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Weblog Entry

Email Management

April 07, 2004

An interesting conversation with Jay Allen the other day got me thinking about how I cope with larger amounts of email. Not well, it turns out.

Despite the plethora of Nigerian scams and email-spread virii floating around at the moment, I’ve noticed my spam levels are at all-time lows. Which means the signal-to-noise ratio in my inbox is quite high, which also means that waking up to the sack of new mail that came in overnight is a daunting prospect.

It’s amazing how the internet is bringing together people who might have not otherwise meet; and there are a hell of a lot of them. It seems the more active you are online, the more people want a moment of your time. A five minute email response, multiplied by 50, equals a whole afternoon spent catching up. Every week. Matt’s policy of replying to every email received is admirable, but it doesn’t scale. (I tried too.)

Making yourself available for discussion is not a bad thing, it just means that an understanding needs to be reached between you and those wishing to get in touch. It’s a two-way road; you need to agree to be as responsive as possible, they need to agree to be selective as possible.

For what it’s worth, my strategy of keeping things managable at the moment goes something like this. This all applies exclusively to email coming in off this site and that other one, but not to previously-established communication or work-related email. Your mileage may vary depending on volume.

New email is read (or at the very least, skimmed) as soon as it arrives. If it requires a follow-up, it’s either replied to immediately, or marked as unread. (I rely on unread instead of flagged messages, so that my mail folders give me a count of how many outstanding messages I need to get to.)

I don’t answer many CSS questions anymore, instead referring the asker on to the excellent css-discuss list. That’s what it’s there for, and if it were to go around that you could get an answer out of me anytime you ran into a rendering glitch, well you’d certainly hear much less from me on here, for starters.

I start with the low-hanging fruit. Any email that requires a quick line or two in reply will get a response within a day or two, be it “thanks” or any other acknowledgement/question. Those are no problem, and so far I can generally reply to every one, usually quickly.

It gets thorny when email requires either a bit of thinking, a bit of debating, or a bit of digging into archives, Google or elsewhere to formulate a reply. Some of these I get to in short order, others sit for a while. I try not to leave them for over a month, but it happens. The problem with replying to them is that when it comes time to do so, I’ll have another new set of email to get to first, and once again the low-hanging fruit principle comes into effect. These can be pushed back rather far.

The worst are essays. I get the occasional email that spans multiple on-screen pages. I absolutely love that someone has taken the time to share that much with me; I feel a message that long deserves a considered response, which can end up being a page or two back. Finding the time to write that page is difficult. Again, low-hanging fruit is picked first most times. I always reply to these essays; I don’t always reply to them in a timely manner.

Email that ends up jumping the queue tends to be well thought out and will raise good points that I’d like to address more publicly. I’ll follow up with a response, and then post an edited version of that email on here. (No, this isn’t one of those.) I’d rather take the time I spend writing to build a publicly-available response for more than a single person.

What keeps me replying instead of just marking them all as read and letting them disappear into the ether? I value the time you spend writing me, and the thought you’ve put into your query. I’ll keep on replying to as many as I can.

Addendum: I’ve read along the way that a good time management habit is to set aside a period for email, and only have your mail client open during that time. It’s something I’m considering; at the moment I leave it running all day. Whether that would help me answer more email, or lessen the distraction that new email causes, or both, I’m not sure.


Reader Comments

April 07, 02h

I think many of us are just thankful for all of the one-way communication and content you offer via this site. So thanks.

John Y. says:
April 07, 02h

What Jason said.

I’ve had my occasional times in some fairly small spotlights online (most recently with coffeefaucet.com) and the deluges of email that can result are remarkable.

With that in mind, I try not to write anybody famous or semi-famous is that I don’t send any communication unless I have something either very specific to them or very important to tell/ask them. The advantage of weblogs is I often find out things I’ve idly wondered about but not felt important enough to ask by just waiting around and reading.

April 07, 03h

For a webmaster, my solution to massive amounts of email has always been forums. My personal way is this:

3 Email addresses that get sorted on arrival,
1) For family, friends, etc.
2) For work associates, the people I love to ignore
3) For websites that could redistribute it (aka, my spam email)

Then, with my websites, I create forums where people can ask their questions. I’ll reply there if it something that requires my attention, otherwise if it’s an easy answer, I let the other members of the forum handle it. I would bet that would cut back on the number of CSS questions you’d get in the mail, mainly because no one would have that email address….

The downfall comes if you desire for anyone to be able to contact you easily.

Jon Hicks says:
April 07, 03h

I know this feeling only too well. I sort of had the strategy of ‘answer these ones later’, but I’ve found that if I don’t reply there and then, it doesn’t get answered for a month.

