Email


Trying Out a New Email App, Big Mail

8th July 2021

I’ve been experimenting with email again over the past week. This time it was trying out the new email app, Big Mail.

I won’t do a full product review, but I just wanted to write about my own experience with the app, where it excelled, and also where it also fell behind.

So, if you haven’t heard about Big Mail, the shortest description that I can give is that it tries to combine a great reading experience, with a screening tool similar to Hey, and the automatic sorting features of SaneBox, into a universal mail app.

It sounds like an incredible app in theory. But I’ll be upfront, in its current state, Big Mail is not the mail app for me. Let me explain.

First things first, I really like the design of Big Mail, on all platforms. And I totally get the idea of having a place for discovering new emails, separate places for newsletters, purchases, etc. and an email screener is handy to block unwanted email.

I currently pay for SaneBox (which I disabled during this experiment), so I definitely think I’m in the target audience for this app. But I’ve felt that the sorting in Big Mail isn’t that proactive and that I’ve had to assign categories to emails as they come into my inbox. This organisation is supposed to be “intelligent” and “automatic”, and maybe it is working as intended, or possibly it requires me to kick off some base data for the AI to kick in? Either way, it feels like I’m doing way too much manual sorting for it to be useful. SaneBox has possibly affected me in this regard because it’s worked so well for me, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s doing enough.

As for the reading experience, I’ve found that to be pretty good. I especially like the little touches such as the little accent colours and format when reading newsletters. There’s a decent amount of things you can do to an email, there are things like reply later, sort into a category, always ignore, starring an email, and the expected ones that all other clients support.

The major issues I have with Big Mail, except for the automatic sorting, is actually what I feel should be classified as basic functionality that you would expect in all email clients.

Here’s a list of some of those features that I expect in all email clients:

  • Ability to perform actions on multiple emails at once.
  • Keyboard shortcuts for basic email actions: delete, reply, forward, etc.
  • Access to your folders.
  • Swipe actions to quickly perform basic actions.
  • Drag and drop functionality to move emails into categories/folders.

The problem is, none of those features are available in Big Mail.

As much as some parts of the app I like and enjoy using, if the foundations aren’t there, then I simply can’t use it. So, I’m going back to Apple Mail on all of my devices for now.

I’ve still got hope that Big Mail can turn into a great product, and they seem to be listening to feedback already (It launched without an archive feature for one). So hopefully I can come back to it in the future and give it another go because there’s definitely potential.

The Many Forms of Triage

13th April 2021

Inboxes can be wonderful things. They can be a source for news, communications, and more general notifications. But like most things, inboxes can become overgrown. And a little gardening is required to keep everything tidy and make the inbox as efficient as possible.

Most people call this a "triage", which is essentially a process where you analyse your inbox, either when new items arrive or regularly, and immediately do a form of manual filtering and sorting.

What About Some Real Examples?

The most common example would be the email inbox. Everyone seems to have at least one email address, and all email (without any automated systems) lands in your inbox. It's then up to you to deal with it. A triage process here could be regularly visiting your inbox, immediately dealing with junk email, filtering out any actions that need to be taken, and moving the rest of the emails to their appropriate place. Maybe you want to store email confirmations in a folder, or there's some news that you want to read.

This process can take many forms and can be used in a vast number of situations. Many of them can be narrowed down to a form of an inbox, be it for emails, RSS feeds, or even the notifications on a device. But I also think triage happens in life, especially when you need to deal with many decisions as you go through life.

In my opinion, we all need to do a bit more triage nowadays because of the abundance of choice. Whether it's content being thrown at you from various places, people/companies trying to get your attention or just a stream of decisions you're presented with. With a bit of manual triage, you can discard unnecessary choices early on, prioritise essential decisions, and leave the rest for when you're more interested later on.

How I Perform Triage

When I think about triage myself, I'm essentially sorting things into five categories:

  • Anything that I need to do
  • Actions that aren't urgent but maybe interesting
  • Important information
  • Junk
  • Everything else

The first action I do is remove the junk and anything else that I'm not interested in. I'm usually quite harsh with this part. Because I've noticed that if I think that I'm probably not interested in something, then it will just linger in my inbox until I've deleted it at a later date, so I may as well deal with it as soon as possible.

The second thing is to filter out any actions that I need to take. Maybe a bill needs paying, and I've received an email, perhaps a user of one of my apps has contacted me, and I need to get back to them. No matter what it is, if it's something I need to do, it gets placed in my task manager (GoodTask) and prioritised.

