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Inbox zero, stage four

I know that I said that I wasn’t planning on writing about inbox zero again until the semester started, but it felt like I needed another day.

Today was my day for closing in on a true inbox zero (or as true of an inbox zero as I could get given that I’d just archived 200K messages). In particular, I decided that anything from 2017 had to be read and dealt with. What does dealt with mean? It could mean a number of things. For some messages, it meant read and respond. For some messages, it meant read and delete. For some messages, it meant read, delete, and unsubscribe. For some messages, it meant read and file [1]. For the ones for the SIGCSE mailing list [2], it meant read, verify that it meets our criteria, approve, and delete. For a few newsletters, it meant set aside to read later [3].

But some messages required complicated thought and followup. There’s one from Google igniteCS noting that applications are open. That seems like something I should be applying to, and I know that one of my students is already working on a proposal. So there’s nothing to do right now, but I want to keep the message in a place I’ll remember [4]. It goes into a new folder called Revisit [5].

Some don’t require that much complicated thought, but they take more than a minute or two to deal with. For example, there is a report that Techdirt is being sued by someone who claims he invented email in 1978, even though people used electronic mail long before that, and there were even RFCs published before then that look a whole lot like what most people think of as email [7]. It seemed worthwhile to contribute a little to the Techdirt cause, and also to check out some of the articles [8]. I’d encourage you to contribute, too.

What did I unsubscribe to today? Well, I got mail from Akis Angelakis and from Seminaria.Gr. Both are all Greek to me, as they say. Both tend to send things infrequently, so I haven’t paid attention. But as part of the quest for mailbox zero, I’m unsubscribing to almost everything I don’t read. The challenge in these messages was figuring out what the unsubscribe button was and then deciding what the landing page said. (I did not want to click on a Please send me even more email link.) Thankfully, Google Translate helped. Amazingly, both of those lists go to rebelsky@math.grin.edu, which is perhaps my oldest Grinnell email address. How long have I been getting those [9]? I’ve been getting email from Ancestry.com; I think I ended up looking up something there when mom passed away. I don’t need any more email from them. NextEngine, which is a 3D printing company, doesn’t need to send me email. But it looks like I’ve already covered most of them.

Here’s one of the challenges I faced in getting to inbox zero: For some reason, neither my phone nor my desktop mail applications seem to sync appropriately with Outlook. Hence, things I know I deleted on Mail.app still appeared on my phone and things I know I deleted on my phone still appeared on Mail.app [10]. Worse yet, even though both my phone and Mail.app think I have under fifty messages in my inbox, Web Outlook thinks I still have over a hundred thousand [11]. Outlook on my phone thinks the same thing. I really love the way Outlook servers communicate differently to imap clients and Outlook clients. And I’m terrified that all of my work to clean out my inbox will be for naught. Oh well, maybe things will settle down in a few days.

Here’s another interesting thing I discovered. Apparently, if I read the messages in Mail.app and then move them to a folder, neither Mail.app nor Outlook always remember that I’ve read them. So perhaps I don’t have quite as many unread messages as it seems [12].

I also discovered that I go away for a few hours, my mailbox goes from four messages to twenty four, and now a higher percentage are actually useful messages. But it wasn’t that bad to get through them. Now I have to think about what I want to do with the last few, some of which may represent substantive (e.g., about an hour or more) effort.

To help myself in the future, I worked at rearranging my underscore mailboxes. What are those [14]? Well, those are mailboxes whose name start with one or more underscores so that they appear at the top of my list of mailboxes. I usually make that change for the mailboxes I use most frequently, and, on occasion, when I’m getting a lot of mail about a particular topic. But I haven’t been good about moving those elsewhere, so as part of my general mailbox cleaning, I’ve been trying to rename those and move them to the right place. I’m now down to ten, which are collected into three groups.

