Inbox Zero

At least for one of my e-mail accounts. The others have a varying number of e-mails, that I am going to go through as part of the ultra secret project “Spring Cleaning 2013”. I do this every nine years or so, when the weather is especially cold.

During these nine years I have made a number of terrible mistakes, such as subscribing to all kinds of mailing lists. I learned the hard way that Google Groups have a very low signal to noise ratio. Let’s define the signal to noise ratio here as the number of messages worth reading (almost zero) divided by the rest (thousands of messages). The ratio as I said is very low, so I used filters in Gmail to get rid of those mails. First filtering for very specific groups and then just filtering with one very general filter. This pattern continued so I have more filters now, then I really needed. Maybe I should declutter the filters as well.


By the way I am evaluating a new tool called Mailstrom, that is supposed to be much better at dealing with thousands of mails. It seems that Mailstrom integrates nicely with Gmail. I will keep you posted. Additonally, I used SneakEmail (may be out of business now) and IncognitoMail in the past too to make it easier to keep my inbox clean.


Gmail offers a ton of very useful features and they are constantly adding more. But you have to be consistent and make good use of them … which I haven’t done. I am talking of course about filters, labels, stars and the Important flag. I made dozens of filters to label and move mails from my inbox. The good thing about labels is that you can nest and hide them. I should have done some research about what a scientifically sound taxonomy is. Currently I have these unscientific main categories:

  • Miscellaneous
  • Books – mails from my publisher.
  • Financial – banks, investments and insurance.
  • Online shops.
  • Social – Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Quora, Goodreads and more.
  • TODO – Lifetick tasks and other nasty chores.
  • Website

I have other labels that are not that interesting, so they are hidden by default. Hotmail seems to have a default taxonomy. Another thing I like is that you can go on a deleting spree within Hotmail, with a minimal number of button clicks. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good deleting spree.

Tech talk

E-mail technically is far from trivial. In the past I had to read the RFCs about the different e-mail protocols in order to perform certain tests on a variety of different mobile devices. Also I own a couple of books that cover e-mail protocols. On separate occasions I have implemented software that either processes or sends e-mails. Most recently I worked on an API that sends e-mails with ads. Spam basically, although you shouldn’t call it that, if you get paid for it :).

OK, it’s not rocket science, but getting the details right can be tricky. Particularly unit testing and integration testing can be hard. Admittedly you can mock a lot of the functionality. Some things you just can’t get away with so I decided to go with a lightweight e-mail server (I don’t remember the name) that was created specifically for testing. Worked out pretty well in my very humble opinion.


E-mail is a bad medium, but at least it is free and flexible. You always have to be careful what you write in e-mails. Getting quick response with e-mails is hard.

While spring cleaning my inbox I was thinking how nice it would be if e-mails had some kind of expiration date and would optionally be automatically deleted after a certain time period. How great would it be if e-mail clients could learn on their own how to label and filter your mail? Sounds like a Singularity dependent wish once again.

I find long e-mails annoying. There must be some way to discourage long e-mails. I have the same issue with e-mails that contain almost no content except a URL – for instance, sign up confirmation e-mails. IncognitoMail and other tools help with this problem. However, I would prefer it if those pesky e-mails were automatically deleted after two days. Unsubscribing from mailing lists should be much easier. If it’s not we should be able to report the spammer, so other people will know that there is a problem.

You know how you can import and export your contacts. Why not make it possible to export and import your e-mail folder structure? Does that make sense? OK, I hope that someone comes up with a better alternative for e-mail. Until then I will continue with my spring cleaning operations. If you want to share a tip with the rest of the world, please do so in the comments below.

Disclaimer: recommendations made here are supported by my own experience without any additional research.

Articles for March 28, 2013

By the author of NumPy Beginner's Guide, NumPy Cookbook and Instant Pygame. If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
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