After that, I work out if there are any actions that I want to do but don't necessarily need to do. These things may be interesting newsletters, any interesting article that comes through RSS, or a notification that I might want to deal with soon.

At this stage, I've dealt with everything urgent and potentially interesting. The final steps are relatively quick because any important information is sorted into relevant places. For example, emails with account information go in a specific folder, order confirmations in another, etc. Everything else can then be archived or deleted depending on whether it could be needed in the future.

Of course, after this process, nothing is finished. I'm left with actions in my task manager, interesting newsletters, a trimmed down reading list in my RSS reader of compelling articles, and maybe a few notifications on my phone that I'll need to deal with. But at least for that moment, the triage process is finished. And everything is more prepared for when I actually want to deal with the tasks later on. It's essentially keeping on top of things, trying and please my future self, and ultimately saving time and effort.

A Few Tips

After dealing with inboxes of many kinds and slowly working out how to quickly and efficiently triage items, here are a few tips that I think may help people:

Delete all junk and anything useless straight away. This may sound obvious. Because, why wouldn't you delete junk? My point specifically is that you should do this first. Because filtering out nonsense is probably the least taxing part of this process, so I find it best to get this out of the way first before taking a bit more effort to sort items on things like urgency and importance.

Don't be afraid to remove something that isn't interesting. This follows the same aim as the above point, where the idea is to clean first and then deal with whatever is left. I found that I usually kept "interesting" articles in my RSS reader for ages, and while it bugged me that the kist kept growing, I was sure that these things might interest my future self. It turns out they never did. I've now learned that if I'm not interested in something, whether it's a newsletter, article, or anything, I archive it. My future self can search through the archive if it turns out to be important.

Try not to take too long. The purpose of triage is to filter and sort items that come in an inbox quickly. So the longer you spend on this task, the less valuable it becomes. Because if your triage process is lengthy, you may as well deal with the actual items properly.

Determining non-negotiable can cut down time. I think this applies to most life decisions and can apply to things like triaging email, cleaning your RSS feed, choosing a holiday destination, buying a computer... Because you can make nearly every decision faster if you can eliminate anything non-negotiable early on. Maybe it's that your holiday destination needs to be a certain distance from a beach, your computer needs to be light and easy to travel with, or that you're not interested in a particular topic. By eliminating these things early, you can reduce the mental load of a decision and spend more time on what remains or spend less time and make decisions quicker. One example that I have is that I'm not interested in US politics, so if I get a podcast episode in my inbox or an article in my RSS reader that's focussed on US politics, then I get rid of it without hesitation. I can then spend my energy on something more important to me.

Going a Step Further With Automation

I wrote about my experimentation with email a while ago, and a major part of my end solution was the addition of SaneBox. The main benefit of SaneBox for me was to act as an automated form of triage. So when emails come into my inbox, news gets moved into a specific folder, the junk gets filtered out, and some emails that aren't important are moved to a "Later" folder.

A lot of this functionality can be built up manually with email rules that most providers support, but the advantage of SaneBox is that you can teach it. So, for example, if I get a newsletter that it hasn't picked up, I can manually move it to the @SaneNews folder, which will inform SaneBox that this is a news item, and it will be automatically sorted the next time an email from that sender is delivered.

I haven't had a lot of dealings with email automation, but I have set up various sorting rules in a few email accounts before, and it can be a very valuable tool. And like I just said, SaneBox is a level up from that, so if you want even more power, I would suggest giving that a try. I know Hey also has some interesting automatic sorting features, so again, that's one to look at if you're interested.

You Can Now Send From an External Address in Hey

5th February 2021

One hell of a feature has been added to Hey:

Now you can send email from your @hey.com address plus external email addresses, domains hosted elsewhere, work accounts on other systems, etc.
— Send from an external email address using SMTP

While this won’t entice me to make the switch, since I’m pretty happy with my email solution now. But had this option been available before my experiment, I might have given Hey a try.

I still think they should add proper custom domain support. Then I might be tempted to give Hey a try. Mainly because I could then keep my email address the same, and it should be relatively pain free (except the migration of actual emails if needed).

Experimenting with Email

31st January 2021

I've been annoyed with email for a while, and I wrote recently that I wanted to find a new way to deal with it. I was mainly thinking about services like Hey, but I was also concerned that it's essentially an email replacement, not an email service that can be linked to other accounts or clients. So I had some thinking to do.

