A brief history of why my email made me cry

A while back, I wrote about how to think differently about email and make it work better for you. Right after I wrote that post, I found myself in the middle of an email crisis of a different kind. After 12 years, I decided to abandon Gmail.

Over the course of a few days, my Gmail stopped checking other accounts and was suddenly, mysteriously throwing just about everything into my spam folder. It was a total work nightmare. Clients weren’t getting my emails, I wasn’t seeing their replies, and not a lot was getting done outside of me cursing and troubleshooting. I tried to hang in there, but they completely lost my trust. I was finally just done with Gmail.

So, now what? I needed a desktop email client that at the very least didn’t make me want to cry. The quickest, most logical choice was the low-hanging fruit called Apple Mail. I’ve used it in the past with varying degrees of reliability. I decided to give it another try, thinking that maybe things have changed in ten years. 


After a week or so of troubleshooting why my accounts were only syncing sometimes and why my flagged emails were disappearing, I was back on the hunt for something that actually worked for me.

Finally, I landed on Thunderbird. It’s a desktop email client from the good people at Mozilla. I can’t believe I’ve been doing without it for so long. Here’s a quick rundown of some features that made me fall in love:

Easy Setup

I’ve been around the block when it comes to setting up email accounts. Even if you aren’t a wizened old email witch/wizard like me, it’s super easy. It’s simple as clicking File>New>Existing Mail Account. What’s even cooler is that the app will do some for the heavy lifting for you by attempting to configure your server settings for you. You only need your email address and password.

I admit that I’m a control freak when it comes to setting these things up, so initially I didn’t trust it and attempted to set up my first account manually. And… I did it wrong. After that I wiped the smug look off my face and let Thunderbird do the rest for me.

Clean UI

I am a sucker for simple. Overbloated software is one of my pet peeves. Some people really love their Outlook, but it’s way too much for me to look at all day, every day. Thunderbird is super simple, neat, and tidy, like my desk. Attention Virgos: this UI will have you feeling right at home.


One morning, I opened up Apple Mail one morning and got a spinning wheel. No biggie, I figured my laptop just needed coffee like I did. So I got my own coffee going, wrote in my bullet journal and came back to… a spinning wheel. This happened so many times in a week that it was killing my productivity. And I have a deep need to be efficient (see Virgo mention above).

That’s one of the first things I noticed about Thunderbird, was it’s speed. It’s crazy fast. When I had IMAP accounts set up in Gmail, I would get client emails in those accounts sometimes hours after they hit my Dreamhost server. Not cool. In Thunderbird, it’s almost like chatting. Yeah. It’s that fast.

Buh-bye Ads. Hello privacy.

One of the things I love about Mozilla is their commitment to online privacy. It’s baked in to Thunderbird. There’s no one mining my email for mentions of Birkenstocks so they can hit me with ads for fuzzy socks later.

Okay, I’ve been sounding like an ad myself here, but I really do love it. When I find something that works, I become an instant evangelist. I’ll hit pause on singing their praises, here’s how to make Thunderbird work for you.

How to do Thunderbird Mail

First, I hope you’ve read my post on organizing email. It will change the whole way you think about email and possibly save you from a life of sadness and pain. If you haven’t, give it a read and come back here. If you have read it, awesome. Let’s get you set up.

Download and Setup

Thunderbird is a free, no-strings-attached download. If you just go to http://thunderbird.net you’ll see a big green download button. Click it and you’re off to the races.

Depending on your system, you will have different steps to take to install.

Mac OS: http://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/installing-thunderbird-on-mac

Windows: http://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/installing-thunderbird-windows

Linux: http://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/installing-thunderbird-linux

When you open up Thunderbird for the first time, it will prompt you to set up an email account right away. If you skip this part, don’t worry. You can go back and do it later (which you’ll need to do if you have multiple accounts anyway). In the menu bar, click File>New>Existing Mail Account. Like I mentioned before, it will even do the configuring for you, just have your email address and password handy.

Using Thunderbird

If you’ve ever used email before (pretty sure you have), the app is fairly intuitive. You can send and receive emails like you always have. If you set up your accounts using IMAP, you should see your existing folders and emails on the server start to show up. If you used POP, I don’t know what to do with you. Just kidding. Here’s a tutorial, weirdo: https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/faq-changing-imap-pop

Underneath the simple, clean interface lies a truckload of powerful tools for searching and organizing your email. One of my favorites (you may have guessed from my post) is tagging. Similar to stars in Gmail or flags in Apple Mail, tagging helps you keep your email organized in a way that works best for you. See Message Tags in Thunderbird for the full tutorial.

