remember Mutt's mail in Org-mode and jump back to them

As already anticipated, I've been implementing my own Getting Things Done work flow. This post documents one of its main bricks: the integration between Mutt and Org-mode.

As a geek, my main incoming stream of TODO items and information in general is email. As emails hit my INBOX, I either deal with them immediately (reply, archive, delete) or I need to store them elsewhere, possibly adding extra information such as a deadline, a personal note, the associated next action, the context in which it is actionable, etc. This need of adding extra information is what defeats the usage of my mail client (Mutt) as a list manager (in the GTD sense), and that's where I plugged Org-mode in. My main goals are:

  1. create Org-mode notes from Mutt, referencing the current email, and possibly inlining some of its metadata (e.g. subject, sender)

  2. quickly retrieve referenced emails from Org-mode notes; ideally that should happen in my usual email environment (i.e. Mutt), so that I can process the retrieved mail as usual (e.g. to inform the sender that I did something about it)

In fact, both would be straightforward to achieve if I were using some Emacs-based mail client such as Gnus, but I resist the Emacs operating system syndrome, and therefore I insist in using my beloved Mutt.

Let's see how the two parts of the interaction between Mutt and Org-mode work.

(1) Mutt → Org-mode (there ...)

The interaction from Mutt to Org-mode happens via org-protocol. Using it external applications can feed content to Org-mode note templates, which are then interactively edited (via emacsclient), and finally filed away.

The Mutt glue macro from my ~/.muttrc is as follow:

macro index \eR "|~/bin/remember-mail\n"

The remember-mail script is trivial: it parses the fed mail from STDIN (using a couple of legacy Perl modules) and then invokes org-protocol.

The relevant configuration from my ~/.emacs is reported below (see the Git repo for the most recent version of this); the comments explain the various parts:

;; standard org <-> remember stuff, RTFM
(require 'org-capture)

(setq org-default-notes-file "~/org/")

(setq org-capture-templates
         (file+headline "~/org/" "Incoming")
         "* TODO %^{Title}\n\n  Source: %u, %c\n\n  %i"
         :empty-lines 1)
        ;; ... more templates here ...
;; ensure that emacsclient will show just the note to be edited when invoked
;; from Mutt, and that it will shut down emacsclient once finished;
;; fallback to legacy behavior when not invoked via org-protocol.
(add-hook 'org-capture-mode-hook 'delete-other-windows)
(setq my-org-protocol-flag nil)
(defadvice org-capture-finalize (after delete-frame-at-end activate)
  "Delete frame at remember finalization"
  (progn (if my-org-protocol-flag (delete-frame))
         (setq my-org-protocol-flag nil)))
(defadvice org-capture-kill (after delete-frame-at-end activate)
  "Delete frame at remember abort"
  (progn (if my-org-protocol-flag (delete-frame))
         (setq my-org-protocol-flag nil)))
(defadvice org-protocol-capture (before set-org-protocol-flag activate)
  (setq my-org-protocol-flag t))

The result is that when you hit ESC-R in Mutt, emacsclient will be fired up in place presenting a note template that already contains relevant mail information (date, subject, from) and lets you add extra information before going away. Additionally, the email message-id will be hidden in the note as a mutt: hyperlink with anchor text "mail".

(2) Org-mode → Mutt (... and back again)

Going back means that clicking on a "mail" hyperlink within an Org-mode note should bring up a Mutt instance showing the original message, in its context (e.g. its own mailbox). Achieving that consists of 2 separate steps:

  1. looking up a specific message by Message-ID
  2. firing up Mutt on the looked up message

For the first part I use notmuch-mutt (see this other blog post of mine).

For the second part I use the mutt-open script which fires upon a Mutt instance on the maildir containing a specific message, and then "hits" the appropriate keys to open the message and shutdown the sidebar (if desired). It is a nicely reusable script, which I've being using elsewhere too.

The needed glue on the emacs side is just a function to invoke mutt-open in a brand new terminal, and its declaration as the handler for mutt: URLs.

(defun open-mail-in-mutt (message)
  "Open a mail message in Mutt, using an external terminal.

Message can be specified either by a path pointing inside a
Maildir, or by Message-ID."
  (interactive "MPath or Message-ID: ")
   (format "gnome-terminal -e \"%s %s\""
       (substitute-in-file-name "$HOME/bin/mutt-open") message)))

;; add support for "mutt:ID" links
(org-add-link-type "mutt" 'open-mail-in-mutt)



Scripts and configuration snippets discussed above are available from the org-mutt Git repository:

Update 22/01/2011: fix mutt-open to work with maildir-utils, version 7 or above
Update 17/02/2012: move scripts and conf to the org-mutt Git repo
Update 17/10/2013: point to notmuch-mutt blog post, getting rid of mu
Update 17/10/2013: update Emacs conf snippet for Org >= 0.8 (see Git repo)