A few months ago, I was ruminating on how email programs do a fine job of helping users send and receive mail, but do little for helping users manage their mail. It's an important distinction; the basics of creating, addressing, writing, and sending an email message are relatively simple, as are the essential aspects of displaying an incoming message and filing it (either manually or automatically via filters) in a mailbox to be deleted or saved for future reference. But generally ignored are the tasks that users constantly perform with their email: scanning unread mail for important messages, keeping certain messages in front until they've been dealt with, organizing mail in a variety of different ways, and referring back to discussions for information or attachments.
Right now, Microsoft Entourage 2004 does the best job of any Macintosh email program of helping users manage their mail, thanks to its categories, flags, and custom views. And Creo's Six Degrees, now owned by Ralston Technology Group and called Clarity, offers helpful mail management features, though outside of your email client. But I'm uninterested in trusting my 2.2 GB of stored mail to Entourage's single-file database, and there are too many little features of Eudora that I've grown to rely on over the years to switch email programs or work outside Eudora at this point. So, I had to figure out how to make Eudora help me manage my mail here and now, with the features it currently has.
Saved Search Confusion -- Perhaps the least used of Eudora's powerful features are saved searches. They've existed in Eudora for years, and with them, you can set up a search with multiple criteria to run across an arbitrary set of mailboxes and then save it for later use. (Set up and run a search, and when you're looking at the search results window, choose File > Save. Give the search a name, and store it in the Search Folder in your Eudora Folder - that's the default location - and from then on, you can invoke the search by choosing it from the hierarchical Special > Find menu.)
The problem with saved searches, I believe, is that no one thinks they want to save a search - you use a search to find that message from your boss back in April telling you not to work on the Accounting Department's favorite waste-of-time project, but once you've found that message and used it to justify why you hadn't been attending meetings with the programmers from Accounting, you aren't likely to need it again. So why save the search?
The reason is because the result of a saved search is a Eudora mailbox window with an extra column that tells you which mailbox each message lives in. Anything you can do in a mailbox window, you can do in a search results window. In other words, a search results window is another, completely flexible, way of looking at your mail. Think of a saved search as a custom mailbox. Once you make that mental leap, I think you'll start to see how saved searches can help. But first, let me explain what I want to find with my saved search.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind -- I've learned over the years that if I can't see something, I'll forget about it. That's an exaggeration, of course, but in situations where many items need attention, those that force themselves into my field of view are the ones I handle.
I receive several hundred non-spam messages every day. They break down into a few rough categories: automated messages that can be deleted after a glance at the Subject line, mail from TidBITS staff and Take Control authors, mail from close friends and family, messages to mailing lists, and mail from people I either don't know or don't correspond with on a daily basis. Over the years, I've set up mailboxes and filters to separate out messages in all but the last category into individual mailboxes. That way, important messages from Tonya or Geoff aren't buried in my In box under random offers from Amazon and other shopping sites, mail regarding my latest TidBITS article, and so on. Similarly, all mailing lists are nicely separated out into their own mailboxes.
In the past, I worked around the out-of-sight problem by setting Eudora to open a window for each mailbox that received new mail. So, I'd check mail, Eudora would open 10 or 15 mailbox windows, and I'd look at the bottom of each for new messages, deal with them, and then close the mailbox to indicate I was done with it. If I needed to keep a message as a reminder to do something later, I'd leave it open in its own window until I was done with it.
This technique, while it served me well for many years, was starting to break down. I had too many mailboxes that could be open at any one time, and too many individual messages in their own windows - the window clutter was driving me crazy. Worse, if I moved my Eudora Folder to my PowerBook for a trip, or if a beta of Eudora crashed, all those open windows could be closed, and I would have absolutely no idea which messages were important. So filtered mail wasn't being tracked as well as it could be. Also problematic was my In box, which has fluctuated between 700 and 1,200 messages over the last few years. Most of the time it would grow slowly, as new mail pushed older messages up and out of sight, and periodically (on long plane trips, in particular) I would beat it back down by filing or replying to messages that I'd missed. The fact that my In box always contained about 1,000 messages was indication enough that my approach to mail I couldn't filter also wasn't working.
The Solution -- I realized that my filtering was working properly, in that it was putting messages in folders where I could easily find them later without needing to search. That's actually important, since there are times I can't think of a good search term easily. For instance, if Tonya asks me about the billing status of a DealBITS sponsor, I may need to scan through the Sponsors mailbox until I recognize the name of the person associated with that company, Option-click the person's name to gather all the messages from them, and then scan through the concentrated content in Eudora's preview pane until I see what I need to know.
