Posts tagged Taglocity

ClearContext and My Quest for an Empty Inbox

In a previous post I talked about my quest for an empty inbox and all the tools I tried along the way. Well, I’m at it again. My previous tool of choice, Taglocity, has taken a turn toward online social/collaborative email in their 2.0 release. I’m afraid that 99% of the email I handle is work related, and our big lumbering IT department would never allow a rogue server, inside or outside the firewall, collecting corporate data. Likewise, getting said lumbering IT department to establish their own server would be equally unlikely. The social/collaborative approach might be the next big thing, but I need help now. The final nail in the coffin was that some of the features that originally sold me on Taglocity 1.x are no longer supported in their 2.0 beta release. Given the new direction, those features won’t likely return.

So where does that leave me? Well, I went back to my notes and started to think about what kind of help I really need. Here are the requirements I came up with:

  1. Need a quick way to triage and file email. Filing must be effortless, otherwise I will resist doing it
  2. Needs to be a stable tool that works well with Outlook 2003 (yes, I’m still stuck there… see comment above related to the big lumbering IT department).
  3. Need to strip out the spam and low-priority reference email & notifications
  4. Need reminders for my own actions as well as follow-ups for requests I send to others
  5. Must fit into my GTD workflow… In general, that means I need a way to create tasks and appointments from email and somehow tie related tasks/emails/appointments/notes together to form a “project”.

After recasting my net and re-evaluating the latest versions of all the tools I had previously considered, I came across a gem that I hadn’t given a chance the first time around: ClearContext IMS. It seemed to meet all of the needs I described above, and there was even a trial version available… Off I went.

CLEAR CONTEXT FEATURE WALK

After using the tool for over a month now, I am starting to see some nice benefits from the various features. Here’s a look at the highlights as well as some improvement opportunities for the ClearContext development team…

FILE MESSAGE, FILE THREAD. ClearContext does a fantastic job with filing (my #1 requirement above). One of the best features is being able to bring up the topic selection dialog (ALT-P) and type just a few characters of the topic name to narrow down the list. ALT-M will file it from there (no mouse required). What is especially nice is that your don’t have to remember any prefix or top level folder name since a match even in the middle of the topic name will select it. Additionally, You can choose to file the original message while typing your reply right from inside the reply window. Nice touch!

Two needed improvements for topic filing are:

  1. Please, please, please guys add a >> READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>

Taglocity’s AutoTag Engine: CRM114

The main feature that attracted me to Taglocity was its ability to automatically classify and tag messages. My dream was that email would arrive, be pre-sorted for me, and that only the important messages would be presented. Since it was already tagged, I would only have to dismiss the window after reading each message. No filing would be required.

The technology isn’t quite there yet, but it’s going in that direction. To automatically tag messages, Taglocity uses the open source CRM114 engine. For those of you who are fans of the movie Dr. Strangelove, the name “CRM114″ was lifted from that movie as described here. CRM114 was created as a spam filtering engine. A message has to meet a certain set of criteria to be able to pass through, otherwise it is blocked. See the diagram below.

The characteristics of “spam” and “not spam” messages are stored in a CSS file. Even though the .css file extension is commonly used for “Cascading Style Sheets”, it has nothing to do with style sheets or web page layouts in this context. (You will certainly, however, feel more “stylish” when using AI technology to parse your email.) Anyway, in the CRM114 world, CSS stands for “CRM114 Sparse Spectra”.


So what is in a CSS file? Well, the file contains hashed information describing a particular type or class of email. The contents are counts of various words and phrases that have been observed in emails known to belong to that class. If you open the CSS file >> READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>

Taglocity Workflow

Here is a description of my basic workflow in Taglocity. I originally posted this as a reply to a question on the Taglocity forum. Here it is again with some actual screen shots thrown in.

First off, I have a rule in Outlook that sets the @Incoming tag to each incoming email. When I scrub my inbox, I will tag the mail with any additional project/descriptive tags. I will also decide to set the @Now tag, or the @FollowUp tag.

Setting either of these tags removes the @Incoming tag. It will also move the email either to a working folder (@Now), or to a follow up folder (@FollowUp). This is kind of a simplified version of the GTD folder set. I really don’t need that many folders, so I’ve combined the Deferred, Waiting For, Snooze, and Someday folders into one folder named @FollowUp. One additional thing you may notice in the screen shot above… The @Now folder has the “Show total number of items” option set in the folder properties dialog. The @FollowUp folder has the “Show number of unread items” option set in the folder properties dialog. This way, the @Now folder nags me to work on it, where as the @FollowUp folder does not draw my attention.


Once a week, I check my follow up folder. Items will either be left there for next week, or assigned the @Now flag. This automatically removes the @FollowUp flag and moves the message to my working folder. When I am done working on any message, I set the >> READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>

My Quest for an Empty Inbox

It has been a long arduous journey, almost two years in the making. I almost began to think that I would never have an empty inbox. I got close a few times. Over long weekends, if I gave up my freedom, I could get down to under 100 messages. I just knew there had to be a better way, so I started my journey in earnest…

I started looking for a way to quickly handle and file the 75-100 emails I received each day. I was (and am) stuck with Outlook 2003, so my solutions centered around things that were compatible with Outlook. I had a beautiful intricate hierarchy of folders organized by project, sub-project, sub-sub-sub-project, and well, you get the picture. Once the emails were filed, I could effortlessly browse my way to any email I needed to find. The problem was that most of the emails were not sitting in those pretty little folders. They were sitting in my inbox! Why? Because the chore of filing hundreds of emails each day was loathsome! I would read an email, reply to it, and then just close it. I’d tell myself that there are too many emails to get through, so I can worry about filing later. This ended up being the downfall of my whole system. By the way, if you’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, he spends a great deal of time trying to make the filing system as easy as possible. If it’s hard to file stuff, you just won’t do it and you’ll end up with a mess. At first, my method was dragging emails to the various folders. This was a pain because, most of the time, the folder I needed would be off screen or buried three levels deep. Next, I discovered the “Move to Folder” dialog in Outlook, which was okay. It tended to remember where I was, and could be launched quickly using CTRL-SHIFT-V. That still was too much of a pain, so I needed something better.

From there, I discovered a wonderful utility named SpeedFiler. I downloaded the trial version, and the thing worked great. I could bring up the dialog box with a shortcut key, type just a few characters from the Outlook folder name I had in mind, and presto! A short list of candidates appeared and I could send the email on its way. The trial period ran out, and well, I’m cheap. Very cheap. Just ask my wife. As a matter of fact, a theme you’ll probably see running through my productivity posts is how to do stuff for free or nearly free. At the time I think it was $29.95 or maybe even $39.95 for a license. I balked. I may have bought the tool, but I wasn’t going to shell out any cash without first re-surveying the landscape of available tools. That search led me to my next tool…

Outclass – This is a handy and free utility that integrates the popular open-source tool PopFile into Microsoft Outlook. Wow! This system had two big advantages over SpeedFiler: (1) It was free, (2) It *automatically* categorized emails and moved them into my folders. That was fantastic! Outclass used PopFile’s self-learning Bayesian engine to build a corpus of data and classify incoming messages. It was trainable and reasonably fast. There was a brief second when a message hit the inbox where Outlook would pause. It was a noticeable pause, but not bothersome. The message would get categorized and you’d be on your way. Outclass could monitor a number of incoming folders, and take different actions (such as moving a message) for each folder it was monitoring. After training on about 1000 messages, it got to be pretty darn accurate. I’d estimate that 9/10 messages were put in the right “bucket”. Life was almost good… So what was the issue? Well, for one, Outclass was >> READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>