Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Using read status instead of the little red flag for better email management

This isn't a profound discovery, but one that's helped me deal with my email much better. A couple of things had always bothered me about how when I click on a new message in my email app the message immediately switched from the bold unread status to the unbold read status:
  1. I might not have finished reading the message when I had to tend to something else, click on a different message, etc.
  2. I might have finished reading the email but not replied yet, even though the message required a response.
Now when I come back to my inbox, I have no way to know at a glance what balls are in my court and who I just left hanging.
     Most email apps come equipped with a tool to deal with identifying which messages require follow-up: the cute, little red flag (). But I never use that thing—I have to actively choose to call attention to a message rather than choosing not to. I assume that new messages will require some follow-up, so I'd much rather make an active decision to consider a message dealt with than an active decision that something hasn't been still needs to be dealt with. Plus, it's just hard to notice that little flag even if I take the trouble to turn it on:

What good is a flag if it doesn't shout for attention?
     My workaround is pretty simple: forget about the red flags. Instead, turn off the preference to "mark messages as read when displayed in the preview pane" (as Entourage 2004 words it). Now whenever email comes in, the de facto flag (the message appearing bold in the message list, which actually does get my attention) stays set until I choose to turn it off (that is, mark it as read, which in Entourage is as simple as pressing Cmd+T). (I tried to use this trick with my desktop blogreader NetNewsWire, which I use to pick up the sensitive RSS feed from my company's Basecamp site, but, alas, NNW doesn't have the option of turning off the automatic "mark as read". Mozilla's Thunderbird does offer that option, but its handling of RSS feeds is not yet ready for prime time.)
     What are your tricks for dealing with the daily onslaught of email?