Dealing with E-mails in Academia II – Emails to actions to Inbox Zero

This is the second (and last) installment in dealing with e-mails. It assumes that you have read the first one, basic ethos. If you have not please take a few minutes and read it here. In this second part, we will see how to transform the “good” e-mails into action items in order to reach the famous, not so unicorn-like, inbox zero and file e-mail intelligently for future use. These blog posts will be permanently part of the E-offices series (digital office).

I should state that going over to 43Folder and read the Inbox Zero series would be an excellent idea either before or after this post. Your choice.

This post has four sections: from e-mails to action items, filing your e-mails, project-based filing and scripting.

5) From e-mails to action items

There are only a limited number of actions that can result in reading an e-mail. First, I have to tell you that I am a fan of David Allen GTD and I used the method described in his book for many years now. The very first thing, you should not read your e-mail if you are not prepared to deal with them. So whenever you are ready, look at your e-mail (see section 3 here), you need to be ready to take one of the following actions:

  • Delete: e-mail as no useful information now or ever. If in doubt, simply delete as chances are 99% of the time you will never get back to it, thus your doubt…
  • Files: e-mail contains reference information for future use relative to an ongoing project but need no answer from you (see item 5 below).
  • Needs an action from you and will take 2 min or less: do it now. Once you replied, either immediately file that e-mail for future use (see section 6 below) or delete.

Note that for the e-mails corresponding to the three possible actions listed above, you should never come back to these kinds of e-mails twice. If you are not ready to do that, stop reading your e-mails and come back later. And now the last possible action you have to take on an e-mail:

• Needs an action from you but will take more than 2 minutes: e-mail has material to start a new project but will need time to set up or needs an elaborate reply or needs further work (like reviewing a manuscript!). Create task to come back to it later and move e-mail to another folder (see section 6 below)

That’s it! This is all the actions you really need to handle your mountain of e-mail, in particular if you have effective/automated filtering (as discussed in the first post here).

 

6) Filing your e-mails for future use.

There are two schools of thought when it is time to file e-mails for future use. One is to send all read e-mails to a single mailbox for future use and use the search function when you need to find something. The second is to create project-based mailboxes to transfert e-mails to them. This is similar to the old but efficient paper-based filing cabinet! Quite frankly, I am an adept of the second one and will explain why in the next section.

First, whatever one of the two approaches above you chose, I recommend to still create the following extra mailboxes that will sit on your main mail server: @01-NextAction, @02-WaitingFor-Maybe, @03-Meeting, @04-Travel and @05-OnGoing (see figure below).

Mailboxes2

The use of @ it to make sure, in numerous e-mail app, that these folders come in at the top and the 01, 02,… for further ordering. The figure below shows the set-up, including the SaneBox service usual folders, I have been using for many years now. 

 

This structure was based roughly from porting the physical hanger-type filing system discussed in the first version of David Allen GTD book. Interestingly, the new 2017 edition of that book now formely include e-mail app set-up and you will see that it is very similar to the above set-up

What are these various mailboxes used for:

  • @NextAction: It contains those e-mails that need an action from you but will take more than 2 min and you do not have time to deal with it now. Note that if you want to skim through your e-mails quickly, postpone replying to any one that will take more than 2 min until you have reach the end of your inbox or the time you set aside to look at it.
  • @WaitingFor-Maybe: This is where I keep a copy of e-mail I sent and for which I really need to keep tab on what will be happening either via a response I need or an outcome I am waiting for. Note that these could be two separate mailboxes. Over the years, I found out that I do not have so many Maybe and WaitingFor to justify  two separate ones. Your mileage will vary and it is up to you to decide.

IMPORTANT: every single e-mail sitting in the above two mailboxes should be associated with a task in the proper list of your task manager. 

  • @Meetings: I keep all e-mails related to meeting invitations and documents. Of course any meeting to which you are participating should have a formal entry in your agenda!
  • @Travel: all travel related e-mail confirmation: meeting registration, airplane itinerary, hotel confirmation, …This is to have fast and easy access while on the road.

IMPORTANT: once the meeting or travel is completed I usually move these e-mails to their project-specific folder (see section 7 below).  For meetings, I sometimes just delete them if not needed for the future. My department by policies keep copies of all the agenda, minutes, … anyhow.

 

  • @OnGoing: either your one stop mailbox if you chose to send all your e-mails for future use at one place OR the top folder for your on-going project-based subfolder mailboxes (as shown in the image above).

Now your reaction to this might very well be: that this is all nice but time and effort is involved in maintaining this structure…

First, let me state that a lots of time and great stress will be involved if you do not have some structure and things keep falling in the cracks. You need to implement a system that has just enough structure that you will feel confortable you do not miss anything important and feel you always know what is on your plate at all time (i.e. you can trust it!), but no more so it has minimal friction.

