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For a long time I used Apple Mail to process my email (gmail accounts, Microsoft accounts, and a random POP account or two). I created an enormous catalogue of folders in the folder sidebar on the left-hand side, and any time I didn’t want to lose an email I would drag it into an appropriate folder. This worked fairly well, as keeping my emails corralled into folders meant that there was about a 95% likelihood that I could find an old email pretty quickly if I was working on a related task and needed to refer back to an email. I coupled the folder strategy with an inbox-zero strategy, meaning that my goal in processing emails was always to get my incoming emails out of my inbox and into an appropriate folder (or the trash).

I can’t say that using Apple Mail brought me any joy, but it sufficed and I probably would have stuck with it indefinitely if it hadn’t started using enormous amounts of CPU every time I opened it up, such that my (not even a year old) macbook pro would start running its fan like crazy to cool itself off, and 1 out of 3 times would freeze up completely, as if paralyzed by my backlog of emails.

Fed up with my computer crashing constantly, I started researching other email programs. I tried:

  • Microsoft Outlook (very cluttered, early-2000s interface, with no advantages over Apple Mail in terms of utility or aesthetics)
  • Spark (great for people who don’t use the inbox-zero method–it’s visually impressive, and actually makes email fun)
  • Airmail

I settled on Airmail, because it makes email almost as much fun as Spark, but works with the inbox-zero method. Aesthetically, it is a huge improvement on Apple Mail–everything looks cleaner, more appealing, and more… like it was actually designed in the present day. I don’t mean to over-emphasize the importance of aesthetics, but a boring, menial task like email processing can feel like so much less of a drag if the interface is attractive. Of course, functionality and speed are also critical features, and Airmail rises to the occasion in those areas as well.

Once switching to Airmail, I did have to make a fundamental change to my workflow, as Airmail doesn’t fully support folders (technically, it does, but it’s a very clunky process to drag an email from one email account into a folder in another email account). I decided to try abandoning folders, and instead use Airmail’s processing buckets. By “processing buckets” I’m referring to the three main ways that Airmail stores email:

  • The archive (not ideal on its own, because you can only find emails if you remember searchable words in the email, or the date or exact sender)
  • The to-do folder (this is where I send emails that have an outstanding task to be completed)
  • The memo folder (this is where I send the very few emails that are important enough to save for future reference, but not important enough to save to pdf and store in my iCloud folders)

Having only three buckets to dump emails into would seem problematic in terms of retreiving past emails when you need them. I solved that issue with two processes:

  1. If an email has an outstanding task, I link it to to-do item in my task manager (Things 3), and then send it to Airmail’s to-do bucket. That way, I won’t forget about the task that needs to be done because it will show up on my to-do list
  2. If an email would be helpful to refer to when working on something, I use the Edit → Copy Message Link menu option, and paste the link to that email in the appropriate place (e.g., in the notes of a calendar event if it’s the Zoom link to a meeting, or in my research notes if it’s an email related to that part of my research). I then archive the email, confident that I’ve linked to it in the areas where I would most likely need to refer to it.

Overall, I’m really happy with the new system. Airmail has functionality that works for me, and is much more aesthetically appealing than Apple Mail or Microsoft Outlook. I would highly recommend it to anyone who works with the inbox-zero method (and if inbox-zero is not your thing, then you may prefer Spark, or Hey).