Old emails

Feb. 10th, 2012 08:11 pm
nickbarnes: (Default)
[personal profile] nickbarnes
I receive many thousands of email messages in my main work account (not counting my Climate Code Foundation account, which lives on gmail). It used to be a lot more (see statistics below), but it's still a huge number. For the last decade or so I have two main rules in dealing with email:
  • 1. Never, ever delete a message: every message ends up in an archive folder; [I learned this the hard way, by deleting important messages. Disk space is free, more-or-less.]

  • 2. Archive personal, public, and work messages in separate folders. [Also learned the hard way: when leaving a former job, I essentially had to leave my whole digital life behind.]

So how do messages get into folders? Any incoming message which I don't have to act upon is filed immediately when I see it. Everything else (maybe 10 to 20 messages on a typical day lately) goes into my "outstanding" folder, which acts as a to-do list. A lot of those I deal with and refile soon afterwards, but some form part of a long-running conversation and hang around in "outstanding" until they are resolved, and sometimes I don't get around to refiling them: they get buried under the flood.
So every once in a while (once a month, ideally) I go through the top few hundred messages in "outstanding", weeding messages to the archives. But despite this, maybe fifty messages in any given month get left behind and the folder steadily fills up. If I am particularly rushed or stressed, even this cleaning-up process doesn't happen, and "outstanding" bloats.

It's been hovering at about 10,000 messages for the last couple of years, and this week I had had enough (five-digit message IDs are depressing). On Wednesday morning and this morning, I went through the whole folder, looked at every message, and refiled ruthlessly. I have 400 messages left, almost all from the last four months.

This was an interesting and challenging process, travelling backwards in time over the last decade, cleaning out dense knots of the past from particularly difficult periods. 2008/9: dealing with the forced move down to Surrey. 2006: grieving for my parents and trying desperately to keep my marriage together, and learning the hard way that it takes two. 2003/4: childcare challenges when my wife started work away from home and the local schools were failing our younger child. 2000: a babe in arms, and a little boy on chemotherapy. All cathartic, but I'm not surprised I've been putting off this spring-clean for so long.

For any geeks in the audience, here are stats since 2003, from my mail logging system:

2003 12,311 97 MB  End of year only
2004241,8681,650 MB1,90420 MB
2005305,5972,698 MB2,22015 MBLife before spam-filtering: 800 messages every day!
2006202,4392,543 MB2,06730 MBSpam-filter introduced at the end of 2006.
2007 58,241 765 MB2,38620 MB
2008 64,217 947 MB2,47836 MB
2009 50,518 788 MB1,40612 MBMailing list reduction as work changes
2010 44,3831,501 MB2,16742 MB
2011 27,0262,484 MB1,096 6 MB(fewer, larger messages)
2012 2,583 79 MB 169 5 MB(to date).

Date: 2012-02-11 08:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gareth-rees.livejournal.com
Here are my own statistics (sent plus received, by month):

(Plotted using the script I wrote here. Some measure of how much time has passed is that I had to reinstall gnuplot—I must not have had need of it since I bought this new laptop. Though I have to say my heart sank when I typed port install gnuplot and it said, "Dependencies to be installed: aquaterm gd2 xpm lua pango cairo libpixman xorg-xcb-util pdflib".)

I follow the "inbox zero" approach (and arrange for Apple Mail to file as much as possible automatically). I don't use my inbox as a to-do list: I don't want anyone in the world to be able to write to it!

Date: 2012-02-11 11:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nickbarnes.livejournal.com
Yeah, gnuplot seems to have got like that. I think the open-source world needs more intermediate distros (or meta-ports, or library bundles, or whatever one might call them).
I think I could reasonably describe my approach as "inbox zero": my inbox is, in fact, empty most of the time.
Also, what happened in 2008?

Date: 2012-02-12 02:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gareth-rees.livejournal.com
I think I could reasonably describe my approach as "inbox zero": my inbox is, in fact, empty most of the time.

Right, but you have an "outstanding" folder which sounds as if it has essentially the same role.

Also, what happened in 2008?

