Master your inbox with mu4e and org-mode

In the following I will put forward my philosophy on handling emails and then show how this is realised in emacs using mu4e and org-mode.

I couple of years ago I read an article by the economist Tim Harford which hugely influenced the way I handle my emails. The ideas in the article are not unique but they really struck a chord with me. My email philosophy can be distilled down to one key concept:

your inbox is not a todo list

Like many people I used to keep emails in my inbox as a way of reminding me of something I needed to do, but the fact is that an inbox is a rubbish todo list.

I also had folders for putting emails in and I would occasionally have a painful cleanout of my towering inbox, agonising over which folder to put an email in, or whether I should create a new folder for it. No more! As long as your email programme has a good search, then it is quicker to search than to use a filing system.

Now when I check my emails, I do one of the following

  • delete if it is rubbish
  • read and delete if it is not something I’ll need to revisit
  • read and archive if it is something I might need to look up again
  • reply and archive if it is something that will take less than a couple of minutes to reply to and I have the time
  • add to todo list and archive if it is something that requires an action or just needs a longer reply than I have time to write

To use this system effectively, all you really need is: (i) an email client with a good search function so you can archive all mail in the same folder and not worry about filing it neatly, and (ii) a good system for adding tasks from your emails to a todo list.

The mu4e email client in emacs, combined with org-mode for todo organisation is the perfect way to do both of these things. There is very good documentation on how to set up mu4e on the project web page, including configuring it to work well with gmail, so I won’t go over that here. What I will say is that mu4e is built on mu, a powerful email indexer so it has all of your search needs covered.

Apart from searching, mu4e integrates very well with org-mode to make it seamless to generate todo items from emails. To set this up, add the following to your emacs config file

;;store org-mode links to messages
(require 'org-mu4e)
;;store link to message if in header view, not to header query
(setq org-mu4e-link-query-in-headers-mode nil)

Now update your org-mode capture template to something like this

(setq org-capture-templates
      '(("t" "todo" entry (file+headline "~/" "Tasks")
         "* TODO [#A] %?\nSCHEDULED: %(org-insert-time-stamp (org-read-date nil t \"+0d\"))\n%a\n")))

This looks like the version we had before, but the extra %a adds a link to the file you are visiting when you invoke the capture template.

The beauty of this is that hitting C-c c t now generates a todo item that contains a link to the email you are currently viewing. So you have zero friction in creating a todo item to e.g. reply to an email by a certain deadline, and you can happily archive that email knowing that clicking the link in the todo item will take you directly back to it.

I moved from thunderbird to mu4e a couple of months ago and really haven’t looked back. The things I missed at first were some of the extensions I was using to: create email templates; remind me about attachments; and add a delay to outgoing email so that I could have an “undo send” functionality. Happily I’ve found solutions to all of these in mu4e and I’ll be covering them in future posts.