I should stop reading some mailing lists during breaks and vacations

December 24, 2016

The university is on its annual Christmas break now, which is giving me the valuable opportunity to reflect on some things about how I deal with breaks and their bigger cousin, vacations. Now, first off, I should say that for me breaks are different from vacations in that they involve less disconnection from work. On vacation, I'm not supposed to do anything work-related and that includes reading all work email; on breaks, we're still sort of vaguely monitoring the systems and so on.

(This monitoring is on an unofficial basis. Officially we could all go to Australia for a no-Internet vacation and if the systems melted down while we were gone, well, they'd only get fixed on the first day of work in January.)

I'm on a number of general, outside mailing lists primary because we use the things they're about at work; these are, for example, the Exim mailing list and a couple of OmniOS ones. I don't participate in these lists purely to do work things (I try to be a good citizen and answer things when I know them), but it's clear that if it wasn't for work I wouldn't be on them. Naturally these mailing lists keep going through breaks (and vacations), delivering a steady dribble of traffic into my normal inbox.

Well, you know what? I should put a stop to that. When I'm on break, this trickle of traffic is far more distracting and relatively time consuming than it is during work. Instead of reading it right away, I should arrange to file all of this mailing list traffic away in a separate place and only catch up on it when I come back in January. Yes, maybe I'll miss a chance to be helpful (or at least be prompt about it), but it's healthier for me to disconnect some more than I currently am.

Of course this leads to a broader question of whether it's a good idea to let these mailing lists wind up in my inbox even during work, giving me a little interruption every time. If I'm not actively asking questions or involved in conversations on the mailing lists, perhaps I'd be better off always filing them away and only dealing with them a few times a week in concentrated blocks of time.

(My traditional reason for not doing this is that in practice, doing this causes me to wind up completely ignoring the mailing list for weeks on end until I remember that oh yeah, there's this file of email I want to go through. Except that by now it's dauntingly big, so maybe next week.)

Sidebar: Why I don't just read them through Gmane

The simple version is that gmane.org is decently good if all you're doing is reading a mailing list but it gets increasingly awkward if you're actively posting to the list and participating in conversations. This is especially so in the modern era of spam where many mailing lists want you to be subscribed to the list before you can easily post to it.

Comments on this page:

By James (trs80) at 2016-12-24 11:39:02:

I believe the optimal way of using Gmane is to be subscribed but with mail delivery disabled.

I am a bit surprised you don't file mailing lists away automatically, that was one of the first things I did with procmail ... which was nearly 17 years ago now. At work everything comes into my inbox (I use Thunderbir and Mac Outlook) (originally because Exchange 2007 didn't do server-side filtering, now we're on Exchange 2013 which does, but I just haven't bothered) but living in Australia most mailing list activity occurs overnight, so I generally just select them all and file away, going back later when I have time.

How much personal email do you get to your work address? I've got them pretty well separated fortunately.

Really the biggest time-waste when I got through my email in morning is too many low-entropy automated emails. Each one seems like a good idea but they have multiplied over the years and are becoming a significant timesuck.

I have all my mailing lists filtered via procmail recipes go to to .maildir/.Mail\ Lists.<Mail\ List\ Name>/. I do similar with email from my RSS2EMAIL gateway.

That way I can simply minimize the Mail Lists / RSS folders and (mostly) ignore them until I'm ready to slog through them. - I am also free to only partially slog through them and leave the rest for a future slogging. ;-)

If a particular mailing list (et al) is important enough to not be ignored for weeks on end, I leave it in my inbox, where it will annoy me until I act on it. (Yes, I'm one of the people that strives for Inbox (near) Zero.)

Maybe you want to buffer up mail from each list until a threshold, and then deliver that batch to your inbox all at once? (Something far away from daunting – maybe a dozen messages at a time, maybe 20, maybe more depending on your reading habits… whatever still feels quick to take care of.)

Written on 24 December 2016.
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