Good question ... investigates ... ah: September 2008 was the month when Apple Mail crashed badly (as described here) and as a result there's a Lost+Found folder containing duplicates of a lot of messages from that period. I excluded these from the search and re-ran the script. The graph above is, I think, now correct.

Date: 2012-02-11 11:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] p4user.livejournal.com
My mail history is in several data islands dating back to 1982. Some year I'll turn it all into something coherent and then I can publish nice graphs about it. I have some instant messaging records that date back earlier than that, but that doesn't really count as mail.

By coincidence I've recently been considering changing mail clients [Rant about how appalling I find "modern" mail systems deleted for brevity]. This is going to involve some hackery because the relevant clients don't publish APIs to do the migration neatly [see rant, section 5] and I am irritated that I even have to consider delving inside systems that any sane species would have designed properly from the outset.

I have some folders that get automatically populated, but the bulk of my recent mail tends to be in one large inbox. If a message requires action I highlight it so I can find it easily and if the action is not going to be quick I add a note in my day notes or an entry in Taskcoach.

I do delete some messages - mostly spam from our office system because it will save brain bandwidth if I don't have to see it again. I suppose one day I may delete a proper message that just happens to have exclamation marks in the subject line, but "internet mail" isn't reliable anyway.

I used to encrypt a lot of my mail with PGP back in about 1996, but few others did and I got out of the habit. I'm wondering whether to review that and perhaps resume signing my messages.

Date: 2012-02-11 11:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nickbarnes.livejournal.com
My archived messages never get seen again (unless I have to go looking for something, which happens maybe once every six weeks). Certainly they don't take up any brain bandwidth.

Date: 2012-02-12 06:17 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jwburton.livejournal.com
Oddly, I've been using the GUI client now known as Apple Mail continuously since early 1989; I've never loved it, but in the early NeXT days it was so much more multimedia-capable than anything mainstream (and most people I sent email to were on NeXTs as well, that being the mainstream platform of my field in that era, and also popular among my friends) that my VMS mail skills atrophied and I never bothered to really master anything else. I used elm occasionally when I had to work over a modem, because like NeXTmail it used standard Unix mboxes. The mbox format is utterly lame, but I always told myself that it guaranteed me future migration freedom . . . then in OS X 10.5 Apple went to a proprietary format, and I revealed myself a hypocrite by not migrating out.

If I had it to do over again, I'd probably have five or ten mailboxes as filing destinations, instead of the 130 or so I have now, but like Nick I don't spend much brain bandwidth on my archive. I do have a threshold for obvious crap, and throw out everything below it on sight; things I spend more than 15 seconds on or whose authors I know by name are kept forever, for Nick's reasons. I've got about 300k messages, fairly steady at several hundred a month over two decades; I'm startled by Gareth's sudden jump at the millennium, and wonder whether it reflects a change of archive strategy, or of communication habit. I occasionally think wistfully about bringing my 1980s email (VMS, OS/VM and odd flat-text formats) into Apple Mail to streamline my GUI-search-plus-grep workflow into just a GUI search, but it's a big effort for a small return, so a decade of thinking wistfully hasn't actually motivated me to do it.

Date: 2012-02-12 09:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gareth-rees.livejournal.com
I'm startled by Gareth's sudden jump at the millennium, and wonder whether it reflects a change of archive strategy, or of communication habit.

I was unable to hold on to my work mail (including personal sent from work) from companies I worked at prior to 1999, so all I have from before that is personal mail sent or received at home.
Edited Date: 2012-02-12 03:29 pm (UTC)

Date: 2012-02-12 06:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jwburton.livejournal.com
Ah, I see. Whereas for me, "work" email (embodying IP rights that someone cares about, so that I'm not free to treat it as personal) was a brand new concept when I left academia in 1997, and then migrated to appalling corporate systems (Lotus Notes) where I don't even think of it as mine any more in 2003. In fact, I actually did steal my work email from the intermediate period, because I was sure no one at the two companies involved (one dying, the other acquired) would notice or care, but there has never been a year when "personal" email was less than 80% of my I/O stream.


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