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The Later Box

There have been quite a few email applications introduced into the iOS ecosphere in recent months.

Mailbox, Mail Pilot and Triage are three of the apps that I’ve tried. Each has a focus on managing your email in new ways – primarily they present ways to wade through your Inbox quickly and efficiently with a focus on action.

Mailbox has the ability to flag emails for later, set a timer or date for them to appear again, archive etc. It is an elegant and fast way to do things and I liked it a lot. Mail Pilot takes the same tack but takes Mailbox a step further, working with IMAP mail services beyond just Gmail. Truthfully, I loved Mailbox. If it worked with mail accounts other than Gmail, I would still be using it.

I found that Mail Pilot, despite the premium price compared to its compatriots ($15), delivered a spotty implementations. It was sluggish, slow to refresh and moving a piece of email often left it in a state of limbo. Moving email to an archive and searching for it later, was a crapshoot. Sometimes the email was just gone, only to show up later without any explanation. I’m sure it was related to syncing everything back and forth between the iPhone/iPad, the IMAP account and my mail client (in this case Mail.app). It also used a folder/filing structure that ended up getting quite Byzantine after a few days of use. This was hidden from the user on iOS but I go back and forth between my iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air and having to search through a dozen folders to find out where Mail Pilot decided to file something was less than ideal. Eventually, I would be able to track down the wayward email but it was a lot of wasted cycles and worry.

The aforementioned Byzantine file structure presented another problem in that it left my email account cluttered with empty folders. Maybe it eventually cleans them up but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. I’ll check back on it after a few updates.

Triage was something I heard about on ADN. I was pointed to a Viticci article (as I often am) and I got me interested enough to try it. Triage is simple. You hook it up to your IMAP account and you have two gestures to work with - Up (mapped to Delete in my case) and Down (mapped to Keep). Flicking up will throw the email into my Deleted Items folder and flicking down will leave the email alone, unread in my Inbox. Conveniently, it no longer will show up in Triage when marked as Keep. Why they don’t allow user-mappable gestures to the cardinal directions I’ll never know. If it did, my problems would be solved and this post would be over. Still, it comes close to what I need.

What Mailbox pointed out to me is that I need is a Later box. A place to stick emails that I don’t want jamming up my Inbox but I really do need to act on “later”. Ideally, the number of emails flagged in this way should be relatively few. If it is more than a handful, it is probably pointing to a different kind of problem – the last thing I need is an interim archive. I need two things – a place to hold emails until I return to my Mac and the discipline and discernment to act on them when I get there.

To solve my problem, I employed a mishmash of tools and techniques (as I do). First, I created a Later folder on my Fastmail IMAP account. If an email came that I couldn’t respond to immediately, I would use Sparrow on my iPhone and move it to that folder. Sparrow thankfully makes this painless and fast. Problem solved? Not quite.

The new problem was that I never checked the Later box. Things would go into a limbo state and I’d only remember to check it every few days. It ended up causing more friction than it was meant to solve. What I needed was something that did what Mailbox did so well; when a trigger event occurred, it would move the email back to the Inbox. This move was essentially flagging the email to indicate that the email needed to be dealt with again.

As so often happens, Keyboard Maestro offered a solution. On my Mac Mini “mail robot” (if you don’t have a Mac Mini home server, you’re missing out – those things are really useful), I set up a Keyboard Maestro macro that selected anything in the Later box and moved it to the Inbox every day at 7:30PM. The result is a flexible and extensible workflow that simulates what Mailbox does except with my Fastmail account. Problem solved for now.

My mail setup isn’t perfect yet. If Triage had a left and right swipe action, I could map them to “Later” and “Archive”. That would be quite convenient but, alas, this will have to do for now.

Here’s how it works – mail comes into my Inbox throughout the day and I quickly delete the stuff that I don’t care about using Triage. After deletion, there are usually just a few emails in here. The rest of my processing happens in Sparrow when I have a bigger chunk of time. If an email shows up that I need to hang on to (like a receipt) I can quickly send it to my Archive. If it is something I need to reply to, I do it right then and there. If it requires more thought or will take more than a few sentences, I send it to my Later box for when I get home. Every night, all of the things I deferred throughout the day appear in my Inbox at 7:30PM.

It is not elegant. In fact, its annoying and kludgey. There are too many steps and it involves too many apps. The main advantage the whole messy process confers, however, is that I have a clean Inbox throughout the day which allows me to speed through my email quickly when I get a spare moment . It also wastes a minimum of brain cycles thinking about how to deal with each one. That should do for now but I’ll still hold out hope that Mailbox will one day work with IMAP accounts or that Triage will eventually support a couple more speedy gestures.


Follow Up 5/10/2013:

I changed the automation to just call some simple Applescript which was more efficient and runs more consistently. Here’s what I used.

tell application "Mail" to move messages of mailbox "INBOX/Later"  of account "Fastmail" to mailbox "INBOX" of account "Fastmail"

Put that in a time-triggered Keyboard Maestro macro and you’re golden.