Email Rules

Has your email inbox become intimidating?

Lion TamerFor a lot of people (myself included), email is not just a means of communication: it is a central part of the administration of their work. As such, it needs to be efficient and organised. This can be difficult when there are hundreds, or even thousands, of messages flying about in both directions. My own computer support clients have often complained of bulging inboxes.

If you use an email “client” (as opposed to dealing with your email using your browser and connecting to webmail), then you may have the option of defining “rules” that tell your email client (email program) what to do in different circumstances.

Please don’t get carried away with this thought: rules can’t do most of your work for you. Moreover, as is the case with many aspects of computing, it is often difficult to judge how much time it is worth spending on a task in order to save time in the long run by being more efficient.

Nevertheless, I would like to give some idea of what rules can do. I am thinking of rules in Microsoft Outlook because that’s what I use every day, but rules are also available in Windows Live Mail and also in Mac Mail, and by using filters in Thunderbird.

Example – Incoming emails from clients

I file almost all emails from clients in folders for each separate client. Even though I clean this up occasionally to remove non-active clients, I still have almost 200 folders to choose between for any incoming email. To make this filing task a lot easier, I create a rule for each new client. The rule does just two things:

  • Assigns a “category” to that email (I have called the category “filed”)
  • Sends a copy of the incoming email to that client’s folder

Outlook Inbox
It is easy to spot the emails that have already been filed
The second step is achieved by telling the rule which sender (email address) it is on the lookout for, and which folder to send the copy to depending on that sender’s email address.

Since I can see the category of each email in the list of emails in my inbox, I can tell at a glance which inbox items I can just delete as soon as I’ve dealt with them (since I know they have been “filed”).

It’s possible to get a bit too clever with rules

I used to have some rules that immediately moved (as opposed to copied) emails that I didn’t really need to see, but which need to be filed. Some examples of such rules include monthly emails with pdf invoices attached and which I know I don’t need to see. Another example is the regular email that comes from my web domain, containing an attachment of a weekly backup of my website.

Sorting Office
Let your email program sort and file for you
The problem with doing this is that I would sometimes hear the “ding” of an incoming email but wouldn’t be able to see it in the inbox. Yes, I know I can take it for granted that if it has been moved from my inbox by one of my rules then it will be safely filed. However, I prefer to know what’s going on so, in practice, I now copy (rather than move) such emails and leave a copy in the inbox. It’s then simple enough to either glance at the contents and then delete the inbox copy, or just say to myself “ok, the such-and-such bill is in” and delete the inbox copy without opening it.

Refinements to the rules include the ability to make a specific sound when an email fitting the rule arrives. I used to have a rule that made a sound like a cuckoo whenever I received an email from a certain person. I won’t elaborate on the significance of that choice of sound file.

Another rule that I use assigns a high importance to any incoming email that arises from a contact form being submitted on my website. In Outlook, email with “high importance” is highlighted by an accompanying red exclamation mark.

There are many possibilities and variations. It is true that creating rules takes a little bit of getting used to, but I’m sure it’s something I could help with by offering remote control tutorials using Teamviewer. The difficulty, as mentioned above, is that it’s so hard to make a sane decision – AND THEN ACT ON IT – to spend a few minutes creating rules in order to save more time in the long run.

But let us do a quick calculation:
if you spend just two minutes a day filing incoming emails, that amounts to a whole day every year. Wouldn’t it make sense to spend an hour or so getting to grips with creating rules and then, maybe, a couple of minutes per week adding new rules, refining old ones etc?

In case you can’t believe these figures: 2 minutes per day for five days a week for 46 weeks per year = 460 minutes = nearly seven hours a year.

Suppose you saved all that time but spent half of it creating and refining rules. It’s a bit like giving yourself an extra half a day in every year. It may not be much, but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Oh, and it also makes that bulging inbox far less intimidating. It can be very therapeutic skimming down the list and deleting stuff that’s already filed and that you no longer need in the inbox.