Quick Archiving in OS X Mail

July 2, 2007

Originally posted to ydnar.vox.com in July 2007.

Last year Michael Sippey clued me into his method of managing the deluge of email he receives every day. I was in a similar predicament: My inbox (and assorted Rules-based folders) of mailing lists and various specifically-addressed email was becoming a source of frustration.

His system was simple: Have two mailboxes: Inbox and Archive. Use “smart folders” and search for the rest. The goal is to keep the Inbox folder as close to empty as possible. Messages in the Inbox are effectively a to-do list. Messages in the archive require no immediate or further direct action on your part.

I was able to delete 20-odd mail rules and replace them with this simple logic: If the message was sent to a mailing list, therefore not requiring immediate action, then move it to the Archive folder. If it looked like a bounce, spam, or anything else not requiring immediate action—file in Archive.

This let me reduce my email parsing time to a few seconds: I could actively read and respond to messages in my Inbox, and when I had free cycles, read messages in the Archive. I estimate my throughput for reading/responding to mail increased by at least a factor of 5. Email, previously a giant time-suck, shrank to a manageable slice of my day. I knew that I could realistically devote as much time as necessary to each message in my Inbox, since it was limited to those specific mails that I would most likely have to act on.

OS X has a nice feature: You can assign a keystroke combination to any menu in any application. Just name the menu, and voila: It has a keystroke equivalent.

The single most common operation I do in OS X Mail is “Move to Archive.” I assigned a keyboard shortcut (Cmd+Shift+A) to the “Archive” menu. Unfortunately, Mail chose to apply this to a pop-up menu buried in a dialog box, not the top-level Message > Move > Archive menu.

On Saturday, I was trying to figure out why the iPhone did not let me set an empty IMAP root path (it always reset to INBOX). I eventually gave up and tried another approach: I moved the Archive folder to inside the Inbox folder. This saved me time in two ways: Dragging & dropping a message from Inbox to Archive was now a shorter process: The folders were adjacent to each other in the sidebar. Second, Mail added the keyboard shortcut I’d originally defined to the correct menu!