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Rockstar Tips For Processing E-mail

Jul 15, 2008
When interviewing some of today's top practicing programmers for my new book, "Secrets of the Rockstar Programmers", one of the most frequently cited key skills is having a great system for managing incoming information. In today's information workplace e-mail is the conduit through which lots of that information flows. This article shares a few things I've learned from the rockstars in the book, as well as providing an insight into the system I currently use for email.

Much has been written about managing e-mail, some of it even mentions the important link between e-mail mastery and its parent skill: time management. Rather than rehash old content I recommend you keep that link in mind when reading content on this topic. In my opinion, any system that doesn't link these two skills together is not worth learning about.

Before we begin, I want to give a quick shout out to two bright lights of prior art on this subject. Mark Hurst wrote an article back in 2002 about the subject which compared the act of managing e-mail with the classic arcade video game Tapper. Being a classic video game enthusiast, I LOVED the analogy and also loved the article. Mark has expanded the article into a book: Bit Literacy. I hope to interview Mark Hurst for the next edition of the Rockstar project and I plan to read his book. The other bright light I've found is Merlin Mann whose famous "Inbox Zero" talk is a web phenomenon even more popular than Rickrolling. Merlin's easygoing manner also makes his content a pleasure to watch and read.

I'm old school, through and through. For time management, I use an old fashioned Franklin-Covey planner, and do the full system, "big rocks" and all. It works for me, but it is a bit short of being fun to use, which Merlin points out is a desirable attribute for an e-mail management (and time management) system. For e-mail, I'm equally old school. I use XEmacs VM mode combined with fetchmail, procmail and mairix for my email client (aka Mail User Agent or MUA if you want to be pedantic (which I often do)). Fetchmail is a simple IMAP client that sucks my email down to /var/mail/edburns, the way God intended. Procmail is a rule based filtering program that takes the mail and filters it to folders. This is how I deal with SPAM. Mairix is an email indexing and searching utility I learned about from rockstar programmer Adrian Colyer, Chapter 2 in the book. That's the software stack. Here's how I use it to get the job done.

One of the things Merlin leaves out of his 58 Minute Google Tech Talk on Inbox Zero is how to prioritize the reading of the email in your INBOX which you will reduce to zero. My old boss and college crony Tony Ng shared a prioritization scheme with me that works for me and I'll share it with you.

0. Filter mailing lists straight into folders so they never end up in
your INBOX.

1. Process emails with URGENT: or ACTION: in the subject.

2. Process emails from people in your "list of important people." This is somewhat like a whitelist, but not specific to spam filtering.

3. Process emails sent directly to you, either in the To: or CC: list.

4. Process emails received in the last 24 hours.

5. Process emails received in the last week.

XEmacs VM has a nice feature called "virtual folders" that allows one to use regular expressions to put a view on top of your INBOX, only showing those messages that match the regular expression. I have virtual folders that implement steps 1 - 5, and I use Procmail to implement step 0.

Even with all this, I still don't have an empty INBOX, but at least I can get replies back quickly. Don't lose hope, just do your best!
About the Author
Ed Burns has worked on a variety of client and server side web technologies since 1994, including NCSA Mosaic, Netscape 6, Mozilla, the Sun Java Plugin, Jakarta Tomcat and, most recently JavaServer Faces. Ed has published two books with McGraw-Hill, JavaServerFaces: The Complete Reference (2006), and Secrets of the Rockstar Programmers: Riding the IT Crest (2008). Visit Riding the Crest. To subscribe to his list, email subscribe@ridingthecrest.com.
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