The Digital Agency for International Development

Coping with email

By Martin Burchell on 27 February 2014

At our last monthly management meeting we had a discussion about coping with the large volumes of email we receive. Some of us receive so many emails that it can be overwhelming and difficult to know which ones to prioritise. I thought I would share my own strategy.

Here's a simplified screenshot of what my email looks like on a typical morning:

As you can see, I have lots of folders - in fact this screenshot shows only about half of them.

Scanning down the list, I've decided to read the emails in the folder here first. This is where we notify each other if we're going to be out of the office or sick. I know these emails are going to be short and it's useful to know who is where at the start of the day.

Next I'm going to read the unfiltered emails in Inbox. Because they haven't been sorted into another folder I know these are likely to addressed to me personally and possibly require an answer from me.

I'm going to prioritise cbm next because that's the project I'm working on. Any emails to the project team will end up here.

Depending on how busy I am, I may choose to read the remaining emails later. core contains emails to our management team. These are sometimes longer more discussion-type emails that may require a bit more time to read and respond, if necessary. badgers is where we post fun or interesting things and does_liverpool is a Google Group I belong to. I'll read these last two folders while I'm waiting for some integration tests to run.

Although my chosen email client (Thunderbird) has a facility to filter emails, I prefer to use Procmail filters on the server. That way my emails are already sorted into folders on whatever computer I choose to read them.

Procmail does not have the most user-friendly syntax (and that's an understatement) but I'm not too adventurous with how I use it and most of the rules I use follow the same pattern.

Here's an example of the sort of rule that is in my Procmail configuration file on our mail server:

* ^TO_importantproject@aptivate\.org

This would file any emails sent to into the folder called important. You can also filter on subject line, sender etc.

The other tool I use is IMAP folder subscription. Thunderbird allows me to select which folders it displays. There might be a project team I'm no longer part of, but I still want to keep an archive of the emails in case I return to it.

Lastly in my list of technical fixes, I have configured Thunderbird not to check for new emails automatically. This means that I can get my head down on a particular project without unnecessary distractions. People can always ping me on Skype, phone me or talk to me in person.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this. If you have any comments, you can always send me an email!