Where my system wasn't working was in the presentation of new messages, which required a new window to display every mailbox containing at least a single message, and in the tracking of messages that required further action, which merely added to the window clutter. I needed a custom mailbox - a saved search - that would help me focus on unread mail across all my mailboxes and those messages I wanted to flag for future action.
I created a new search, and in the Mailboxes tab, I selected the 33 mailboxes that could receive new messages from individuals (not mailing lists) via a filter (Command-click to select multiple mailboxes). Then I set the search criteria to find messages whose status was unread and messages with a custom label I called "Check Out." I ran the search and looked at the results. Eudora had found the right messages, but they weren't in a useful order. So I clicked the Mailbox column header to sort the results by mailbox, then I Shift-clicked the Date column header to sort by date within mailbox. Lastly, I chose Special > Sort > Group Subjects so messages with the same Subject header would sort together, regardless of their mailbox or date. This last bit is actually quite important, since it keeps together discussions between people who have their own mailbox, like Tonya, and those who don't and thus end up in my In box. Once I had everything right, I saved the search.
Since choosing a menu item from a hierarchical menu is too much work for regular use, I Command-clicked the empty spot at the top of Eudora's toolbar and created a button that invoked my saved search. I use my function keys for launching applications, so I couldn't use Eudora's built-in way of mapping the function keys to toolbar buttons, so I instead created an iKey shortcut that invoked my saved search when I pressed Command-1, the hotkey that normally opens the In box in Eudora. Now I could press Command-1 or click the toolbar button any time I wanted to see messages that needed attention, either because they were unread or because I had read them and assigned them the Check Out label.
Of course, this technique was possible only because Eudora can search for such messages across 33 mailboxes and display the results in about 1 second. But two new features in Eudora 6.2 made it work even better. Now, new messages that come in during a mail check are automatically added to open search results windows, meaning that I don't have to re-run the saved search for it to find new messages. Also, previous versions of Eudora didn't save the custom sort order for a saved search, whereas 6.2 does.
The way I read mail works a bit differently now. I scan the list of new and labeled messages and read those that seem most important. When I'm done with reading (and replying to, if necessary) a message, how I deal with it depends on where it lives. If it has already been filtered into a mailbox, I just close its window, thus marking it as read so it won't show up the next time I run the saved search. (I save essentially all mail these days; disk space is cheap and the occasional times I need to refer back to seemingly unimportant messages makes saving all mail worthwhile.) For messages that aren't filtered and thus come from my In box, I either delete the message (thus storing it permanently in my Trash mailbox for the year; I start a new one every year) or file it in the appropriate mailbox. Either way, the message is marked as read and won't appear in future runs of the saved search. If I deal with a message labeled Check Out, I click a toolbar button that changes its label to Done; if necessary, I also file it at that point.
The main problem with this approach that I've had to work around is that unread messages are more annoying than messages flagged with the Check Out label, so I'm more likely to deal with them than the labeled messages. As a result, I often read a message, decide I don't want to deal with it right then, and mark it unread again to reduce my ability to ignore it later. I've created an iKey shortcut to mark the message as unread and close it so I can easily close message windows and not lose their unread status. (Even still, I have to check my In box every so often for the occasional message that was marked as read but not filed or deleted.)
That said, I'm amazed at my subconscious ability to ignore messages that I don't want to deal with for some reason, usually because doing so will be either time-consuming, unpleasant, or simply something I don't want to do all that badly. Keeping them visible in my custom mailbox isn't a perfect solution, but it's better than my previous approach, which all but guaranteed they'd be lost until at least my next cross-country plane trip.
Caveats -- A few caveats apply. I'm sure there are people out there who can't imagine why all this fuss and bother is necessary, because they don't receive that much mail. If you receive only 10 to 20 messages per day, for instance, there's no reason to go beyond the basics in any email program (and in fact, any email program will work fine).
Also, I've implemented this technique in Eudora because that's what I use, but hopefully those of you who use other email programs can see the principles I've applied and translate them to whatever features your preferred email program offers.
Note that mailing lists aren't part of this system. That's because the open mailbox window approach still works better with mailing lists for me. I often go days between reading messages from a list, so the open window is a good reminder that there may be something interesting. And I seldom want to flag a message from a list for later action, although I could create another saved search to find labeled items from a set of mailing list mailboxes.
Lastly, I won't pretend that this technique is the best possible way to manage email. It's a stopgap measure that works with the tools I have available today. But there are many ways email programs could do a significantly better job of managing mail for us automatically, and if we users start talking about how email programs can help us manage mail more efficiently, perhaps email developers will start giving more attention to simplifying the actual tasks we perform day in and day out.