Second, if you choose your software judiciously that upkeep time will be minimal compare to not doing anything. This is what is tackle in the next section below.

Third, in your task manager make sure that you have a recurring entry to review the following key mailboxes as part of your weekly review: @NextAction, @WaitingFor, @Meetings and @Travel. If you do not have a weekly review schedule in your agenda or you do not know what it means, I am strongly encouraging you to read David Allen GTD book and set-up this activity. Without the weekly review, you will not be able to reach the level of trust needed in your system for it to work, and you will keep missing action items here and there or worst a major one that will have important consequences…

I recommend setting aside 60 to 90 min every week. The first few weeks of establishing this approach, it might take up to 2h of your time, but once in cruising mode, it should be more then enough, and it repays itself in time saved during the following week!

7) Project-based filing of e-mails?

In the figure shown in the previous section, the structure of my @OnGoing mailbox is also visible. That structure follows roughly the top structure of my task manager (aka Areas of Responsibility in GTD language) and also my project information folder structure of my document management app DevonThink Pro Office. We will discuss this in the next section, but you should know that both DevonThink and my task manager (Cultured Code Thing 3) have associated scripts that make it easy to transfer information between them and the mail app.

So why project-based filing? 

  • Always know where things are based on what you are working on or searching
  • It become extremely easy to navigate between documents, e-mail and task manager as they share the same structure. I can use URL link back to specific DevonThink project folder (called group in DevonThink) from my task manager (of course when creating a task from an e-mail, an url link back to that e-mail is also created in the task manager)
  • It is further extremely easy to archive a whole project when completed. I import the project e-mail folder in DevonThink, put it inside the project group and remove it from my OnGoing database to an “archive” database.
  • It is extremely easy to find everything while projects are on-going and even easier once archived.

8) E-mail software and scripts.

On the mac, I actually use Apple Mail app. The key reason is that Mail is fully scriptable and scripts already exist that plays well between Mail, DevonThink and Things (or OmniFocus), which you understand are also scriptable apps. Furthermore, Apple Mail is extremely stable. You might however find that Mail is missing a few important features. I am using an add-on plug-in call MailHub that add a number of these features to Mail, including intelligent filing. The latter saves a tons a time and MailHub also allows me to automatically save “Sent” e-mail to appropriate project folders with minimal to no effort: no more CC plus manual filing!

Note that in the latest version of Mail (on macOS and iOS), you will get some intelligent filing feature right out the app. 

Did I mention scripts earlier? The nice thing about scripts is that they are not too difficult to make nor too difficult to modify starting from an existing one. The other nice thing about scripts is that in macOS they can be made into system services (look at this tutorial on how to do it) that can be called via user defined keyboard shortcuts (I use cmd-fn-F#). 

So for dealing with e-mails, I have three system services that are based on Apple Scripts:

1) A keyboard shortcut that take a project mailbox and create a Group in DevonThink and will also create an entry in Things with a URL link back to the appropriate DevonThink folder. Voilà same project-based folder structure across all key applications. The system service that accomplish this task is based on two scripts that come with DevonThink that I modified first by combining them into one and also eliminated some user interaction that was present in the script to make it more automated. The script is quite simple:

property pTags : “DEVONthink”

tell application “Mail”

activate

try

set selectedMailboxes to selected mailboxes of front message viewer

if (the count of selectedMailboxes) > 0 then

tell application id “com.devon-technologies.thinkpro2”

set myDB to open database “~/Documents/Devon/OnGoingStuff”

activate

tell database myDB

repeat with theMailbox in selectedMailboxes

set theMailboxName to name of theMailbox

set theGroup to create location theMailboxName in myDB

set theURL to (“[url=x-devonthink-item://” & uuid of theGroup & “]” & name of theMailbox & “[/url]”) as string

tell application “Things3”

make new to do with properties {name:theMailboxName, notes:theURL, tag names:pTags}

end tell

— display dialog theURL

— if not (exists current database) then error “No database is open.”

— set activated to true

end repeat

end tell

end tell

else

error “One or more mailboxes must be selected.”

end if

on error error_message number error_number

if error_number is not -128 then display alert “Mail” message error_message as warning

end try

end tell

For OmniFocus users, simply change the similar two lines above by these:

tell application “OmniFocus”

tell default document to set newTask to make new inbox task with properties {name:theMailboxName, note:theURL}

2) A keyboard shortcut that take an e-mail, create in entry in Things (with a link back to that e-mail) and ask the user to which mailbox that e-mail should be transfer to between @NextAction, @Waiting-Maybe, @Meetings or @Travel:

— Based on a script found here //discourse.omnigroup.com/t/mail-to-quick-entry-applescript/500

