My best idea ever – can you help me find an implementation?

We probably agree that Email is THE killer application on the Internet. It’s simple and humble, but it’s critical to everything businesses and individuals do today.

And, we know that everyone suffers from information and task management overload.

My idea: When I send email, I want to set an “expectation” for a response, for my own reference and my own follow up. It might be “no response expected”, or “two days”, or “today”. Maybe it’s a slider I drag before I hit send. If I don’t drag it, the default is ‘nothing expected’.

If I don’t get a response within my set expected interval, I want my sent message to reappear in my inbox so that I can “reply” to the person I sent to and say “bump” or “how about this?” – or pick up the phone. (No, software should NOT annoy the recipient!)

The goal is to delegate and forget, never needing to keep in my head all of the things I’ve sent out as tasks and items requiring response.

This sort of follows the Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy of committing everything to a system you trust, then forgetting about it and getting on with life.

I don’t want to bug the recipient, this is just a sender client side concept. The tool would look for a reply (Subject: Re: blah) to satisfy the expectation.

So my thought is that this is THE missing feature of email, and that someone must have written a Thunderbird extension. But, no luck finding one.

Which brings me to my request of you: Ask your social network (the techie ones, anyway) if they’re aware of a tool for Thunderbird that reminds you to follow up on emails which have not been responded to?

Okay, I hope this isn’t REALLY my best idea ever, but it’s a decent one, and I hope you can help me find an implementation.

Please reply with comments if you find this feature, or have any suggestions or feedback.

  • If I need to make sure the recipient responds, I copy the first line of the email into my “Waiting For” list. The line of text is there so that I can return to the email I sent (using a search function that searches a mail folder for a string).

  • I think your asking the wrong question: “how do I use email to manage my to-dos?”.

    I think email is great for communication, but not at all well suited for task management; my guess is that you will get a lot more out of a tool built for this kind of thing rather then trying to make your email work like a to-do list.

    Check out Lifehacker’s blog post on this:

  • Augie, interesting point. But, I am not trying to maintain my own to-do list so much as to assure that items I’ve delegated or asked about get the response I’m expecting within the interval I’m expecting it. It really is fundamentally a messaging function, I believe.

    To duplicate this in a to-do list, I’d need to add a new to-do item for almost every email I sent, eg “Did Augie respond re: Blog moderation question”, and set the to-do item to be due in 48 hours, hidden until then.

    Then when you respond I have to remember that this was pending, and go find the to-do item and mark it done, while replying “Thanks!” to you.

    I send & receive on average almost 300 emails per day, and would need to manage to-do items for perhaps 1/3 of them. Yikes.

  • Leo, after seeing your post I’m interested in writing an extension into Thunderbird for this task. I personally would find it very useful for myself as well. It would be my first Thunderbird extension, however if you would like to get in touch with me, we can coordinate some features specifically to address your issue.

  • Dane sorry I meant to address this to you, it was feeded via Leo so I got a bit confused, however It’s an excellent idea and I’m still searching for an existing solution but no dice as of yet *breaks out his coding bible*

  • Thanks for the thinking about the concept and the idea of writing some code Anthony. Keep us posted if you do!

    It’s just amazing to me that every day, we send email, and we just HOPE we’ll get a reply, and we have to WORRY about it until we do. I want to send and forget, and be reminded if my expectation of a response isn’t eventually met.

  • Here is an idea.

    Sonic Dot Net probably employs a trouble-ticket, issue-tracking or bug-tracking system. Perhaps it could be bent to your purpose if a significant fraction of those 100 emails a day are sent to people who are already familiar (or willing to familiarize themselves) with this issue-tracking system.

  • Dane:

    I’ll put that feature into Outspring Mail for you. But you’ll have to switch over to a Mac to use it. In the meantime, our Deferment feature will get you halfway there.


  • Seriously Jeff, the capability to use email as a trusted system rather than just “fire and forget” (or fire and try to remember if you don’t get a reply) would be a killer application.

    If you’re the first to implement it, I predict that Outspring Mail will enjoy a huge uptick in adoption and lots of good press. I’d be happy to switch for this – my PC is just a web browser (right side of screen) and an email client (left side). The OS matters little, it’s just an appliance for running Thunderbird, Firefox and as needed, Open Office.

    I’ve been using email and various clients for a lot of years, and I really, really think this is THE missing feature.


  • Mark Lowery

    What is Thunderbird? If it is linux I have very little experience with linux. I have Fedora Core 4, on a P3 500Mhz with a 8 gig HD
    (which is going dead). I don’t do much with it. Also I thought about fractal encryption ( watch too much star trek) but I am positive it CAN be done. If anyone wants to send me e-mail about thier thoughts on fractal encryption, my e-mail is

  • Randolph Garrett

    Somehow I would think contact management software (I know, sales oriented but…) would handle it. I would think Act! and Lotus Notes (OMG – wiki says it’s email software, I thought it was several components like office) *should* integrate into email programs like Outlook by way of plug-ins which MS products seem to support, others should.

    Anyway, I think that reading the concept some people would get the wrong ideas. This appears to be a 100% email software feature or a simplified plug-in from task management software, a resend system sans the ridiculous to-do list activity and other over complications.

    I just wish software development companies would listen to and have an avenue for customer ideas but we are a “patent happy” society, lord knows I am with my to-do list software I’m wanting to develop but that is more because most to-do (I mistakenly call PIM but actually it’s to-do / tasks oriented) is poorly made / designed.

    I’m sure a programmer thought of it but the “pointy haired boss” stopped it or shelved it! 😉

    Reading the Wikipedia entry: You know, why isn’t your office using Lotus Notes? Just kidding!!! 🙂

  • Graham Freeman

    I share your email-centric view of how to manage work life. 🙂

    How about this:

    You set up the following time horizon folders:


    Every time you want to flag a message for follow up, you copy or move the message to the appropriate folder. Maybe you also have corresponding email aliases that you use in the BCC: field so that you can flag it while composing a message.

    On the systems side, a cron job runs frequently to scan for messages (assuming maildir format rather than mbox) that are due to for a good tickle. When their time comes, the cron job runs a procmail script that sends you an annotated copy of the message in question, arriving in the top (or bottom) of your Inbox.

    Et voilà, GTD in action.

    I’m sure that Augie or Kelsey or someone will have less IO-intensive ways of doing this, and hopefully someone has a more intuitive way of naming the folders, but I think the idea is sound and the implementation wouldn’t be too difficult nor would it require any changes on the MUA.


  • Hoai-An

    This is not exactly what you’re looking for. But Outlook 2000 has a follow-up flag. When you click to start a new message, you can click the little red follow-up flag and it allows you to select a followup date. When that item is complete, you right-click the message (in your case in your Sent Items folder), then select either Flag Complete or Clear Flag. To modify the date, open the message and click the flag icon.

    Outlook 2007 has upgraded that feature, though I doubt it’s as smart as you’re asking for: with the ability to notify you only if a message has *not* received a reply within a specified time.

    Though it irritates me to support Microsoft, it has been very responsive to adding features requested by business customers. That’s part of the reason for its complexity and bloat.

    It’d be nice to see the Thunderbird community take on this feature.

  • Hoai-An

    Outspring Mail has a way to defer messages for a specified amount of time. And they’re even based here in Santa Rosa!

    The catch: It’s only for the Mac.