By John Gruber
Flow is simple, beautiful project management for busy teams. Try Flow for free →
My email “system”, such that it is, is pretty simple. For each of my main accounts I use just two mailboxes: an inbox and an archive. The inbox is for new mail, and the archive is where all messages go when I’m done with them. I can’t say I follow Inbox Zero, Ringo, but I’m trying. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.
One habit I’ve found to be harmful is using “unread” to mean anything other than “new message”. For years, I’d let email I didn’t want to deal with immediately sit “unread” in my inbox, and I’d eventually wind up with hundreds of “unread” messages. I put quotes around unread because most of those messages weren’t literally unread — I’d looked at them, but then marked them unread because I didn’t want to deal with them yet. Breaking myself of this habit significantly increased my email efficiency.
I have three main accounts, and at this moment, they have 2, 24, and 18 messages in their inboxes. Not zero, but not out of control. At one point about two years ago, I had over 4,000 unread messages in the inbox for my public contact address for Daring Fireball. I had actually read, or at least skimmed, most of those, but at that point there was no way to catch up, and no way to identify the older messages that I’d truly never even looked at.
What I do for messages I want to keep in my inbox after reading, for whatever reason, is mark them as flagged. In my system, all that flagging implies is that I want to keep the message in my inbox. Of those aforementioned 2, 24, and 18 messages in my inboxes at this moment, all of them are flagged, and none of them are marked unread. So while I’m not — and to be honest, never am — at inbox zero, I am almost always, at the end of each day, at unread zero.
In one regard, the iPhone has been a tremendous boon to keeping my email manageable. Pre-iPhone, I’d often fall woefully behind on email from DF readers while I was traveling. The iPhone makes it easy to read messages here and there, a few minutes at a time, throughout the day. Have a few minutes? Read a few messages.
But the iPhone Mail app’s lack of support for flagging has been a constant irritation. The primary thing I want to do with email on the iPhone is triage — most messages I can read once and forget. I’ve written before about the AppleScript I wrote that moves read, unflagged messages from my inboxes to their corresponding archive mailboxes. I don’t bother moving messages from the inbox to the archive folder one at a time, either on my Mac or on my iPhone. I just let that script move them all at once a few times a day.
The problem with the iPhone’s lack of support for flagging is what to do with messages I read on the iPhone, but which I want to deal with later. Most times it’s simply a case of a message which demands a response that would be too long to peck out on the iPhone keyboard. Without flagging, I took to marking such messages unread. But that never sat right with me — both because I’d already broken the habit of using “unread” in this way on the desktop, and because it completely throws off the utility of the unread message count in Mail’s icon badge. I really want the number in that badge to represent new messages, not new messages and all the old ones marked unread because you didn’t want to deal with them on the iPhone.
What I really want is to be able to mark messages as flagged using the iPhone. But, absent that, I’ve come up with a simple workaround that’s worked well for me. Here’s how it works:
In each IMAP account I access from my iPhone, I’ve created a new top-level mailbox named “[Flag]” — one mailbox with the same name in each account. The name isn’t special — I added the brackets because most of my accounts are hosted at Gmail, and “[Flag]” sorts alphabetically before the magic server-side “[Gmail]” folder.
From the iPhone, whenever I read a message I want to flag, I move it to that account’s “[Flag]” mailbox. It takes just two quick taps.
When next I read email on my Mac, I run the AppleScript shown below. The script is very simple — it looks through every IMAP account looking for mailboxes named “[Flag]”. When it finds one, it sets the flag status for every message therein and moves them back to that account’s inbox.
Here’s the source to the AppleScript. If you want to use a mailbox name other than “[Flag]”, just change the string on line 6.
tell application "Mail" set _imap_accts to every imap account set _count to 0 repeat with _acct in _imap_accts try set _flagbox to mailbox "[Flag]" of _acct set _count to _count + (count messages of _flagbox) set flagged status of every message of _flagbox to true move every message of _flagbox to mailbox "INBOX" of _acct end try end repeat if _count is 1 then set _msg_string to " message." else set _msg_string to " messages." end if display alert "Flagged and moved " & _count & _msg_string end tell
To use it, copy the source, paste it into Script Editor, and save the script in your ~/Library/Scripts/Applications/Mail/ folder.