April 07, 03h

Most of my email is still of the Nigerian variety, although dsr@w3.org and other similar spammers are catching up.

dusoft says:
April 07, 04h

Since I have started using Thunderbird for email, my noise to signal ratio has been at all-time lows. I used to have to read through 20 spams a day, now I rarely find any, except my Junk folder…

April 07, 06h

I’m definitely with Jon in that if I don’t respond immediately then it can be a while before I get to it at all. I also use different email addresses and filters to help me decide which emails are more important to respond to sooner. Both Yahoo’s and Thunderbird’s spam filters work pretty well for me as well which definitely helps on the noise to signal ratio.

Fortunately, I’m sure I don’t receive anywhere near the same amount of email as you guys…

Matt says:
April 07, 06h

That’s pretty much my method too. I respond to everything, but sometimes it takes a few months. The record is 14. Also while replying to every last one is my intention and goal I strive for, I’m sure someone will pipe up “Matt never responded to me!” and they’ll probably be right. Email was heavy before, and WordPress has increased it by an order of magnitude. They tend to be the emails that require some thought when replying too.

April 07, 06h

I’ve found that Apple’s Mail client keeps my multiple (school, work, personal) emails all nice and clean and free from junk. I’m sure you use the same Dave.

Matt says:
April 07, 06h

Of course I never emphasize that stuff because when it’s all said and done, I really love getting mail. :)

April 07, 07h

What I’m doing more and more with emails I do not have the time to reply immediately:

1. Hit reply.
2. Save the “empty” reply as a draft.

Then when I have more time I can open draft replies and begin to write a response. Since the original email is quoted in the reply, it’s easy to get back in context.

chuqui says:
April 07, 10h

I think turning off the e-mail client is a bad idea. A better idea is to figure out what e-mail you KNOW can wait, and teach your mail client to filter it out of the way, so it does, in fact, wait. and perhaps create a special place for “read this now” mail.

It’s very hard to be disciplined enough to leave e-mail alone until a certain time, and then leave everything else alone during “email time”. besides, some things won’t wait, like that hot stock tip, or word that your niece is getting married.

So compromise by figuring what you don’t have to deal with right now, and don’t. And your mail client can be a huge help there, with a little training.

more here;

http://www.plaidworks.com/chuqui/blog/001361.html

April 07, 10h

It’s all in the folders and filters Dave. I would tell you my effecrtive strategy, but its long and detailed. Too long for a post, but too long for your email eh?

April 07, 10h

It’s all in the folders and filters Dave. I would tell you my effecrtive strategy, but its long and detailed. Too long for a post, but too long for your email eh?

Porter says:
April 07, 11h

You were just testing his filters there, right Nick? ;)

Your strategy is pretty much the same as mine, Dave. I do a truckload of filtering and scrubbing as mail comes in – bayesian and white/blacklist filtering for spam, mailing lists get their own folders, certain keywords flag messages with colored labels, etc. I keep hearing people pushing that strategy of setting aside particular times for checking email, too, but those people must only get a handful of messages in a day. There’s no way I could handle my email load if I didn’t chip away at it all day.

Also, my spam levels are certainly not at an all-time low. My count for the past week is 3,856 spams out of 4,477 total messages. I’d be happy to send you some of mine if you’re feeling left out.

April 08, 03h

I’ve found David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology has really helped me in the last 15 months. Great book, the CDs are better, and the live seminar is (apparently) excellent.

At the gettingthingsdone.com website, go to “Coach’s corner”, and click on Julie Daniels for an article on keeping your in-box “real”.

Derek says:
April 08, 03h

I wrote an article about managing e-mail nearly three years ago:

http://www.penmachine.com/techie/emailmonster_2001-11.html

Much of it still applies, but the spam-avoidance techniques are so naïve they seem quaint now.

I do have to find a day every few months to weed through my unsorted e-mail (replied-to and not). Right now there are >1000 in my Entourage Inbox, and it’s time to get them squared away. Luckily, these days, with Pobox, Telus (personal) or NetNation (work), and Spamfire all filtering my mail in sequence, I get very, very little spam anymore.

April 08, 03h

I tried doing the whole set-time period thing, but the problem there is that I use Entourage, and it’s my notebook/address book/scheduler, too. If I closed Entourage in an attempt to stay focussed, within five minutes I’d need to open it again. I am a forgetful little weenie and I need crutches.

When I get a message that wants a lengthy reply, I usually shoot off a quickie response that says I’m really sorry but I’ll get around to it later, and then I make an Entourage event with a reminder (crutches again!). There’s an AppleScript that just copies the entire message into a calendar event, and then I can just set a reminder to rely to this message for the next day, weekend, or whenever seems appropriate. Entourage makes links between the message and the event, too, so I can just click a wee button and the related message(s) appear.

Jay Allen says:
April 08, 05h

Oh, boy I love to hate my email. I just switched from Eudora to Mail.app and in the process imported over 30,000 messages. Yes, I am a pack rat. However, I am proud to say that right now, there are less than 100 emails in my all of my inboxes combined that need replying to to require some action. That’s a lot, you may say, but not when you consider that last week, I had over 500. And that’s not counting all of the MT-Blacklist/Comment Spam Clearinghouse submissions that I deal with daily.