— Takes the current Mail.app message

— Task name is the Subject of the message

— Task note is the message:// URL of the email followed by the body of the e-mail

— Message is moved to a specific folder

— Modified to add a task to Things 3 by Luc Beaulieu, Feb 16 2018

— Set properties

set MailboxList to {“@Z01 – Next Action”, “@Z02 – Waiting-Maybe”, “@Z03 – Meetings”, “@Z04 – Travel”, “Archive”}

set chosenMailbox to “@Z01 – Next Action” as string

set chosenAccount to “ULaval” as string

tell application “Mail”

set theSelectedMessages to selection

set the selected_message to item 1 of the theSelectedMessages

set message_id to the message id of the selected_message

set my_subject to the subject of the selected_message

set my_body to the content of the selected_message

set message_url to “message://%3c” & message_id & “%3e”

tell application “Things3”

make new to do with properties {name:my_subject, notes:message_url & linefeed & my_body}

end tell

set MailboxAnswer to choose from list MailboxList with title “Mailbox Dialog” with prompt “Which mailbox to move to?” default items “@Z01 – Next Action”

if MailboxAnswer is false then

error number -128 (* user cancelled *)

else

set chosenMailbox to MailboxAnswer’s item 1 (* extract choice from list *)

end if

move selected_message to (first mailbox whose name is chosenMailbox) of account chosenAccount

end tell

3) A final one that take attachments within an e-mail, move them to DevonThink, create an entry for each of them in Things (with each a link back to the file) and move the e-mail:

— Import attachments of selected messages to DEVONthink Pro.

— Created by Christian Grunenberg on Fri May 18 2012.

— Copyright (c) 2012-2015. All rights reserved.

— Modify December 4th 2015 by Luc Beaulieu to add a task/reminder entry for each element imported in the inbox of OmniFocus 2 Pro.

— Modify Feb 16 2018 by Luc Beaulieu to replace OmniFocus 2 by Things 3 and move the e-mail to a specific folder: Next Action, Waiting-Maybe, Meetings or Travel

— Set properties

property pPrefix : “Reminder” — Prefix for the created to do item

set pLocalizedPrefix to localized string pPrefix

set MailboxList to {“@Z01 – Next Action”, “@Z02 – Waiting-Maybe”, “@Z03 – Meetings”, “@Z04 – Travel”, “Archives”}

set chosenMailbox to “@Z01 – Next Action” as string

set chosenAccount to “ULaval” as string

tell application “Mail”

try

tell application id “DNtp”

if not (exists current database) then error “No database is in use.”

set theGroup to preferred import destination

end tell

set theSelection to the selection

set theFolder to (POSIX path of (path to temporary items))

if the length of theSelection is less than 1 then error “One or more messages must be selected.”

repeat with theMessage in theSelection

set theSender to the sender of theMessage

repeat with theAttachment in mail attachments of theMessage

set theFile to theFolder & (name of theAttachment)

tell theAttachment to save in theFile

set theSummary to (pLocalizedPrefix & “: ” & name of theAttachment) as string

tell application id “DNtp”

set theAttachmentRecord to import theFile to theGroup

set URL of theAttachmentRecord to theSender

set theURL to (reference URL of theAttachmentRecord) as string

end tell

tell application “Things3”

make new to do with properties {name:theSummary, notes:theURL}

end tell

end repeat

— Now move selected messages to a specific mailbox of a specific account

set MailboxAnswer to choose from list MailboxList with title “Mailbox Dialog” with prompt “Which mailbox to move to?” default items “@Z01 – Next Action”

if MailboxAnswer is false then

error number -128 (* user cancelled *)

else

set chosenMailbox to MailboxAnswer’s item 1 (* extract choice from list *)

end if

move theMessage to (first mailbox whose name is chosenMailbox) of account chosenAccount

end repeat

on error error_message number error_number

if error_number is not -128 then display alert “Mail” message error_message as warning

end try

end tell

This use of scripts and system services make dealing with e-mail extremely fast, and mostly automated.

For iOS the issue is less obvious. While iOS Mail app have some swipe actions, they are quite limited compared to Spark and Airmail. For, one you cannot share an e-mail with other apps from the stock iOS mail app (I do not understand such an obvious oversight), something that is quite easy with the other two applications. Yes, you can select part of an e-mail to send it to another app or first print it to PDF and share that PDF file. However this is a lot of manipulation. On the other two apps named above a simple swipe action let you do that effortlessly for the complete e-mail (with the nice URL link back as an extra).

So here either Spark or Airmail win easily. Airmail further have what they called Custom Action on iOS where you can have nested actions like sending e-mail to Things and then move it to a folder. More importantly you can assign your custom actions to swipes and you have access to up to three swiping actions going  left and three more swiping right!

Hope this blog entry is helpful. Enjoy!

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