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How to use a single Mail.app Archive (without losing your mind)

For some time now, I've encouraged people to consider abandoning the byzantine folder structure that most of us used to employ to "organize" our email. In fact, this kind of functional simplicity is something I've started to think of as a pillar of Inbox Zero.

In addition to helping explode the myth that most email messages have any life once their actions have been liberated, it's a healthy habit to actively remove any unnecessary systematic fiddling that doesn't handsomely pay back the effort that habitually goes into it.

And, as ever: yes, some of you -- because of the incredibly unique nature of your work in an office -- will need to have 500 taxonomic mailboxes, a monthly archives by project, a person-by-person collection going back to 1983, and a multiply-copied CC'd team archives, coded by color and identified with helpful icons you found on Gopher in 1992. Sure, why not. If that's working for you, by all means, keep fiddling and filing.

But, if you're ready to admit you might be turning a crank that's potentially not hooked-up to anything, here's my four favorite ways to leverage the intelligence of Mail.app for drop-dead simple archiving.

[also, some prior art from April: Some handy Mail.app Smart Mailboxes]

1. Regular Old Search

An astonishing amount of email can be found with nothing more than a search on "From," "Subject," or the occasional "Entire Message." If you just need to see whether you've ever gotten email from a person, this is the easiest and fastest way. In fact, I can't think of a way to even do this with regular mailboxes, so score one for Search.

What you're not doing: Maintaining an insane collection of by-person manual mailboxes. I've heard of people who get a message that went to five people, then manually copy it to five folders -- one for each of the recipients. People like this need more work and, possibly a Ritalin. (See also below: Address Book Group Smart Mailboxes)

2. Smart Mailbox: Date Ranges

A Smart Mailbox for email you've received in the last 3 days will cover so much of your basic archive-retrieval needs -- meaning the times when you actually will need to see archived email (versus your elaborate fantasies about the day 10 years from now when you theoretically cover your ass and embarrass everyone you hate). Winnowing of this kind not only makes for faster scanning, but it will greatly speed up sorting and searching, of course.

My "Sent in the last 4 days" Smart Mailbox also gets a big workout, as well as "To Respond -- 2 days" which is any email I've received in the last 2 days and flagged for response.

What you're not doing: Building a rabbit hutch that requires you to manually drag crap into folders where the contents will die within a few days. A Smart Mailbox knows how to keep things fresh and avoids the need for unnecessary metawork and "thinking."

3. Smart Mailbox: Address Book Groups

It's mindblowing to me that even some power users don't know about this time-saver. You can create manual or Smart Groups in Address Book that are then exposed for Smart Mailboxes in Mail.app

Ideas for this?

  • clients on a project (Smart Group with shared Company name)
  • friends in your city (Smart Group with shared City or area codes)
  • colleagues at a remote office (Smart Group with shared Company name or email domain AND City/State)
  • Family (Smart Group with shared family surnames + names of in-laws, etc.)

Related: I'd also suggest making a new person-based Smart Mailbox any time you find yourself corresponding a lot with a new person, especially if it's on an urgent project that will likely sunset in the next little while. Work, work work, and then when your exchanges slow down, just delete the Mailbox and you're done. No need to re-re-re-organize.

What you're not doing: Again, you're not struggling and fussing over where stuff goes in order to keep access easy. You can trust that all your stuff is one single location, then just let Apple's magic do all your heavy lifting.

4. Smart Mailbox: Tagged Messages

With a plug-in like Mail Tags you can easily add simple taxonomic terms for the kind of messages that you used to file by hand. But, seriously: keep it as simple as you can possibly stand. Maybe even down to a few really basic categories for all non-actionable & reference email.

  • Orders & Receipts
  • Tracking Numbers
  • Accounts & Passwords
  • Yay Me: Compliments and Résumé-builders

What you're not doing: No longer fiddling with a hierarchical maze in order to know your login and purchase info can be pulled up when you eventually need it.

The Acceptable Exception: Really Old Mail

Depending on your life and work, you might want to consider archiving (as in removing to a backup someplace) any mail that's more than a couple years old. This should speed up your searches a bit, and will certainly improve the quality of any search-based results.

But if it's important to you to keep this around, maybe create an "Annual Archive" mailbox, with manual sub-folders for all mail received in each given year. I'm not sure how much this buys you from a semantic standpoint, but my suspicion is that it might be kinder on Mail's resources to not have a single, bajillion-item mailbox (any Apple pros want to chime in?).

As with all this stuff, YMMV. But consider whether the effort you put into filing pays off often enough to be worth the hassle. In my experience, it's no contest: smart wins.

So, anything I missed? Got a Smart Mailbox that saves your ass from fiddly archiving?

Chris Frampton's picture

I have a very simple...

I have a very simple system for mail, even simpler than this one. There are three folders I actively use. (Apple seems to add a bunch of others that I ignore.) One is the massive inbox. All of my e-mail comes in there. I have two smart inboxes: one for unread mail and one for voicemail. (I have my voicemail forwarded to my e-mail - works just like iPhone mail.) When I read an e-mail, an action item might be created or I might need a file. I write the action item down, create a new project, etc. Refreshing the mailbox gets rid of that e-mail as it is now read. My voicemail inbox works the same way. I listen to the message, write down an action, etc. and when the mailbox refreshes, it's gone.

To find old e-mails, I just use search. I can always remember just enough information to find a file. I don't remember ever using more than 30 seconds to find something, though, since I've been doing this since I installed Spotlight about 14 months ago, I'm sure I must have lost something at some point.

I have one very important rule: no going back and marking an e-mail as unread. I REQUIRE myself to get the message into my GTD system immediately. As a result, I only check e-mail twice a day, both at scheduled times - when I arrive in the morning, when I come back from lunch, and about a half hour before I leave for the day. I will admit that I scan e-mail to see if I've received anything from my boss or someone else that might need something immediately, but I find that if they need me, they probably have my cell phone number and can just call me.

I use IMAP (and iPhone), so I do have to copy my e-mails into an archive folder - on my computer - about once a month. That's really not a big deal, and after a day or so, SPOTLIGHT seems to get the whole folder well enough indexed that the operation flies.

If you're curious, I have 24,543 e-mails in my archive. Again, I can always find what I'm looking for using spotlight and the sorting features in the results.




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