Insomnia-Fueled E-Mail Management Musings

I just saw Khoi Vinh’s post on managing e-mail and since I can’t sleep, I figured I’d tell you how I manage e-mail. I use OS X’s for work mail and Thunderbird for my personal stuff (I like keeping them separate). I don’t get a ton of personal e-mail, but I get between one hundred and three hundred e-mails a day for work (during the week, 50-70 on weekends) between projects, internal listservs and CSS Working Group stuff. That number’s been as high as four hundred during the AIM Pages crunch last year, I was getting more than five hundred a day.\
I’ve managed that load for more than five years, and have found a couple things that keep me sane.

  1. I have a smart folder called Unread Messages that has only messages I haven’t read in it. Instead of peering at threads and a thousands-message long inbox, it contains only the stuff I haven’t read. I have another smart folder that has messages received in the last 36 hours. I almost never go into the Inbox view, because there’s just too much stuff there.
  2. Respond right away. If you can’t respond in a couple minutes, open the message in a new window and get to it after you’ve filtered the rest.
  3. Do your e-mail first thing. I spend the first half-hour of the day filtering e-mail and respond, and then get to work. I’ll check back every hour or so and filter again, depending on what I’m working on. If I’m coding and in the zone, then I might only check at the end of the day, but if I’m in meetings, it’s more often.\
    That’s pretty much it. My work day is an exercise in interruption management. Between e-mails and IMs from co-workers, I deal with hundreds of interruptions a day. It’s funny, but when I really have to get something done and don’t log in to AIM or open my e-mail, I miss the interruptions. I don’t know what to do with myself.\
    Sad, isn’t it?

Hello, Ficlets

It’s been a very long day, and it’s not over yet, but I couldn’t let the day be done until I posted about this. Today, we took the covers off of the project that I’ve been working on for the past three months: ficlets. It started as this little thing I was going to do all by myself to learn Rails, and ended up what you can see over on the site.\
I don’t even know what to say about it, really. Cindy, Jason and I have been dancing around it so long on twitter, calling it Ape Shirt, that talking about it now in the open feels kind of weird. But, here we are. There’s more information about what it all means on the ficlets blog.\
Ficlets is very much an experiment (we like to call it “a prototype we just happened to launch”), and this is our very first release (we’re the first product in AOL to roll out on Rails, so we’ve still got stuff to learn about it…). So, things may go weird and wonky from time to time. Just give it a minute, and then reload.\
I am truly fortunate to work at a company where I can get away with stuff like this. This started as my own little thing to do on the side. When I realized that it was actually a pretty cool idea and that I didn’t have the time or talent to do it all myself, I presented it at a meeting, and the next thing I know, I’m working on it full time with a small team of amazingly talented people. It was a pirate project in the best sense of the word. We didn’t really do a project plan or start with a big committee. It was four people in a room, working towards something we were all geeked about. From the beginning, we treated it like we were in a startup, very few rules, no defined roles (except that I got two votes, and Kerry got three). It worked so well, and we had too much fun designing and building it.\
I never imagined it would look so good, or be so much fun. For that, I have to thank the designers who worked most closely on it: Cindy Li, Ari Kushimoto, Jenna Marino, and Jason Garber, who did 99% of the markup (all the good stuff), the CSS and most of the javascript (I worked on it some, I swear). We make such a great team, and I’m so proud of the work we did. We had lots of other help too, from folks who helped design the stickers, buttons and shirts for SxSW: Shadia Ahmed and Jayna Wallace, to the folks who played around with concepts early on: Elisa Nader, Elsa Kawai, Tom Osborne and Justin Kirk.\
There are tons of people to thank, and a lot of people helped out. We had tons of support and “air cover” from Kerry and text and language help from John, Amy, Suzie, Nancie and Erin. My pal Tony was an immense help figuring out how to deliver everything in working order to the Greatest Ops Guy in the World, Dan, and Kelly helped us bend a few rules to get all the other opsy bits in order at the last minute. We had legal help from Holly and Regina. And my bosses let me steal Jason, and go work on it, so big thanks to Alan and Bert too.\
This has been so much fun, I think we should do it again. I have big plans for our little story site…\
One last thing… if you’re going to be at SxSW Interactive this weeked, come find me. We’ve got some lovely stickers and buttons to hand out (while supplies last). I should be pretty easy to spot. I’ll be the big fat guy with the ficlets shirt on (well, for two days… ).\
Now I have to go finish packing!

OK, Who Else Twitters Around Here?

Twitter was my only real “connection” to the online world while I was in Mississippi (no EVDO, no wi-fi, don’t like sharing other peoples’ computers unless I have to, etc), and I keep slowly finding other pals who’re on it. I like the immediacy of updates and how easy it is to turn them off when I don’t need the interruptions. I like the simplicity of the interface, and it’s just a fun way to keep up with what everyone’s doing and write really short stupid things while in between things (waiting rooms, stop lights, elevators, etc).\
So… do you Twitter? I do. What I’m really asking, if I’m not bein’ too forward, is will you be my twitter friend?

Digging the Twitter

Because I’m a big Odeo fan, I heard about Twitter through their RSS feed. I checked it out, and it seemed like a nice diversion but I didn’t really get it. Now I do. Since I have friends that have started using it (thanks Cindy and Jason), it’s become a lot more fun. I post updates all the time (well, now that I’m on vacation, what else do I have to do?), and keep the chat window open all the time.\
If you’re online all the time, and have friends who are too, it’s a fun toy. It’s not going to help you get any work done, but sometimes that’s a good thing. It’s a good way to keep track of what your friends are doing in whatever “medium” you want – IM, SMS, RSS, or on the web page.\
They even have a nice little JSON interface! If you go to the home page, and look at the bottom of the page, that’s pulled in from Twitter and shows my last three updates. Neat, huh?