I decided to try and keep a log of my thinking while I tried various things, and then this log began.

The main reason behind keeping a log like this was to keep me trying new things. Even if it was a small tweak, just try one thing and see if it works. And at "the end", I could see my thought process behind the decisions, and the steps I made. I think this is important because I might have made a decision based on a whim, rather than treating it objectively.

There's also the fact that I find experiments fun, and it might be fun for other people to see my thought process.

Current State

I'll start with the current state of my email solution. I have three email addresses, my "primary" email address which is on iCloud, a Gmail account, and also a G Suite account which is linked to this custom domain.

Ideally, I want to switch to using one address, the G Suite one, but I know there's a lot of emails going to the other accounts. So it might be a painful process.

I also want some sort of system of organisation or automatic sorting. Because even if all emails go to one account, not all of them are important. And eventually, I want an inbox that has only important and urgent emails.

So now that's what I have currently, and also a few ideas for where I want to end up.

Monday, 25th January

Entry 1:
After many recommendations, I signed up to SaneBox. I connected all three of my email accounts.

Entry 2:
I shortly realised that dealing with SaneBox folders on three accounts would be a hassle. So I set one of my email addresses (least commonly used one) to forward to my ideal address.

The plan is to write off the third address by slowly dealing with all forwarded emails until none come through. Then I can focus on going from 2 to 1.

That leaves me with this:

  • Two email addresses:
    • iCloud (Primary)
    • Gmail → Forwarded to G Suite
    • G Suite (Ideal)
  • Email Client: Apple Mail (All devices)
  • Email Services: SaneBox

Tuesday, 26th January

Entry 3:
Today I made the decision to remove SaneBox from my iCloud account, leaving it only enabled on the email I want to use long-term.

I plan on slowly moving important accounts and information to my desired address as they arrive in iCloud. Although I’ll have to be aggressive with deleting junk emails when they come in since I want to be able to keep on top of that account still.

Entry 4:
I've seen a few emails being picked up by SaneBox and placed in the @SaneNews folder, it seems to be fairly accurate.

Entry 5:
Strangely, it's becoming easier to deal with emails in my iCloud account. Maybe it's because I know I plan to eventually stop using that account, but whenever an email comes through that I like, I tend to quickly switch it to my ideal address. And the same with emails I don't want, they either get unsubscribed from, placed in the junk folder, or deleted.

Wednesday, 27th January

Entry 6:
My use of email seems to have been whittled down to 6 places, which are probably quite predictable:

  • Inbox (Combined iCloud + G Suite)
  • @SaneArchive
  • @SaneBlackHole
  • @SaneLater
  • @SaneNews
  • @SaneNoReplies

To be honest, I'm not sure if I'll need to keep @SaneNoReplies around since I've only glanced at it once. And I can't remember a time where I've needed to wait a long time to receive an expected reply.

But it leaves me thinking that right now may be a good idea to try out a few email clients. Since I'm not exactly doing anything complicated. Thanks to SaneBox, everything is handled by moving emails between folders, which I assume every email client can do.

Entry 7:
It's time to check out Spark. After a small amount of customisation, I think the macOS app will suit me. I slightly prefer the design to the built-in Mail app, although that's not a big enough reason to switch. But I do like how the sidebar only contains the inbox and favourite folders. It annoyed me that inside Mail, all accounts would be visible. Which was annoying if there was an unread email in the junk folder because for some reason it thinks that's important and shows it next to the account name.

I tried Spark a long time ago and didn't quite like it, but this time I've turned off a few of the features that got in the way. Such as showing avatars, smart notifications, calendar, snoozing, and a few more. It's left me with quite a modern email client.

Although I did leave one feature on, Smart Inbox. I have a theory that alongside SaneBox, this feature may be of some use. It means that any email that isn't automatically sorted by SaneBox may be sorted into separate groups like newsletters, pins, or seen emails. I think I'll have to wait a few days to see how good this actually is.

Entry 8:
After today, my email situation is basically the same, but with a small tweak:

  • Two email addresses:
    • iCloud (Primary)
    • Gmail → Forwarded to G Suite
    • G Suite (Ideal)
  • Email Client:
    • Mac: Spark
    • iPhone/iPad: Mail
  • Email Services: SaneBox (G Suite only)

Thursday, 28th January

Entry 9:
This morning I decided to go all-in on Spark. So my iPhone, iPad, and Mac all have Spark set up. All with the minimal configuration.

