How your email works (or sometimes doesn’t).
“Your email was not delivered: recipient’s inbox is full!”
Websites serve up pages of information, photos, videos, text and so on, upon request. Your web browser (Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari) requests a web page, and some computer running “server” software, sends the information back.
Of course, the sent information stays on the server for other requests, and it is a copy is sent to you.
Email works pretty much the same way. When someone sends you an email, it doesn’t go directly to you (your computer may be off for the night.) It goes to some computer running server software (an “email server”) where it sits waiting for you to come ask for it.
In “the good old days” before iPhones and laptops, you could ask for all your waiting email, and it would be sent to you and removed from the server. (It was “moved” to your computer, instead of “copied.”) At that point, the only copy was “local” – on your personal computer, and the space on the “remote” server was freed up to use for other incoming email.
With the advent of iPhones, iPads, laptops and so on, That became very inconvenient because once the email was removed from the server, none of the others could access it. If you wanted to look at your email on your phone, and then later deal with it on your home computer, a copy still had to be on the server so your home computer could get it.
OK: the first version, where one device moves the email, ( deleting it from the server) is called “POP3”, and the version where multiple devices can access a copy of the email because the email stays on the server, (it’s only copied to your local device) is called “IMAP.” (Think: “POPs off the server” vs “MAPs to the server” if that helps.)
The convenience of IMAP is that you can read and reply using multiple devices.But a server is just a computer with a hard drive exactly like your home computer, and you know that you can fill up your hard drive if you put too many files on it.
Well, ditto for IMAP email. Each day more and more emails fill up the remote email server’s hard drive. True, it’s not -your- hard drive, but that doesn’t mean it won’t fill up. The company that is providing that drive space for your email will have to set limits on how much space each email address can have. Eventually they will tell you that “your INBOX is full.” Emails sent to your address will bounce back with a “mailbox full” error, and you’ll stop getting emails. (In computer jargon, this is known technically as “a bad thing.”)
But, this is how email works. Not “some” email – ALL email. You will have to figure out how to deal with your “mailbox full” issue.
There is, of course, only ONE solution: you have to delete or remove some of those emails so that the maibox, your INBOX, is no longer full.
There are several solutions.
The most obvious one is to simply delete your old emails. Ones that the correspondence is complete and you don’t really need any more.
More commonly however, people want to archive their old emails, just to keep a record. (In fact, in some cases, like some coporations, this is required by law !)
The traditional way to do that is to first make a copy of all your emails, on your own local hard drive. Once you have a backup copy of everything, you can delete them from your INBOX which resides on the remote IMAP email server.
You could access your IMAP account as if it was a POP3. Remember? POP3 will move emails OFF the server and on to your device. This automatically deleted whatever is copied to your local drive “moving” the emails to your computer.
If doing that sounds annoying – it is. But it’s a commonly recommended backup method for archiving IMAP emails.
Unfortunately, it IS a move, not a copy, so your other devices (iPhone, etc) cannot access the old emails.
Another solution is this: some email hosts will let you store emails on their server, if you create new mailboxes on the server, and then drag your emails from your INBOX to those new mailboxes.
A third solution (and better still, IMHO) is to create mailboxes in your email software that reside on your local computer instead of on the email server (where your INBOX resides.)
With MacOS Mail, this is simple: just create a mailbox under the “On My Mac” heading. Create as many as you like. Then just drag your old emails from your INBOX to the On My Mac mailbox. Once they are there, you may delete them from your INBOX. Now they only exist on your device, and other devices no longer have access to them.
If you need to still have your iphone access them, then either don’t delete them from your INBOX, or move them to a different mailbox on your server, as in solution #2, above. In this case, you are archiving the old emails, to free up space on the email server, where your INBOX lives.
You can even automate this somewhat, using automatic “filters” (AKA “rules”). These are instructions that you create, which look at each email in your INBOX as it comes in, and either copies or moves it to a chosen On My Mac (AKA “local”) mailbox.
For example, let’s say you get email from your work; your mother; and your art club.
You have created three local mailboxes: “WorkBox”; “MomBox” and “ArtBox”.
You would create three filters like this:
1) if “from” equals “the office” then copy to “WorkBox”
2) if “from” equals mother, then move to “MomBox”
3) if “from” equals “ArtClub” then copy to “ArtBox”
You only set up rules one time, and then the rules are applied automatically.
Rules 1) and 3) COPY the emails to your local mailboxes. That means they also leave them in your INBOX so your other devices can access them. You can always delete them later.
Rule 2) MOVES the email from your INBOX to your local mailbox. That means it deletes it from your INBOX.
Note t hat in all these cases, however, you now have your own personal copy on your own hard drive, and not just the one copy that resides on someone else’s drive (the email server.)
Once you have copies on your own hard drive, when you run a backup you are also making a backup of your emails for historical purposes.
Additionally, filters can also be applied manually instead of automatically, so when you are comfortable with rules/filters, (they ARE easy to use) you can create one that will move an entire mailbox from the server to your local computer.
Finally, I should point out what I consider the best (ie: least work) option: there are third-party paid software solutions that backup your emails automatically. In fact, the hands-off convenience of this solution is what I use. I have –all– the emails I ever received in the last 21 years (minus the spam, of course.) This type of software makes separate database backups instead of using your email client. Since it’s a database, you can search and find stuff going back years, in seconds.*
Backup happens every 8 hours (or whatever interval you choose) and every week or so, I go to my mailboxes and just delete the stuff I don’t really need “live” in my email program.
There is one more benefit to keeping your INBOX less full: your email program will operate faster. It won’t have to load up thousands of old emails each time it starts up.
My own email program keeps an average of a few hundred (instead of thousands !) on hand. The rest is in the database in case I need it again.
So, there you are.
Your email requires management – you don’t get to leave an infinite number of emails in your INBOX. You’ll have to deal with it sooner or later… or do it automatically.
*I use MailSteward on MacOS. There is also Auto_Mate for Windows PCs.