Managing the daily onslaught of incoming email with filing systems, keyboard shortcuts, and batch processing will only get you so far. When a flurry of new email snows you in within an hour of every inbox sweep, it's time to dig in and get to the source of your email traffic. You've accumulated a sizable email archive over the years, and a new breed of analysis tool can extract meaningful statistics from that data to help you conquer email overload. Who sent you the most email messages last year? What hour of the day do you receive the most new messages? Which of all the mailing lists you're on are the most active? A new command line tool called Mail Trends works with Gmail over IMAP and can give you all that information and more.
Let's take a look at what Mail Trends tells you and how to run it on your Gmail account.
What you'll need
To start analysing your email usage with Mail Trends, you'll need:
- A Gmail account (Google Apps Gmail accounts work too) with IMAP access enabled.
- The Python software. (Windows users, download and install it from here; Mac/Linux folks, you've already got it installed. I tested Mail Trends using Python 2.5 without problems.)
What you'll get
After you run Mail Trends from the command line with Python, you'll get a regular web page full of interesting information about your email usage. Mail Trends logs into your Gmail account, grabs the "message headers" (sender, recipient, subject, date) from your Gmail "All Mail" folder, and generates charts and lists with statistics.
My Mail Trends results reveal a few too many email addresses to post in full, but here's my daily email traffic chart, which shows I receive the most email around 10-11AM each day:
Here's what the month of March 2008 looked like on my personal Gmail account. Notice the lower activity on weekends. (Not surprising.)
When I ran Mail Trends on my Lifehacker email account, I wasn't surprised to find out that Adam is my most frequent sender and recipient. However, people listed a few lines down on my Top Sender and Top Recipient list did surprise me. Who you email and how often can give you interesting insight into your communication habits.
What's the point?
While it may seem like self-indulgent data-wanking, Mail Trends and tools like it can help you make informed decisions about how you handle email. For instance, you may find out that the person you send the most email to is your co-worker two cubicles down—and decide to meet in person on a regular to discuss more things offline. If that mailing list you lost interest in months ago is generating a lot of inbox traffic, you could unsubscribe. If you want to process your email in batches, at certain times of day, you could use Mail Trends' time of day chart to figure out what hour brings the most email to your inbox on average, and schedule your processing time around it.
Setting up Mail Trends
Before we start with Mail Trends, know that this is a command line operation using the Python scripting language. Judging from the comments on the project homepage, some users have run into kinks setting it up (though I got it down with just a couple of tries.) Comfort with the command line and a little past experience with Python will make using Mail Trends easier. If that all doesn't sound like your cup of tea, check out the lower section on easier-to-setup alternatives to Mail Trends.
Still with me? Ok, assuming you've already got Python installed on your machine, here's how to get Mail Trends going. (Note: these instructions assume you know how to navigate directories from the command line. See also Mail Trend's Getting Started page.)
- Download and extract Mail Trends to a convenient directory on your computer. Using your command line,
cdinto that directory.
- Download Cheetah, a template package Mail Trends needs to work. Install it by changing to the Cheetah directory and using the following command:
python setup.py install
(Mac users: you may have to prefix that command with
Windows users: download the compiled version of Cheetah's NameMapper here. Save to the Cheetah directory—by default,
C:\Python25\Lib\site-packages\Cheetahand remove the version from the filename so it's just
mail-trendsdirectory, and execute the Mail Trends command. See the Getting Started page for a rundown of the options. I used the following command:
Make sure you substitute [email protected] with your email address.
- If all goes well, Mail Trends will start up and prompt you for your Gmail password. Enter it, and watch the program go. Mail Trends speed will depend on how fast your machine and network connection is and how many messages you've got in your account. The first time I tried Mail Trends it hung up at about 24,000 messages. When I restarted it, it completed successfully—on both Mac and Windows, and both a vanilla Gmail account and Google Apps account.
Note that you can tell Mail Trends what addresses you send mail from (using the
me= parameter, and also exclude mail based on criteria (like
—filter_out=to:[email protected].) Play with the program options to come up with the best recipe for your Gmail setup.
Once Mail Trends completes processing, simply open the
mail-trends/out/index.html file in your favourite web browser to check out your charts and lists.
Other email analysis tools
Previously mentioned Outlook plugin Xobni is still in invite-only beta, but it looks like one of the best up and coming email analysis tools for Outlook users. Check out the video below for a Xobni demo.
The Seek Thunderbird extension adds "faceted search" to the 'bird. While it doesn't generate usage reports a la Mail Trends, it does list frequency numbers based on date and recipient as you search. Here's a video demo of Seek:
Have you given Mail Trends or other similar tools a run on your email archive? Find out anything interesting? Tell us about it in the comments.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, is cutting off email overload at the source. Her weekly feature, Geek to Live, appears every Tuesday on Lifehacker AU.