Scheduling emails with at and mutt

January 4, 2013

I had assumed that most modern email services, like Gmail, allow users to schedule emails to be sent at some later specified time, but a quick Google search reveals that that’s not quite the case. It looks like you need to use a browser extension like Boomerang or Right Inbox.

But what if you don’t trust browser extensions/third parties to handle private emails? Or what if you don’t use Firefox, Chrome, etc.? (I use dwb.) In this post I’ll explain how Linux users who are already set up with mutt (or any mail client with similar command-line capability) can harness the powers of at and mutt to schedule emails.

The at command lets you schedule tasks (shell commands) that are to be executed at a specified time. The basic syntax is at TIMESPEC, where timespec is something like now + 10 minutes, noon tomorrow, 11:59pm Dec 31, etc. The at command is run from a terminal, and once you specify the timespec and hit enter, you’re put into an interactive prompt where you list the commands that you want at to execute at the specified time. Hit <Ctrl-D> to finish, or <Ctrl-C> to cancel. For example:

In the above code, we tell at that 1 minute from now, it should append the text “testing out at” to the file my-at-test (and create it if it doesn’t already exist).1

You can run atq to view the queue of current jobs, atrm JOBID to remove a job, and at -c JOBID to view (cat) a queued job.

Since at accepts any shell command, we can schedule emails using mutt’s command-line interface. The basic syntax for sending emails with mutt from the command line is

Suppose I want to email myself a reminder tomorrow at 10am to call John. Here’s what I do.2

There’s a problem though. If my computer is off tomorrow at 10am, nothing will happen. And if my computer is on but not connected to the internet, then the job will technically be executed (and thus be subsequently removed from the queue), but no mail will be sent.

Moreover, if my computer is off tomorrow at 10am, then at will execute the command the next time I boot, but unfortunately it’ll do so immediately, before enough time has passed to allow my wifi connection to be established.

There’s really no complete remedy to these problems except to ensure that the computer is on and connected to the internet at the specified time (which is no problem for people who rarely turn off their computers, or for dedicated servers).

But if the computer is off and/or not online, there is still a way to ensure that the email is not sent until a wifi connection is established. We just need to write a simple shell script, check-wifi, which only exits once a wifi connection is established.

iwgetid is a command that returns the ESSID of the current wifi connection if there is one, and nothing otherwise. So this script does the following: keep waiting (sleeping) until iwgetid returns a string of nonzero length, then exit with status 0. (Remember to make it executable: chmod a+x check-wifi.)

Now we can modify our at commands as follows:

Now the email won’t try to be delivered until check-wifi finishes running, i.e., until a wifi connection is established.

We can also modify check-wifi to time out after, say, 3 minutes of no wifi, and to write something to a log file.

The result of all this is that I can schedule an email for, say, 6am tomorrow, when my computer is probably off, and it’ll get delivered the moment I boot up and connect to the internet. Or I can schedule a birthday email for 6am on John’s birthday, and it’ll get sent the moment I boot up and get online, assuming I do so on John’s birthday.

As you can see, the possibilities with at, mutt, and shell scripting are endless.

  1. at comes with a daemon, atd, which must be running in order to schedule and execute commands. If you get the error

    Can't open /var/run/ to signal atd. No atd running?

    then it means atd is not running. Either run sudo atd to run atd just this once, or do whatever is necessary to have atd load on boot. (In Arch Linux: sudo systemctl enable atd.service.)

  2. I have me aliased to my email address in ~/.mutt/alias, which is sourced in .muttrc.