What got Dave and I talking about this is information overload. We both have not only have over 125 subscriptions to syndication feeds that are updated on average a hundred times per week each, but also tides email, throngs of instant messenger contacts, at least one cell phone and the entire damn global interweb thing that ain’t getting any smaller or less prolific in the production department. Did I mention the fact that we also work?!

Our ancestor’s pastoral lifestyle sometimes really appeals to me.

Corny says:
April 08, 06h

I sent an email when I noticed cybersquatters using CSS to render the same content in a different way for a plethora of different sites/names…

I didn’t expect to actually get a reply, but I was thrilled to see an email from ‘the’ Dave Shea in my inbox!

RMCox says:
April 08, 08h

I’m in the same camp as Jon Hicks (#4) and Chris Pederick (#7) in that if I don’t take action immediately, whatever it was will probably not get done for a long while. I would love to be able to schedule checking email at work, since most of my day is spent programming and a break in concentration can sometimes be devastating. Another benefit would be pooling actionable emails so nothing gets overlooked; for example, if a simple request is made during an intense coding session, sometimes those emails don’t get dealt with immediately and the potential for them to get overlooked increases.

Unfortunately, one of the largest applications I maintain communicates problems via email. So, if a query misfires or a server craps out, that will always need immediate action and take precedence over anything else, requiring that I leave email open all day. In addition to that concern, which is already managed to a certain extent by filters and separate email accounts, is the more tangible benefit of looking good. The people I work with really do appreciate timely responses, and getting known for being attentive and diligent is not a bad rep to have.

Jay Allen’s point (#17) puts the email burden in context, however, because he reminds us that email is not the only source of information/communication. Cell phones, IM, MT comment-notification, syndications and so on are also disturbances that serve to compound the email dilemma. Personally, I found I had to consolidate the means of receiving information at work into manageable streams of email and phone only (note: not a cell phone); then, I schedule time to surf and catch up more personal matters. This wouldn’t work for everyone. Obviously having a high-volume, very popular and respected website *in addition* to work-related responsibilities would certainly put a crimp in this scheme.

22
Justin says:
April 09, 01h

This doesn’t have so much to do with email management, but more so with spam filtering. Since this has drifted a little of course anyway, I don’t feel bad bringing this up.
I found this service which allows you to set up an infinite number of alias email addresses which point to a single main address.

http://www.mailnull.com

Every time I fill out a new form, I hop over to MailNull and create a new email address to match the site where the form originates. I’ve got just over 30 aliases currently, and see no end in site.
It’s a free service that is ran from the guys home, so it’s surely in the beginning stages.

If used properly (I know, geeks only), you can easily discover which sites are selling your email address. And set up filters to block them based on which address they are sent to.

None of this will help if you have your email address plastered over websites near and far… the main source of spam, IMO.

I have also found this service especially useful when changing my email address (change of ISP). I simply modify the main email address (which all my aliases point to) to reflect any new changes and I’m done. No need to run all over the web, editing my user account information. That in itself is reason enough to use this service.

It’s a completely different approach to handling spam, with advantages that go far beyond it’s intended purpose. I loved it the minute I discovered it.

April 09, 04h

Justin, Do you know what MTA they use at mailnull.com and what header contains the “original envelope To” header? I’m wary of any disposable address company that doesn’t have a clear explanation about the fact that you need to filter on the original envelope and that the To and Cc headers do not necessarily have anything to do with the mailnull.com address that was used.

Anyway, about email management: I try to get people to post to gmane.org.infiniteink rather than sending me private email. Unfortunately, that experiment isn’t working too well…

April 09, 08h

Maybe a good solution is to move to having a regular time that you are posting in an ‘open forum’ area. Where people can come in and ask questions, or have a set time each day/week/month where you will be answering questions in the newsgroups.

That would be nice. Another benefit is that it keeps the knowledge open to all, aka your answers.

25
Justin says:
April 09, 10h

Nancy, I don’t about the MTA. I don’t think I know what that is, or at least the acronym :)

MailNull is not some random company that hands out email addresses. It was created by a concerned and creative developer who was dissatisfied with the current spam handling capabilities. Look into the service and feel free to send him an inquiry about his techniques, I’m sure he’d be happy to help you out.

April 12, 04h

I have found that reporting my spam resulted in a sustained decline over the last 4 months. These are just my results. Yours may be different.
http://kandent.com/archives/2004_03/february_spam_report.html

It does take a good amount of time to file all the reports, and recently I have tired of all the effort. So I signed up for a SpamCop email address.
http://mail.spamcop.net/individuals.php

It pulls in my email from my old address (allowing me to migrate away at my own pace). It also makes it very easy to file reports that include the FTC. The Internet Fraud Complaint Center still requires manual form-filling, so I have stopped filing.
http://www.ifccfbi.gov