Inboxing clever

In the process of trying to get from ‘Inbox 600’ (otherwise known as ‘completely out of control’) to something more manageable, I’ve been thinking about what would make email easier for me to deal with. So here’s my wishlist. (Most of this functionality probably exists in at least one email client, or would be scriptable with a bit of effort.)

1. The ability to set an ‘expiry date’ on email when it arrives.

I get a lot of mailing-list email to my personal account which contains offers, “what’s on”-type information, the sort of thing which might be useful at some point over the next couple of weeks but isn’t immediately useful now. I keep it in my inbox as a way of keeping it “on my radar”, reminding me occasionally that it’s there in case I want to look at it; but I’d like to be able to tag it for expiry in, say, a couple of weeks — or when the next email from that mailing-list comes in.

Similarly, at work I get a lot of email containing ideas or suggestions for things that I could do if I had time; I want to set them to expire (or at least require manually ‘renewing’) after a couple of months. If I haven’t found time to do something within that amount of time, then either a) it’s too time-consuming/complicated to do inbetween other tasks, and should either become a genuine project/task and be logged/managed as such, or b) it’s just not actually that important.

Also, most emails don’t need keeping for ever. At work, I keep a lot of ‘paper trails’ in email; if I haven’t referred back to them within 6 months then I’ll probably never need to — but if I haven’t referred back to them in 6 months then I certainly won’t remember to go back and delete them after that time. At home, I keep a lot of confirmation emails from online shopping; I don’t want to waste paper by printing them out, but once I’ve saved them to my ‘admin’ folder they’re basically in a black hole. I want to save them to whichever folder is relevant but also set them to expire in, say, 1 year’s time (very few receipts etc need keeping longer than that). Organisational emails from friends don’t need keeping for ever — I may want to keep the emails where we tried to organise a party or something, but they’re not such works of literary genius or items of such sentimental value that I’m likely ever to revisit them.

(To be honest, I can’t remember when I last went back and re-read an old email for sentimental or nostalgic reasons. Occasionally I grep through my various read-mail files for specific bits of contact information, or for half-remembered words or phrases; but even that’s quite rare. Maybe I shouldn’t be keeping any of it.)

2. The ability to move things from email to other applications more easily.

This is getting better with more integrated calendaring, contacts, task-lists, etc. (not to mention Google Wave!), but there are things that just aren’t easy enough yet:

  • When an email contains dates and times, I want to be able to add those easily to my calendar, with a link to the email. It should be possible to delete the email from the event, or vice versa, or both at once.
  • When an email contains an address, I want to be able to add it easily to my contacts, with the email address, and whatever context is necessary from the email.
  • When an email has a PDF or doc attached, I want to be able to add that easily to a document store, detaching it from the email, but keeping a link to the email. Again, it should be possible to delete email and document in one go.
  • When an email contains a bit of text that I want to save, I want to be able to highlight that extract and save it as a snippet, automatically adding a ‘citation’ consisting of the name/email address and the timestamp.

3. The ability to tag and filter more flexibly.

This is the area where it’s almost certainly me who’s deficient, not the email clients. I want to be able to:

  • manually tag emails with as many keywords as I like
  • search/filter according to the presence/absence of single tags or combinations of tags
  • define rules for automated tagging according to sender/subject etc

Tagging probably entirely removes the need for folders (and is obviously more flexible as things can belong in multiple categories), but I admit that I still think in terms of folders. Ideally the user interface would make it possible for me to set up virtual ‘folders’ based on tags, rules, etc to ease the mental transition from one model to the other.

4. The ability to set automated replies based on sender/subject/time

For example, an ‘out-of-office’ reply to work colleagues during out-of-work hours, telling them that I’ll deal with their query in the morning; an ‘out-of-socialising’ reply to friends during work hours, telling them that I may check personal mail during work but they shouldn’t rely on it and I probably won’t have time to give them a long reply (but they can phone my mobile if it’s urgent).

5. The ability to set different levels of alert for new emails or other triggers

Rather than choosing between a popup alert for all new mail or nothing, I’d like to have, say, an SMS alert when email from my husband arrives in my personal inbox; an audible alert when email from certain senders arrives in my work inbox (as it’s probably important enough to interrupt other things for); no alert at all for emails from mailing lists; some kind of alert when my inbox goes over a certain number.

6. The ability to queue specific emails to be sent automatically at specific times

I want to be able to write work-related emails at the end of the day or in odd moments in the evening, but set them to be sent at 8:50am the next day, so I don’t end up getting sucked into work email exchanges late at night. If I write the email and postpone it, I don’t currently have a way to remind myself that there’s an email sitting in the invisible out-tray. Also, if I’m writing official announcements or questions to send to mailing lists, the time when I get a chance to write the text is not necessarily the best time to send the email (something sent to a mailing list on a Friday afternoon risks getting buried in an avalanche of silliness and pedantry; the same email sent on a Monday morning will get a much more sober and potentially more useful response). Ideally, this would work in close conjunction with my calendar, so it’d be easy to, say, set a reminder email to be sent half an hour before a meeting.

7. Built-in coffee-making functionality

Ideally this would be triggered when the inbox goes over a certain number of messages, or when email from specific colleagues arrives … Well, hey, I can dream. :-)


2 Responses to Inboxing clever

  1. Heather says:

    In Outlook, you can do several of those things, if you work where there is an Exchange server (most offices have them). I send emails with delays often. I also set up meetings with reminders of up to a day so that I can prepare for them.

    And while it’s not really as good as an expiry date, you can also set follow-up flags on emails, which would remind you to revisit them to delete or deal with them.

    My system will also let me set timed out of office messages, though possibly not to select groups pf people.


    • janetmck says:

      Didn’t know you could do timed emails in Outlook — that would be handy for work stuff, thanks! (We are on Exchange at work, but they don’t force us to use Outlook and I generally don’t unless I have to set up calendar permissions or other stuff that it won’t let you do in OWA or other clients…)

      Meetings with reminders of up to a day (or more) is easy though, Google Calendar has done that for ages. :-) (Also different types of reminder at different times before the same event, e.g. email me a week before this event to remind me to prepare for it, txt me the day before to remind me, pop-up 10 mins before…) I would be absolutely lost without calendar reminders!

      Tagging/flagging is better than nothing, but it doesn’t help get it out of my inbox after a given date; I don’t really want “think about this again later”, I want “after $date I don’t need to think about it again”. (I feel like it ought to be possible to do this by e.g. tagging emails with a date & then doing some kind of regex rule on tags, but AFAICT it’s just not quite there yet…)

      Timed out-of-office — do you mean for more than one set of times? I can set a timed out-of-office, but only for a single contiguous block of time. It would be really useful to set a recurring out-of-office for Fridays saying “My working days are Monday-Thursday”, even before I get to the different-messages-for-different-people. (Exchange does let us send a different out-of-office message to internal — i.e. on the same Exchange server — and external senders, but in practice I haven’t found that terribly useful, as some work people are internal & some are external because some depts aren’t on Exchange…)

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