If you get a lot of email, think about how you deal with it as you process
it. Chances are you see who it’s from, or who it’s too, or perhaps even what
it’s about, and based on that, you decide what to do with the email. You might
respond to it immediately if it’s from someone important. You might leave it
for later if it’s a subscription to an email newsletter. Heck, you might even
delete it if it’s from someone you never want to hear from again.
(I’m going to assume, for the moment, that your spam is taken care of
elsewhere. Obviously in most cases, deleting spam is probably a goodly portion
of what you’re doing too. Dealing with spam, however, is a topic for another
Wouldn’t it be nice if you had someone to sort your email for you? Show you
the email that’s most important to you first? Perhaps even collect all those
email newsletters for you to read and peruse later, when you had the time?
Perhaps even completely filter out the email that you simply don’t want to
Well, you already have such an assistant.
Inbox rules, Message Rules, Filters, or any of a number of other names all
amount to the same thing. They’re the incredibly powerful tool that can make a
huge difference in keeping your inbox organized, and even empty. You’re going
to want to come to use them, know them, and even love them.
Creating Inbox Rules is perhaps the single, most important thing you can do
to Tame your Email.
Inbox Rules are simple. All they are is a condition, and an action.
If an incoming message meets some criteria
do something to it.
Really. That’s all there is to it.
The “criteria” can be as simple as “if it’s from Leo”, to “if it’s from Leo,
Kathy or Matthew, and is set to high priority, and has the word ‘outlaw’ in the
message body”. In fact, depending on your email program, you can define some
fairly complex criteria. But the good news is that 99% of the power of Inbox
Rules are in the simplest of conditions – if it’s “From” someone specific or if
it’s “To” someone specific. Those two criteria alone can clear up 80% of an
The “do something to it” can also be as simple as moving it to a folder, or
as complex as replying with an email, raising an alert, playing a sound and
changing the message to be bold in the list. Once again the good news is that
the simplest of actions will give you 99% of the power: move or copy a message
to a folder.
A tremendous amount of taming to be had with just these two simple
To or From someone
Move or Copy to a folder
As I type this, my inbox is empty. Zero messages. And it’s all because of
Let me explain how that is.
to My Empty Inbox
First, let me give you two caveats:
This is how I manage my email. I think it works, and works
well – for me. After learning about rules, and matching your own work
process to your email flow, you’ll probably want to do something different.
Learn from my examples, and then “do your own thing”.
My inbox is empty, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t email
waiting for me to act on it. My “assistant” – Inbox Rules – has sorted, filed,
and most importantly prioritized the mail that has arrived
into an array of folders. Key in on that word “prioritize” – if you take only
one word away from this essay, that would be the word.
I have 36 separate rules in Microsoft Outlook that route incoming email into
something like 30 different folders. (Remember, I said your situation will be
different, so don’t let the numbers scare you. It’s likely you’ll not need that
I have what I consider to be 14 “sub” inboxes. Mail that I need to act on is
routed by Inbox Rules into those folders as it arrives. And the folders are
organized by priority. In the morning, when I start reading my email, I start
with the most important, not the most recent, email, and work my way
down. I may not get down the entire list, but that’s OK, because I’m dealing
with the most important stuff first anyway. Throughout the day I pay attention
to those “important” folders more frequently than the less important ones.
So what are the rules and priorities? Once again, it’s not really that
complex in concept, but I do have several:
Folder #1? Email from family. Yes, my wife and other family members come
first. The rule: if it’s an email message From one of them, move it to
the #1 folder.
#2 is purchase orders for my wife’s doll shop. These are emails sent to a
specific email alias, so the rule is: if it’s email sent To that
alias, move it to the #2 folder.
#3 and #4 on my list of priorities are administrative discussions and
approvals, respectively, for an email list I help moderate.
#5 through #8 are all about email relating to another very active discussion
group I belong to. Email sent to that group, email sent by group members
directly to me, and email sent to a couple of sub groups, are all routed into
their own, prioritized, folders.
#9 is powerful: email from everyone that’s in my address book lands here, if
it hadn’t already been processed by previous inbox rules. The bottom line is
that if I know you, you should probably have more priority than if I don’t.
Seems only fair, right?
#10 is for automated server management emails. Again, email that’s sent
To a specific alias I have.
#11 through #13 are all about Ask Leo! emails. Questions submitted, comments made on the site,
and email sent to the email address I publicize to my newsletter subscribers
all get routed into these three folders.
#14 is where all my newsletter and other mailing list subscriptions go. More
on how they get here later, because this, too, is an important approach to
managing email flow, especially when traveling.
A number of additional rules automatically file other email into other non-inbox
folders for archival purposes that I actually don’t need to look at at all
on a daily basis. And yes, there’s even a rule that automatically deletes one class
When all those rules are done I’m left with two types of email in my inbox:
Email from individuals I haven’t heard from before.
Even after downloading a couple of hundred emails, I have had mornings where
I’ve looked at what was left in my inbox, and been able to delete all of it.
All of it.
And you know what that leaves.
An empty inbox.
to Your Empty Inbox
As I said, it’s unlikely that you’re going to need 34 rules and 14
sub-inboxes. But take two, maybe three of those rules, and a couple of folders
dedicated to automatically sort and prioritizing your email, and you’ll have
made a huge step towards taming your email.
Inbox Rules are powerful. In future essays I’ll walk you through exactly
which ones I think are the most important, and include the explicit steps to
create them in email clients like Outlook and Thunderbird.
Until then, I strongly urge you to investigate the Inbox Rules
abilities of your own email client. It’s not only an important part of choosing an email program, but
understanding how your email program handles Inbox Rules is a key part of