Everything seems to be good, except that I've noticed I'm getting a ton of junk mail today. Maybe Thursday is a popular day to send email? Although this does seem to be only happening on my iCloud email. Maybe that's because more people know about that email address, or because I have SaneBox on the G Suite account, I'm not sure. One thing is for sure, and that's I'm looking forward to not dealing with this account in the future.

Entry 10:
I listened to episode 62 of Cal Newport's Deep Questions podcast where he answered questions regarding email. It mostly work scenarios, where you deal heavily with email, rather than a personal inbox. But I did come out with two things to think about:

  • Not everything needs to be an email. Maybe instead of finding a fix for an email problem, the solution is to create a separate process that doesn't use email.
  • Not all emails are equal. Some are more important and urgent than others.

Friday, 29th January

Entry 11:
After settling making the change to having just two email addresses, I'm really contemplating making the switch to just the one very soon.

When I made the decision to forward all emails from a Gmail account to my G Suite account, I imagined I would need to deal with a lot of emails coming through that I needed to migrate. However, this hasn't been the case. This could be the fact that SaneBox is dealing well with the spam, or maybe I just don't get that through that account. Either way, I think I can mark that account as resolved.

The main issue I'm annoyed with at the moment is that my previous primary address (iCloud) just has so much rubbish going to it. I made the decision to not enable SaneBox for this account because I don't want to manage two versions of every SaneBox folder. But I think the organisation and filtering benefits of SaneBox are what I need with this iCloud account. Because otherwise, it might be a bit unmanageable. Therefore, I expect I'll end up setting my iCloud to forward all emails to my G Suite account.

Entry 12:
I had a look through some more email apps on the App Store again, and I decided to try out Canary. Straight away I was presented with the option to upgrade to some kind of pro account, which I wasn't expecting. I don't mind paying for apps, but at least tell me why I should first.

After I found the trial button, I set up one of my email addresses in the app, and I was immediately turned off but the design. It seems like they've taken the native look of Mail but then tried to add their own functionality on top. Except it just looks a bit brutal to me. So I've already given up on that one.

Entry 13:
I did end up forwarding my iCloud emails to my G Suite account, which means I finally have the one inbox to keep on top of. And also, I've got everything going through SaneBox, which I'm finding very helpful.

That means my email situation has changed even more:

  • One active email address
    • iCloud → Forwarded to G Suite
    • Gmail → Forwarded to G Suite
    • G Suite (Primary)
  • Email Client:
    • Mac: Spark
    • iPhone/iPad: Spark
  • Email Services: SaneBox

Saturday, 30th January

Entry 14:
After looking at loads more email apps on iOS, I can't really find one that stands out as being better than Spark for my needs. Mainly because I don't need that many "smart" features, I have SaneBox to do its magic via folders, and that's it.

It led me to try to personalise Spark even more, and I think with what I've managed to do, I'll be settling on Spark on all of my devices.

As I wrote before, I've already customised what folders appear in the sidebar and turned off a lot of features like snoozing, so it was already customised. But now I've had a look at swipe actions and also the toolbar.

For swipe actions, I have these four:

  • Left Short - Toggle Read/Unread
  • Left Long - Move to @SaneLater
  • Right Short - Delete
  • Right Long - Move to @SaneBlackHole

I think they're a good fit, and will allow me to do nearly every common action via a swipe.

As for the toolbar, the items I have are pretty similar:

  • Toggle Read/Unread
  • Reply
  • Move To
  • Junk
  • Delete

I think I'd prefer it if I could add more specific folder actions, rather than a single action that brings up a list every time. But I think I'm pretty happy with my client set up right now.

Entry 15:
Since I've got all my emails going to the singular email address now (even if most are being forwarded from other accounts), and that account has SaneBox enabled, I decided to enable notifications for all of my emails.

I wouldn't have done that before this experiment, because I would be getting too many notifications about emails I don't care about. But now I know that most of the unimportant or junk email will be being sorted before arriving in my inbox, I feel a bit better about being notified about my emails.

Hopefully, I'll only see important emails. But if I don't, I know I can move them to various SaneBox folders to further train the service.

Entry 16:
I just read Matt Birchler's blog post, 'How I'm Using Hey Email, Almost One Year Later', and I think the way I've been using my email over the past few days is quite similar. Although, not using Hey.

