Handling Email (Part V) Putting it all together

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

(This is now the fifth installement in the series on how I manage email. You might want to start with the begining. Read the most important one on why you need a mail program. And look thru the rules I tell my students (which contains my way of collecting email addresses). Lastly checking out the way I sort email and keep my inbox clean.

Keyboard Shortcuts, Tossing Email and a Screencast

In this post I am going to cover most of the final pieces: how I “toss” email around (Act-On), how I check email start to finish, and a few other misc. items. Finishing it all off with a screencast.

First Up: Keyboard Shortcuts

Generally speaking Keyboard Shortcuts are the single greatest thing one can do to improve time spent on the computer. One of the things that I like about the Mac is how well these work across a range of platforms (which is not to say that this doesn’t happen in Windows, but not to my liking). And while you should try to use these as much as possible across all applications, I thought I would point out a few key ones for handling mail. This page at mozilla lists many of the keyboard shortcuts you will need across a range of mail programs (the ones I list below are for Apple Mail).

You don’t need to learn them all, you can slowly add as you go (you can try printing them out and posting them next to your desk to reference), but for now definetly learn: Get New Messages (Command+Shit+N), Hide-this will “put away” the program when you are done with it (Command+H), Compose New (Command+N), Send (Command+Shift+D) (that’s D as in deliver as S is for save), Reply (Command+R), and Forward (Command+Shift+F). This way I can check my email by hitting F3 (this is a Quicksilver Hotkey) + Command+Shift+N and than put the program away when I am done with it Command+H, never reaching for the mouse.

Quick Hint

Set your mailbox to not automatically refresh/get new messages. Most people have their mail program running all the time, and checking for new messages every five minutes. This makes mail feel like an always possible interruption, do I really want the semi-profound thought about Heidegger I am writing in my dissertation interupted by the noise of a new email? Instead turn off auto-refresh and get used to checking email when you want. (Seriously the first time someone told me this I thought, “you’re crazy” I love auto refresh, but now I would never go back. To check email only requires one extra keystroke.)

Next Up: Act-On

Like I covered in the last post, the key to handling email effecitively is getting it out of your inbox and into the place it needs to be in order to deal with it. This alone will make your email life so much better. Now you could just click and drag each email into the appropriate folder, but this would take time, and require reaching for the mouse with every email. Plus, it ends up being a little to easy to accidently drag it to the wrong place. Enter Act-On. This is the most ridiculously useful email tool, other than a mail program. Act-On is for Apple Mail only, but if you are a Thunderbird user try Quick File it works pretty much the same way. (If you are an Outlook user your on your own—actually just give it up and switch to Thunderbird it will make yours and everyone else’s life easier.) Act-On allows me to press a simple keyboard shortcut and sort or “toss” if you will the email to where I want it to be. So, for example I get an email from a student which I want to put in my Student Respond folder, I just press Control+R and the message is automatically moved to that folder. (Act-On works by adding rules in the preference window—see the Act-on page for instructions on how to set this up. Warning: This can be a little tricky, it might take you an hour or so to set-up but it is worth the effort I promise.)

A Screencast

So you can see a screencast, putting this all together. But before you click on over to google to see it, a few notes. First the resolution isn’t that great, you can’t read the text, when I made the screencast I tried to talk thru most of it, but I didn’t realize how low the final resolution on google would be. So you might first want to look back at the screencaptures from earlier posts as that way you can get a sense of the folder labels which are unreadable in the screencast. Second, this is my first stab at making a screencast tutorial so be nice please (actually I am trying to get this down for something else coming up on this blog which will need screencasts). I will look into ways to host higher resolution ones later, but for this one you can get an idea of what is going on—it pretty much just gives you a walk through of everything I talked about in the prior posts. Finally it isn’t clear in the screencast but Act-On has a “hot key” associated with it, so when I say “toss” it to c”lasses” I am pressing “Control (My Act-On Key) + F (The key I have designated in Act-On for classes.). Click for the Screencast on Handling Email.

And that should wrap-up my thoughts on email, I might have a few misc. posts along the way, but if you get to handling email this way it turns email from a nuisance and hassle (like all those prof. interviewed by the NYTimes opined) and makes it into an excellent pedagogical tool and time saver (I actually enjoy getting emails from students as it shows that they are invested enough to carry class time past the walls of the Humanities building).