There’s an additional step to take if you want to use my personal method of organization. You need to set up folders using Saved Searches. It takes a little bit of work up front, but once you set up those search folders, Thunderbird does the rest. Here’s a peek at mine:

Add-ons and Customization

If you use Firefox, you’re already familiar with the extensions they offer. Thunderbird has those, too and they’re called Add-ons. In your menu bar, click Tools>Add-ons and you’ll get a new window of choices.

There are also themes you can choose from. Personally, I like keeping it basic, but if you like things like walnut or metallic, you can change the look.

Thunderbird also comes packaged with a calendar function that you can sync with iCal or Google Calendar (among others). It’s also a news, RSS and chat client.

At the time of this writing, there’s no Thunderbird smartphone app, but I don’t do much emailing on my phone except for urgent stuff. If you know of a good one, I’m taking suggestions for iOS.

Email is here to stay

My prediction is that we’ll all be using email for the foreseeable future. It’s a platform-independent way of sending electronic messages to each other. I don’t see it going away anytime before I’m gumming my vegan burger bites.

If you’ve been frustrated by lame ads, losing your privacy, or just things not working in general, you should give Thunderbird Mail a try. If you use it, let me know what you think! Or, share your tips and tricks in the comments below or on twitter.

I have a long and weird history with analog organizational products. Starting around age seven, I developed a mild folder fetish, spurred along by gloriously shiny document holders with The Muppets on them. Then there was that year I asked for a Trapper Keeper for Christmas. My mother simply blamed it on my Virgoness and indulged me. Throughout my working life, I’ve kept and discarded too many systems to count. Just hearing the name Franklin Covey still makes my upper lip sweat in anticipation.

A few years ago, I designed a planner myself. It never really took off, but going through that process led me down the rabbit hole of the latest in planner tech, culminating in my purchase of not one, but three Passion Planners. I was sucked in by the idea of planning my life and the gorgeously embossed covers cinched the deal.

After using them for a while, I started to notice that while I had every moment scheduled and all passions planned, I still felt a little chaotic. Something was missing. I was still writing notes and making sketches in other books or on printer paper. There wasn’t room in the little pre-designed boxes for my random shower thoughts and weird doodle ideas. I felt a little hemmed in by all those little boxes. I needed a new system.

Then I found out about Bullett Journaling. Jenni was doing it and sent me to the website. I admit that at first I wasn’t sure if it would work for me. I was still in Planner Denial. I decided to try it for a while and see what happened.

Wait. What is a Bullet Journal?

If you don’t already know, a Bullet Journal is a totally individualized system of tracking thoughts, notes, drawings, and yes, your schedule if you want.

A human named Ryder Carroll created the system.

Diagnosed with learning disabilities early in life, he was forced to figure out alternate ways to be focused and productive. Through years of trial and error, he developed a methodology that went far beyond simple organization. – BuJo website

A Bullet Journal (BuJo if you’re nasty), is more than just another glorified to-do list or boring scheduling planner. Yes, it can be that, but what I love about it is how individualized it can be. If you want to catalogue your DVD library or create a meal plan, you can do it here. There’s no end of ways you can use your Bullet Journal. You can track workout progress, keep a list of places you want to visit before you die, or just use pages for a brain dump (my favorite). I love the analog aspect of taking pen to paper, taking time to get all the things out of my head and stored somewhere I can easily find them. Sure, I can do this on my iPhone a lot faster, but it doesn’t have the same effect on my mental state.

Plus, it’s called a journal because it is one. What I also love about Bullet Journaling is the ability to look back and see what I’ve been doing over the past months or years, and see if I’m growing or still stuck in the same place.

Ryder sells a premade BuJo on his website, but you can pick up any dotted notebook at your favorite stationary store. I got mine at Michaels for under $10. I also picked up some colored pens because I’m a geek about writing instruments.

How do you use it?

There are tons of videos about how people do their BuJo. Seriously, there are endless ideas about cataloguing, listing and brain dumping. On the website, there’s a quick tutorial about getting set up and after that, it’s totally up to you to make it fit your life and your brain.

How Bullet Journaling saved my brain

I feel like I’ve finally found my system. I start every day (before email) by sitting down quietly with my Bullet Journal and planning my day. I’ll create tasks, but I also look back at my year and month to make sure that the things I might do that day are taking me in the right direction.

Throughout the day, I’ll come back to my journal, take some of the buzzing bees in my head and stick them where they belong, on paper. Getting that stuff out of my head frees me up to think other thoughts or just focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s magical.

Do you use a Bullet Journal? If you do, please comment below! I would love to hear about how you use it and what it’s done for you.