  • Three mailboxes exist to store messages from my inbox: ___2017 is for the mail that I know I want to keep in case I want to refer back to it someday, but don’t really need now. ___Newsletters is for newsletters that I want to save, such as the Risks digest or the Keith Knight newsletter. ___Revisit is for things that I need to consider again, but not immediately.
  • Three mailboxes exist for current projects. __Recommendations reminds me to write them. __Glimmer 2017 stores things related to my research. __SIGCSE Infodir is for all of the mail that I need to keep related to that role. You might think that I should have my CS Department mailbox up at the top. However, I have enough sub-mailboxes in that mailbox that it would clutter things up.
  • The last four mailboxes are for the four classes I’m teaching this semester: _CSC 151 2017S, _CSC 282 2017S, _CSC 321 2017S, and _CSC 322 2017S [15].

Compared to the number of underscore mailboxes I had I had, that’s pretty good. I’ve also done a lot of work on rearranging my other folders, but they could still use additional work. Oh well, that’s a task for another day.

Okay, the essay is nearly done and the task is nearly done. It’s 10:15 p.m. and I have five messages left in my inbox. Let’s go from oldest to newest.

  • A reminder to submit my biography for the SIGCAS election. I just spent the past three hours working on that [16]. Delete.
  • A note from a musician’s mailing list that their latest album is available for free download [17]. Download. Delete.
  • The latest digest version of the audities mailing list. Skim. Ooh, a music download of an unreleased album [18], and some followup comments on how good it is. Download. Delete.
  • An advertisement from Apress, one of the technical book companies I like. Delete.
  • The weekly facebook page update for the Boy Scout troop. I’m no longer troop committee chair, so I don’t really need to read this. I wonder if I should ask them to remove me from the mailings. Oh well, that’s a question for another time. Delete.

Did any more messages appear while I was dealing with those five messages, and writing this narrative? No!

Inbox zero achieved!

Let’s see how well I can maintain it [19].


[1] read and respond actually means read, respond, and file.

[2] I moderate the SIGCSE mailing list. Someday I’ll learn to say No when people ask me to do things. But I think I’ve done a good job at (a) cleaning up the mailing list and (b) trying to keep the overly-long messages down.

[3] Hmmm … I wonder whether or not that’s a good strategy.

[4] Yes, I know, I should use this message as an incentive to put (or reprioritize) a task on my to-do list. But I’m not keeping a real to-do list right now. Maybe later.

[5] More precisely, it goes on a list called “___Revisit“, so it shows up at the top of the list of folders [6].

[6] The put an underscore at the front to put at the top of the list was a good idea, until I started finding that two many things were at underscore 1 level, which meant that I started an underscore 2 level. And now I’m up to underscore 3. I have been making readjustments as I’ve been doing the inbox-zero project, but it takes time. See more about this issue later in the essay.

[7] You can find a lot more on techdirt about this issue, as well as an excellent rebuttal to the claims by historian Thomas Haigh.

[8] I also subscribed to their newsletter. That doesn’t help with inbox zero, but it does help with increasing knowledge and thought.

[9] I can’t tell, since those are among the few messages I regularly delete.

[10] It’s an issue because I was doing some of my mailbox cleaning while waiting at the dentist’s office.

[11] Have I said how much I hate Microsoft products? Of course, given my trouble moving stuff in my Gmail account, I’m not sure that would be any better.

[12] No matter; it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to many of my unread messages. I have, in effect, declared email bankruptcy for messages prior to January 1, 2017. I’ve just kept them around just in case.

[14] If you’ve been reading the footnotes, you know.

[15] Don’t worry! It’s not as bad as it sounds. CSC 282 is a one-credit course that meets one hour each week. CSC 321 and CSC 322 are each two-credit courses (although together they do take up six hours per week).

[16] I also wrote an essay about that task simultaneously.

[17] I wasn’t going to say who the musician or album were, but I may want to remember someday. It’s Kelly McRae’s The Wayside, which is available on Noisetrade. I’m probably on her mailing list because I downloaded something else from her when I was on a Noisetrade download spree a few years ago.

[18] Philip John’s Master The Monster, which it appears he shared with one of the members of the mailing list and gave the permission to reshare.

[19] One more message appeared while I was editing this essay [20]. It was a message from the racket-users mailing list, and I deleted it immediately.

[20] Yes, I do make the occasional edit.


Version 1.0 of 2017-01-12.