So it's good to see that how I deal with email, is probably possible to an extent via Hey. I'm not sure I'd use Hey now, because of the lock-in, and lack of custom domain support, but maybe in the future? Who knows.

Sunday, 31st January

Entry 17:
There's been no changes today, and to be honest I don't see myself making any changes for a while. My solution is working well, and I'm pretty please.

I now have four places where my email goes:

  • @SaneNews - Newsletters and mailing lists.
  • @SaneLater - This is a trained folder that has everything that isn't urgent.
  • Apps - This is a custom trained folder that will filter out anything related to my apps.
  • Inbox - Everything else goes here. And if it shouldn't belong in the inbox, I can move it to the correct folder, and SaneBox will do the same next time.

Final Results

I'm pleased to say that I have achieved my goal of reducing the email I receive, only using the one account, having a level of automated sorting, and also having methods to permanently block annoying emails via SaneBox's Black Hole feature.

I'm now using one G Suite email account, Spark as my client on all my devices, and SaneBox to keep everything working smoothly. I'm honestly surprised that I didn't need a ton of extra services to achieve a good solution.

Now, I know this post is very long. And to be honest, I didn't expect my entries to be as large as they are. Some of them could have probably been blog posts on their own. But I do think that having everything together and in order is much more valuable.

Even for myself, having this log to refer back to while doing this experiment has been helpful. That's why I think it might also be helpful to others that are wondering about what to do with their email solution.

I could have simply written a post at the end of the experiment with my final decisions and how I ended up with a solution. But I think with that, a lot of thinking would have been missed. So not every decision would have been clear. It reminds me of having to include your working out" when doing maths at school, rather than just writing the answer.

I'll probably end up doing more experiments like this in the future. It seems effective, and hopefully interesting to read.


Photo: (Yannik Mika via Unsplash)

Dealing with Email

25th January 2021

I’ve been thinking a lot about email recently. It’s been a thing that’s mildly annoyed me for some time. But the episode Federico Viticci and John Voorhees did on App Stories about email and switching to Hey, triggered me to properly think about my situation and my options.

So to explain my situation, I have three email addresses that I regularly deal with. An iCloud one that's kind of been my primary account for quite some time, a Gmail address that is tied to my Google account and a few other things online, and a G Suite account with my chrishannah.me domain.

One thing I've wanted to do for a while is to use a singular email address for everything. Ideally my @chrishannah.me one. I think I could make that work relatively easily, but it would most likely take quite a long time until I could be sure that everything important has been migrated. However, that's only one improvement I want with my email.

I also want a new way to deal with email. I find that too much nonsense gets through to my inbox, and even if I have filters to move some emails to various folders, it's still visible and distracting. So I want to stop some emails getting through to me, but also once I’ve dealt with an email I want it to get out of the way.

All of this is very much making me think about giving Hey a try. Except for the fact that I don’t want an @hey.com email address. I don’t want any new email addresses. But, if they add support for custom domains, I think I would at least give it a try. Although I do have some more reservations about Hey. Such as paying quite a large amount of money for an email service, when others are free. And also that from what I’ve seen, I’m not sure if I like how emails are organised once they are dealt with.

Maybe what I need is a client-side change, and that’s certainly possible since I only use email on the usual devices — iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Or maybe it’s something like SaneBox that I should try since I could migrate my emails slowly to one, and at the same time keep my current client apps (The default Mail app on all devices).

No matter what happens, I guess I’ll be thinking about email for some time.

I’ll try to write about anything I try along the way, and hopefully, I can find a solution that fits my needs.

Steve Jobs Knew How to Write an Email →

29th January 2018

In 2010, Jobs and Apple were preparing to release the iPad. A key feature would be the tablet’s ability to function as an e-reader, similar to Amazon’s Kindle (which had already been out for a few years). Of course, the more publishers willing to contribute books to Apple’s iTunes store, the more appeal the iPad would hold.

Four major publishers had already signed on, but another, HarperCollins, was holding out.

Negotiations eventually centered around a key conversation between Jobs and James Murdoch, an executive at News Corp. (HarperCollins’ parent company). Murdoch wasn’t convinced his company (and its partners) could agree to the terms Apple was offering, especially regarding the “ceding of pricing to Apple.”

Jobs proceeded to write an email to try to convince HC to join.

This is a very intriguing piece, and while I’ve seen some articles before about “the best” ways to write an email, this one email seemed very well formed, in a whole manner of aspects.