Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Using Thunderbird Efficiently

I get a lot of email.  Some of it I even respond to.  A lot of it I would like to respond to it, or follow up on it in some way at some point in time, just not immediately.  I don't have all of my email being dumped into a single folder, and I use multiple email accounts too.  What do I do?

I needed a setup that would allow me to:
  • Mark messages in a way to follow up later
  • Get a quick look at all the messages I've marked for follow up
  • Have that quick look work across multiple folders/accounts
  • Be able to get context for the message, including my replies
So what have I done?  Lets start with the first item.  Thunderbird has a multitude of ways to mark messages.  First, I could just leave the mail unread.  That's a pretty good indication that something needs to be done.  But I'm a tad OCD and I really dislike there being unread messages in my important folders.  Next Thunderbird has this concept of Tags.  It provides you with a bunch of default tags, and a way to add more.
Tags kinda work, but an IMAP server might not support them, and thus you wouldn't be able to share tags across clients.  The next option is marking a message as "Starred".
Star me!
A star seems to be well supported by IMAP servers, and across the clients I was playing with.  This solves the "Mark messages for follow up" problem.  Thunderbird conveniently has a keyboard short cut, 's', to toggle a message's starred state.

The next requirement was getting a quick look at the things I needed to follow up on.  Thunderbird can search your messages, and you can include the starred state in the query.  Further, you can save your search as a folder for convenient access.  See this article for how to setup a saved search.  I'll spare you the details here.

Now that I've got a folder I can click on to see what needs to be followed up on, I need to get context for those messages.   Right now I'm just looking at a flat list of starred messages, no thread details.  Enter a lovely feature: "Open in Conversation".
These conversations kill
This is an extremely useful feature for me.  Not only will it open up a new tab (which is awesome by the way), it'll populate that tab with a threaded view of all the mails related to that starred mail.  All the mails.  That includes my own replies.
See you in Hell!
In a multi-pronged thread with multiple participants, one can quickly lose context as to what's been replied to and what hasn't.  Being able to see my own replies intermixed with the rest of the thread is pretty awesome.

Now, if you're following along at home and have noticed that your "Open in Conversation" menu entry is greyed out, fear not!  This feature depends on the "Global Search and Indexer" being enabled.
My name is Gloda
If this isn't enabled, enabling it will spike your CPU for a bit as TB gathers information about all your mail.  After that initial hit, I haven't noticed any performance overhead.


So that's how I stay on top of my email.  It keeps me efficient, and lessens the likelihood of something falling through the cracks.  A friend who's been a TB user for years wasn't aware of this feature and after describing it to him I realized other people might not be aware, so here ya go!

Happy Emailing!


  1. Nice post, thanks.

    Have you run into issues where Thunderbird improperly threads messages? I have, and it makes the "conversation" feature useless.

    1. I've only seen that once or twice, usually because somebody is using a broken mailer that doesn't contain the right threads. I think there is an option somewhere to try and thread by subject line too, but I've found that does more harm than good, or did, in some mailer, I don't know. Wait, who are you? Why are we here? WHAT IS GOING ON??!