Should I Leave Messages On The Server?

By default, email client software programs will delete all messages from your  mail server right after downloading them.  This means that when you click “Get New Messages” or “Check Mail” (or whatever you do to see if you have any new messages) your email client connects to the server where your mailbox account resides and copies all of the messages from the server to your computer. When it finishes, it removes the messages from the server so that the only copies of the messages are the ones downloaded to your computer (or phone or PDA if that’s what you used to check mail).

This is perfectly acceptable for those who only use one device to send and receive email.  These days, though, many of us are likely to check email at home, the office,  the coffee shop and on also on phones and PDAs.

If the email clients on these devices are downloading and deleting email from the server, then one that gets there first gets the mail and the other devices never see these new messages. Worse yet, since there’s often no telling which device is going to download messages at any given time, you may never know which device has which emails.

Fortunately, most software programs have options to allow you to leave messages on the server even after downloading a copy.  Used correctly, the ability to leave messages on the mail server can be a powerful tool for managing and organizing your email communications.

So how do you prevent all of these clients from competing with each other for the email in one mailbox?

Coordinating mail access from multiple devices

To solve the problem, you just need to prevent your email clients from immediately deleting downloaded messages. (For now we’re just going to stop deleting altogether, we’ll revisit the timing of deletes and archiving later.)

With web-based clients, like the one you’re probably using at the coffee shop, this is easy: Just don’t delete anything. Webmail interfaces do not download and delete messages, they just display what is currently on the mail server.

For everything else we have to find the email account configuration options.

To some extent we’re going to leave finding the configuration options as an exercise for the reader but we’ll provide a few hints:

  • In Windows programs look for “Options” or “Account Settings” under the “Tools” menu.
  • In Mac OS either look for “Preferences” under the main program menu or the “Edit” menu. You might also have to look for the “Tools” menu as more Mac programs are adopting this convention.
  • Phone apps will vary but most should have a menu within the email client application that allows you to change settings.
  • For all of the above, the option to leave mail on the server is going to be per email account so we’re looking for account specific settings (so it’s more likely to be under “Account Settings” than “Options”.)

The specific setting you’re looking for is probably going to be a check-box labeled:

  • Leave messages on server

If this is checked it will activate additional options, such as:

  • For at most “n” days (where “n” allows you to enter a number)
  • Until I delete them

These examples are from Mozilla Thunderbird which is what we all use here at OnlyMyEmail. The phrasing may vary slightly from client to client but whatever the options are they’ll have the same meaning as the above.

All you need to do now is check the box next to “Leave messages on server” and click “Okay”, “Apply”, “Save Changes” or whatever needs to be done to apply the new setting.

Once this is done for every program that checks the email address in question,  then all of your devices will have access to all of your inbound messages.

A note about checking email automatically

Somewhere near the settings described above there will also be settings that instruct your email client whether and when to check email automatically. These will be something similar to:

  • Check for new messages at startup
  • Automatically check for new messages every “n” minutes (where “n” allows you to enter a number)

If you have messages showing up in an email client without the client being told to check for new mail then one or both of these are checked.

Developing an archiving strategy

Now that we’ve solved the problem of making sure all of your devices can access all of your mail we can address the issue of when to actually delete any of them. To make effective decisions about this, consider the following:

  • How much email you receive and how much you really need to keep.
  • How much server space is allowed for your email address.
  • How frequently (and urgently) you expect to need to access saved messages.
  • Whether you need to access messages when you’re offline.

Once you have considered these factors, then you can begin to make choices about where you want to store your email. Recall that of the three options we listed above we have only used one: “Leave messages on server”.

We have yet to choose whether we want to use either, both or neither of the remaining two options:

  1. Delete them after a specific number of days or and whether
  2. They should be removed when you delete them from a client.

Whether you delete messages at all primarily depends on whether you want to be able to access messages from any computer with Internet access and a browser (this is assuming there’s a web-based client available to access them).

For this to be possible the messages have to stay on the server. However, if you receive a lot of email or the server allows you limited storage then you will have to be very careful about which messages we keep to avoid running out of space on the server.

If you expect to want to read messages while offline then you will want to make sure we keep them on the client(s) we expect to be using offline. For example, if you have your laptop with you but are unable to access the internet, you can still refer to messages you have already downloaded in order to make business decisions or plan responses. In this case you would not be deleting the local copies of the messages so you would not want to use the “delete messages when I delete them from the client” option.

The “leave messages on the server for at least n days” option will usually only be used on one computer. For example, the “archiving” computer mentioned in the previous paragraph. The email client on this computer could be set to delete the messages after enough time has passed to allow all other clients to have a go at retrieving the messages. Depending on how often the other devices are checking mail, this could be as little as one day but we usually leave it set to a week or ten days (maybe even longer if we’re about to go on vacation for a couple weeks).

In conclusion

By controlling how and when email is deleted by the many devices you use to check your email you can make sure that you get all your email whenever you want it.

Too bad there’s not a setting to give us more time to read it all.

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One Response to “Should I Leave Messages On The Server?”

  1. Woot says:

    Great Read. I’ll be back for your next article