Sync’ up! … without getting drained

sep 11

Inbox-zero via shell mail

I can’t remember when I switched from web-based email to mail in my terminal. It still feels right — now years later — despite the weird looks I get on occasion from those I divulge this to. All else being equal, mail in the shell has proven to be a winner in ameliorating ‘inbox hell.’

The shell could be equated to a type of non-musical instrument: with years of practice, the shell can become a mere extension of your will. So much so, that when it’s time to do something in pointy-clicky land (a web browser), the relative sluggishness of getting around, is profound.

A never-ending inbox tide is no match for a guru of shell mail. Here’s a fun Malthusianism with regard to my always-lean inbox that can help make the point:

I never have too much email, because if I did, I would find (even more) shell shortcuts (Zsh/Bash hacks & otherwise) & UNIX hacks to get that email count right back down to a manageable number.

That is to say, with mail in the shell, your small shell programs pave the way for manageable email.

Specific wins

There are quite a few solutions to get mail in your shell: I’ve never used anything other than NMH — for me, it gets the job done. Whatever solution you end up going with, you’ll probably notice a few gains over the traditional web-mail work-flow.

Here are five highlights of shell mail:

Look Ma, no sites (offline email)

Albeit this was never an issue for email users circa 1990, but Hotmail and now Gmail has made huge bites in the email space, meaning, a lot of us rely on Internet connectivity to even access our email. Needless to say, you can do quite a few things with shell mail when there’s no Internet access.


Unless I’m browsing the web, I’m in the shell. And at this point, my skills are most honed when on the keyboard. Simply put, I can move around quickly so long as I don’t have to grab that darn mouse. In moving from keyboard, to mouse, is a time-wasting cost. This long-tail cost does add up. And I would guess, adds up to a staggering level over the years.

Familiar editor (‘vi’ in my case)

In the same vein as mouse-less navigation, imagine writing your Gmails using your most trusty editor. Every time I deal with web-mail, I can’t lean on my lightning vi skills when writing mail. Losing this efficiency is an absolute time-killer, and a shame, too.


At least with my setup, when I want to check email, I pull the trigger to bring it in. Unlike Gmail whereby mail arrives asynchronously, having some push-back on what sits in front of you & when, is a big perk.

Filtering level-10

If I had my way, the world would adopt my filtering system. It makes for a lean inbox & it scales incredibly well. Without going into detail, I’ll just say that with all the building blocks UNIX gives us, imagine applying a few of them to your emails. Piping things around, formating text just so; in no time, processing an email barrage becomes quite easy.