Instead of paying for the hotel’s network connection, I decided to give my brand new EVDO card a shot. I was talking to one of AOL’s VP’s about my presentation and trying to find the time to write demos and she asked what I would do if I had a budget. Of course, I told her I’d get an EVDO card so I wasn’t held hostage to crappy hotel networks. Well, here we are, and I’ve got one, and it works!\
I checked my mail at the airport, worked on my presentation and fixed a couple bugs in the demos last night in the hotel, am uploading pictures to Flickr and it’s going OK. It’s not as fast as a wired connection, or even a solid wi-fi connection, but it’s fast enough to get things done. E-mail’s no problem, and even uploading photos is going smoothly. Connecting using Verizon’s expresscard modem is pretty seamless as long as you remember that it’s more modem than wi-fi card (and remember to disconnect before you put your machine to sleep.\
If you can get work to pay for it, I’d do it. If you work for yourself and are on the road all the time, I’d do it. It made the flight delay bearable because I could get work done while sitting in the terminal, and it gave me an option when the hotel network was unacceptable. I would bet that I’ll probably use it to give a presentation here at some point (hopefully not today, my demos are kind of bandwidth intensive).\
I woke up at 4AM, probably because I didn’t eat dinner last night and I’m hungry. Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t open till 6. So, I took some pictures in the bathroom. Enjoy.

Highlights in an Otherwise Disappointing Day

I’ve been sick all week. It finally got bad enough that I went to the doctor today and… I’ve got bronchitis. Hooray! I’ve got steroids and an industrial-strength decongestant to try to get the gunk out of my chest. I’ve been exhausted and in pain all week. I’m still exhausted and still in pain (it’s amazing how painful coughing gets after a while). The one bright spot? I got to drive my car to the doctor’s office, and it was great.\
The only other bright spot was that Jen finally has her own laptop, and she’s running linux! It’s a swanky used IBM ThinkPad T40 from Ombligo. It’s now running Ubuntu and she’s happily surfing, e-mailing and playing with background images. The install was painfully easy. The only weird part was getting the wi-fi working, and getting it to stay working after a reboot. But, even after fixing that, the total install, install updates, install missing software (RSS reader, Thunderbird, blog client) and fixing the wi-fi took about an hour (off and on between coughing fits and naps).\
Gotta look for the little bright spots.

E-Mail Management Tip: Unread Messages Smart Mailbox

I get a lot of mail. When things are humming, on the order of two hundred to three hundred a day. It’s a little slower now because a lot of people are on vacation, but not much. How to deal with all of it? It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of time, especially if I miss a day.\
Since I started using Apple Mail ( for those in the know), I’ve fallen in love with Smart Mailboxes. On top of the 30-40 filters I have to shunt messages into appropriate folders based on listserv or project, I have a couple smart mailboxes, the most important being Unread Messages. I created a new Smart Mailbox with a couple parameters: Message is Unread, and not in my outbox (or various other AOL IMAP folders I don’t care about like “Spam”).\
Having a single place for all my unread mail that collapses to empty when I’m done, and is sorted by thread, has saved me all kinds of time. I can quickly scan threads, making sure I only respond to the last message (or sometimes only read the last thread because it should have the whole conversation in it) and can take care of things right then, or flag them for later (that’s another smart box).\
It makes mail more like reading feeds, which makes me happy, and might make you happy too.

Presentation Remote Solved

Instead of forking over over \$30 for a new remote to use for presentations, I found mira a little System Preference pane that lets me map the buttons on my brand new MacBook Pro’s remote to other applications. It took about 45 seconds of fiddling to get forward/back mapped to the up and down arrows and voila, I have a presentation remote.\
I love Mac developers. If I’ve got a problem, there’s usually a beautifully designed easy to use solution already out there.

AIM Pages and Safari

I’ve seen this now a couple places, and figured I’d comment on it (not in an official way, but in a “I feel your pain” way). The current falderal is about AIM Pages and Safari and how it doesn’t work yet. We tried, honest we did. But, Safari has certain “issues” with its DOM support (it’s a standard, ya know) and other javascript features. We did our best to work around them and get things working, but when it came down to crunch time, we had to concentrate on the big two (Firefox and IE). We will support Safari. We’re actually very close, just have a few annoying things to work around and it’ll be done. We love Safari. All us Mac users on the team were really sad that we had to drop it for the first release. But, we had to.\
It actually has very little to do with standards compliance. No modern browser is fully DOM 2 compliant. No modern browser is fully CSS 2.1 compliant. They all have quirks. We’ve found more one-line crash-causing javascript commands working on this project than I can count. We’ve found things to hate in all the browsers.\
I used to think that browsers were in a pretty good place, especially Firefox and Safari. I was wrong. They’re all too slow, too quirky and aren’t reliable enough. They all crash too easily, take too much work to do things the “right” way, and in most cases, it’s actually better to do things the wrong way because that’s the way the browsers “like” it. For example, it’s way faster, takes less code and uses less CPU to use innerHTML than creating DOM nodes and appending them. If the right way’s not the right way, it’s the wrong way. Until the browsers actually reward using the standard, there isn’t much point. The rewards for using semantic and valid markup, and good CSS are well known. There aren’t a lot of rewards right now for using the DOM.\
But, where was I? Oh yeah, Safari… we’re working on it.