworkers

Yesterday, regarding a presentation I am giving today:

COWORKER: Should I attend? It’s up to you guys–I have no preference either way.
ME: From what I understand, I am doing a 15 minute demonstration of the tool. I think I can handle it myself. Of course, you are welcome to join if you are interested, or just like hearing the sound of my voice (I’m considering presenting using a Scottish accent). By the way, if you do like hearing the sound of my voice, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I do too.
COWORKER: As appealing as it sounds to listen to you present in a Scottish brogue, I think I’ll pass this time…

They don’t what they’re missing!

No email yesterday

Yesterday, for the first time in a very long time, I received no personal email. I thought maybe my service might not have been working, but I sent a test message and received it just fine. (And my spam folder was still getting messages, but that doesn’t count.)

I can’t recall the last time a day went by when I didn’t receive a single piece of personal email.

Personal email stats

I keep a lot less personal email than I do work-related email. I archive mail at the end of each month and just got around to archieving my July mail today. I figured it was as good a time as any to cull some stats. Since February 7, 2004, I have received 4,253 meaningful pieces of email. By “meaningful”, I mean a message that is worth keeping, for either historical, personal or reference value. It does not include junk mail, or frivolous stuff that I delete after reading.

There are 880 days between today and February 7, 2004, which means, on average, I have received just about 5 meaningful email messages per day.

Now in addition to receiving personal email, I also send it. In the 880 days since February 7, 2004, I have sent 2,042 email messages. This amounts to just about 2-1/3 email message per day.

New email processing

I have complained before about how we are so flooded with information these days, that it is virtually impossible to keep up. I send out an email message to friends at work each year, giving an estimate of how much email I actually read versus what I receive. In FY2005, I read just over 1 in 4 email messages I received at work. I simply did not have the time to read the others. I calculated that, if I did read just about every message I received, excluding spam, which is filtered), I would spent three-eighth of my day doing nothing but reading email. Over the course of a work-year, that’s 82 work-days of doing nothing but reading email!

Read more about my new email processing scheme


I now know why it seemed like I was never getting any email from Rich. I just happened to randomly check my email trash and saw that my spam filter trashed a reply from Rich because at some point I’d accidentally blacklisted his address. Whoops! Good thing I caught it. I whitelisted his account and things should be good there. But I wonder: have I blacklisted anyone else?


Minor rant follows:

How do people decide how many elipses to use, in particular when composing an email or instant message? Is there a different set of rules of which I am unaware?

I often see people write things like:

You’ll never guess what happened………..

Now, what made that person decide it was okay to use 11 “dots”? When did elipses stop being three dots…? Am I missing something? Four dots is okay if you are ending a sentence. But eleven?

I give up………….

Santa Monica, Day 2

Long day today, and another night filled with crazy and intense dreams. I couldn’t remember the dream I had last night until dinner this evening when something Jim said triggered a memory of what the dream was about.

Today was the first day of the Crystal Reports training class and I think it went very well. We have a great instructor and the comments I’ve been hearing about the class so far are all positive.

In addition to that, other people, not me, were busy at work today because the email server in Washington was down all day. It is still down and from what I understand, will be back online around midnight. I was not fully effected by this because I can still read my email in UNIX (I’ve always been able to do this as a backup) but it was a pretty frantic place today even so.

Had lunch with Jason Allen and Enrique today, and had dinner this evening with Jim and Janet. We ended up at Wolfgang Puck Express on Third Street and afterward, did our ritual of looking at framed art on sale at–the name of the place slips my mind right now–oh, wait, Gallerie. We’ve done this three or four times in the past and it’s become a kind of tradition. Jim and Janet just dropped me off at the hotel and I’m writing this in bed. I’m beat.

I was planning to do some more writing tonight but I don’t think I could keep my eyes open. I was hoping to watch House but, fortunately, it’s not on tonight. The State of the Union address is being broadcast instead. I’m too tired to stay up and watch, and besides, I don’t expect that the President is going to say anything that will surprise me, although I could be wrong here.

Lisa invited me to play in a pickup game of kickball tomorrow after work, so I’m going to do that.

27 push-ups this morning. Still not willing to admit how many sit-ups I’m doing.

This journal entry marks the first full month of blogging for me–so far, so good.