Why filing away mailing lists for a while has improved my life

June 11, 2017

I've been on vacation for the past little while. As part of this vacation, I carried out my plans to improve my vacations, part of which was using procmail to divert messages from various mailing lists off to files instead of having them delivered to my inbox as I usually do. I started out only doing this to mailing lists for work software, like Exim and OmniOS, but as my vacation went on I added the mailing lists for other things that I use. As I hoped and expected, this worked out quite well; I soon got over my urge to check in on the mailing lists and mostly ignored them.

Recently I came to a realization about why this feels so good. It's not specifically that it's reduced the volume of email in my inbox; instead, the really important thing it's done is that right now, pretty much everything that shows up in my inbox is actually important to me. It's email from friends and family, notifications that I care about getting, and so on.

(Coming to this realization and writing it up has sharpened my awareness that some of the remaining email going to my inbox doesn't make this bar, and thus should also be filed away on future breaks and vacations.)

There's nothing wrong with the emails from those mailing lists. They're generally perfectly interesting. But right now (and in general) the mailing list email is not important in that way. It's not something that I care about. When it all was going into my inbox, a significant amount of my inbox was stuff that I didn't really care about. That doesn't feel good (and has other effects). Now my inbox is very pared down; it's either silent and empty, or the new email is something that I actively want to read because it matters to me.

(In other words, it's not just that processing my inbox is faster now, it's that the payoff from doing so is much higher. And when there is no payoff, there's no email.)

If I'm being honest about these mailing lists, most of this is going to be true even when I go back to work tomorrow morning. Sure, if I've just asked a question or gotten into a conversion, reading the mailing list immediately usually has a relatively high payoff. But at other times, the payoff is much lower and having the mailing lists go straight to my inbox is just giving me a slow drizzle of low-priority, low-payoff email that I wind up having to pay some attention to.

In fact I think a drizzle is a good analogy here. Like the moment to moment experience of biking in a light drizzle, the individual emails are not particularly onerous or bad. But the cumulative result of staying out in that light drizzle is that you quietly wind up soaked, bit by bit by bit. So I think it's time for me to get out of the email drizzle for a while, at least to see what it's like on an ongoing basis.

(I intend to still read these mailing list emails periodically, but I'm going to do it in big batches and at a time of my choosing. Over a coffee at the end (or start) of a day at work, perhaps. I'll have to see.)

Comments on this page:

By Ewen McNeill at 2017-06-12 00:54:04:

Glad to hear auto-filing mailing lists is helping. Batch-reading definitely helps. Years ago I used to auto-file mailing lists into a news (ie, UseNet) server and read them there -- the separate client for them definitely helps. These days they're in the same two (work, personal) clients, but auto-filed into folders. It's a bit more distracting, but when I'm busy I can at least avoid digging into those folders, whereas I'll still look at the few emails that hit the inbox pretty soon. (And, eg, only the inbox ends up easily readable on my phone/tablet.)

Conservation of attention is surprisingly important :-)


By Brad Beyenhof at 2017-06-12 11:02:15:

I decided years ago (probably when I was still using Gmail and creating new filters/tags was dead simple) that any email I could recognize programmatically didn't belong in my inbox. Basically, subscriptions of any kind that contain predictable headers and were easy to filter should be filtered. While I've moved everything off of Google now, I still function that way for both work and personal email. Since I can't create tags on the fly any longer, I've had to create pretty generic folders to sort mail into-- including one in my personal email simply called "Filter" for things I don't want to see in my inbox but don't care enough about to segregate into individual locations. Combined with plus-addressing for many of my subscriptions (username+filtertype@domain), I can keep my inbox mostly for irregular and un-predictable emails, which are the ones I care most about anyway.

I believe that judicious use of email filters is much like paring known good log entries out of log files.

Doing so allows the more important things (which aren't filtered) and / or unknown (as of yet) things to bubble up to the top of the mailbox for further scrutiny.

Once you have sufficiently good filters in place, you can be fairly confident that if it's in your inbox (read: didn't match any filter) then you may want to look at it. Chances are good that either A) it is a high value message or B) you want to write a new filter.

Further, filtering allows you to quickly identify that you have a message from a mailing list or a message from a registrar that you may want to take action on in the next couple of days. - Either way you can easily get a rough idea what the message is / who it's from (base don the type of rules you write) without actually reading the email.

I view these types of filters to lower the mental burden of going through email. - It let's me use my mental CPU cycles on something that I deem more important / enjoyable.

Written on 11 June 2017.
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