Getting to Empty

Today I reached a milestone I haven’t seen in years: an empty inbox. Well actually, not quite, but close enough. There are now exactly 423 messages in my inbox and each one of them has one of four labels:

Something needs to be done about this message
A tidbit I’ll eventually post one of my web sites
Something I’ll need in the near future, but not until I get a response from someone else
Read and Review
Something interesting to look over when I have a minute, but not urgent. Mostly weekly updates from sites like IBM developerWorks and JavaWorld.

Along with Thunderbird’s built-in “Unread” label and sorting by date, these allow me to quickly and easily see what I need to deal with at any given time. Only the relatively small number of “Action” messages actually require me to do something. News, Waiting, and Read and Review can all be managed as time or interest permits. This also means I shouldn’t lose track of messages I need to reply to or act on for months, as I sometimes have in the past.

Several thousand other messages have been archived into various folders. This is all part of my ongoing efforts to implement David Allen’s Getting Things Done program.

This takes care of my primary technical e-mail account, I now need to repeat this for my more personal account And then finally I’ll need to pull in the ten years of old messages I archived in Eudora before switching to Thunderbird a couple of years ago. I’ve tried to import those a few times, but it’s never really succeeded. Maybe now that Qualcomm and Steve Dorner are working on the problem I’ll finally be able to fully make the transition sometime next year. So really I’m just beginning, but this is a huge start.

Filing Systems

One reason it took me so long to get to this state is that Thunderbird’s filing system is quite poor compared to Eudora’s, itself not a model of perfect efficiency. I’ve filed several RFEs asking for improvements.

What’s Thunderbird really needs is an additional layer of indirection. (Isn’t that always the answer to almost any programming problem?) Currently Thunderbird tightly couples the message storage to the message archives, and it shouldn’t. These should be independently settable.

For example, suppose I have an e-mail from my agent about the contract for a new article about unit testing. (A real example.) Which folder do I put it in? The folder for my agency? The contracts folder? The testing folder? The articles folder? I’d like to put it in all four categories, but Thunderbird only lets me put it in one, because it only puts it in one directory. If the categories were decoupled from the storage units, I could put it in all four categories at once, and then more as the need arose.

Labels help, but I only get five of them; and I can only assign one label to each message. Fortunately Getting Things Done only uses four main labels; but that doesn’t suffice for archiving and filing.

There is hope on the horizon though. Thunderbird 2/3 (exact version number not yet determined) plans to add message tags. These will be like labels, except that you can have any number of them and apply more than one to a message. That’s pretty much exactly the information model I need.

I’ve played with the first alpha of Thunderbird 2 with this functionality, though it’s not ready for day-to-day use yet. I’m not confident the UI for this will work. For instance it’s too hard to add a new tag, and there’s no tag view like there is today a folders view. perhaps this can be improved before the final release; but if it isn’t, perhaps I can skin it or improve it in some way. It’s at least aiming in the right direction. And if Thunderbird doesn’t pull this off, there’s always Penelope.

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