Oliver Roick

Simple Email Automation

For me, email always worked. At Development Seed, we use GitHub to manage all daily operations, yet I don’t use GitHub’s notification system to receive notifications. I rely on emails. I even wrote a service that collects new posts from my favourite blogs and sends a summary via email once a week because I find it easier to process that way. I’m striving to get as many notifications as possible into my inbox because I’m good at staying on top of it. Getting Things Done is pretty much the only consistent habit I formed, and it keeps my inbox close to zero.

Earlier this year, I moved my personal email away from Google Mail. I tested HEY initially but ended up with Fastmail because I don’t receive enough email to justify HEY’s price tag.

What stuck with me, however, is HEY’s approach to managing incoming emails, designed to separate the important from the unimportant, to create clarity. Every email is automatically redirected to a specific mailbox before you even see it. Depending on the type of email, you get to decide how all future mail from an email’s sender should be treated. HEY knows four types of emails; each has its own mailbox:

  1. Regular emails such as newsletters or product updates that you want to read but rarely require immediate action. You would skim those emails like the front page of a news site or your Twitter feed. These emails go into the Feed.
  2. Transactional emails, including payment receipts, delivery notifications or booking confirmations. You may need them in the future but normally no action is required. These emails go into the Paper Trail.
  3. Other emails are important, emails from personal contacts, your kid‘s school or the once-in-a-blue-moon notification from your local boozer about their new food menu. These are emails you need to read or want to read, reply or take action otherwise. These emails will be sent to the Imbox [sic].
  4. What is left are emails that you never want to pay any attention to, such as unsolicited emails from recruiters or Facebook reminding you of the birthday of an old acquaintance that you haven’t spoken to in twenty years. If you decide not to receive mail from someone, you’ll never see any emails from them again.

I like this approach because it separates the emails you should pay attention to from the emails you may pay attention to and the ones you want to keep around — just in case.

Fastmail has a powerful filtering system, which I use to process incoming emails. Depending on the sender’s email address, most emails are redirected to one of the following mailboxes: The Feed for newsletters and the Paper Trail for transactional emails. On top of that, I have a Marketing mailbox where I send all advertising emails. Any email that is redirected to one of these mailboxes is automatically marked as read. I never receive a notification about these emails. Emails in the Feed and Marketing mailboxes are deleted automatically after 90 and 30 days, respectively. I keep emails in the Paper Trail forever.

All other emails land in the inbox, which I process a couple of times per day. With all other emails out of the way, my inbox now contains emails that need my attention. They either need a reply, an action, or I haven’t added the sender’s email address to one of the filters before. After I process an email, I will move it to the archive, where I keep emails forever.

Creating the filters in the first place was cumbersome. While the process is built into HEY’s application, which allows you to assign filters with a click on a button, I had to process all emails and manually add the sender’s address to a filter. Once, after about two weeks, I added the majority of emails addresses to a filter, this new approach started to pay off. But there are occasions where I miss an important because it is routed to one of the mailboxes. When I received a new credit card, notifications about failed payments were sent to the Paper Trail because the services used the same email address they used for sending payment receipts.

Most of the time, though, this simple automation works surprisingly well. I now have days when I don’t receive any emails in my inbox at all.