Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rationalizing Your Email

A. Friend recently discovered, yet again, that the Evolution mail client doesn't like it when your Inbox grows bigger than 2 GB. I've never had this problem myself, but a family member once found that Netscape had a similar limit. So let's come up with a few rules about how to keep your email rational. Some of these are written for Thunderbird, my client of choice, but most other mailers have similar options. In no particular order:

  • Don't store your messages at all: Gmail currently has a 7.1GB limit on all messages. And if you use their IMAP function, you can view all your messages in your favorite email client (even Outlook). You can even put the mail in folders, because IMAP interprets Gmail's labels as a client's folders. Of course, you can only read your email when you are connected to the net, but you can read it from anywhere that has a modern Internet browser.

    Note: Don't use Gmail for anything you'd like to be able to delete before the subpoena arrives.
  • Use Filters: I use Thunderbird's filter mechanism to sort email before I read it. All email from news sources goes into a News folder, email from family or friends goes to a folder named for that person, emails from companies I ordered from exactly once goes to /dev/null, etc. Thunderbird then highlights the folder name and tells me how many emails I have unread in that folder (except /dev/null, for some reason), so I never miss anything.

    A.F. wants to post-filter his email: after it's read, put it in an appropriate folder. There's an option for that in the Thunderbird filtering system, as well.
  • Delete stuff: Each one of us has a friend that sends us an attached video, sound bite, or photo album each and every day. Look at them and delete. If something is so funny/moving/outrageous/sexy that just have to keep it, use the Save As feature to save the attachment in its native format, outside of your mailbox. Why? Well, in your mailbox the attachment is stored as 128 bits to the byte ASCII. In native format it will be stored using 256 bits to the byte. Do the math. You can also gzip the saved attachment much more easily than you can a single email in a folder. (Though emacs's RMAIL mode would read gzipped mail easily. Text only, unfortunately.)
  • If you think you simply must keep it in email: Ask yourself two questions: 1) Would I want to get this in an email next year?, and 2) Have I already sent this to 20+ people? If the answer to 1) is No, delete it now. If the answer to 2) is Yes, delete it — one of those 20 will forward it back to you within the week.
  • Compact your folders: Thunderbird, at least, doesn't actually delete an email message when you hit delete. It merely marks the email as deleted, and keeps it in your Inbox. That's handy if you accidentally delete something, but fatal to keeping the size of your Inbox down. Every once in a while use the Compact Folder option.
  • Periodically Reorganize: My work email box keeps getting larger and larger every day, since I get a lot of emails that resist proper filtering. So at the end of every year, I move all of my Inbox into a new folder, this year's will be called 2008 Mail. Do a similar thing for your Sent Mail folder. If you routinely send/receive more than 2 GB of email in a year, and can't bear to part with any of it, the problem's not in your mail client.

Those are my suggestions. Add yours below: