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Empty your inbox with Gmail filters

by Alex in | | |

The heart of my system for getting to inbox zero and keeping my inbox on empty is Gmail filters: rules that do a lot of the work of processing my e-mail so that I can focus my attention on what matters most. If you’ve been following my 7 days to inbox zero, you’ve already set up “systems needed” folders for the messages you didn’t need to see (or at least, see the day they arrived). The next step is to create the rules that will set aside, file or even delete (gasp!) those kinds of messages as soon as they arrive. That leaves your inbox free to hold the important messages you need to read (and quite possibly respond to) within 24 hours.

Here’s the official description of Gmail filters:

Gmail’s filters allow you to manage the flow of incoming messages. Using filters, you can automatically label, archive, delete, star, or forward your mail, even keep it out of Spam — all based on a combination of keywords, sender, recipients, and more.

To give you some sense of how Gmail filters have transformed my inbox, let me say that when I started using filters, I had an inbox with more than 2000 messages. Almost two years later, I’ve gone weeks in which I process to e-mail every day, and even when I’m totally ignoring my e-mail, can get back to zero with a relatively modest effort — and rarely go more than a month without getting back to empty. That’s because Gmail filters keep at least 80% out of my inbox altogether.

This post introduces my basic approach to Gmail filters. The next post shares an eclectic sample of my own filters to give you a place to start and a sense of how filters can work for you.

Before you start

This two-part post focuses on setting up Gmail filters. You may decide to set up filters or rules in another mail system or local mail client, but be aware that unless the e-mail system you are using offers full Boolean logic, you won’t be able to create the complex filters I describe here. You may be able to work with what you’ve got, but it will likely take many more rules to accomplish the same outcome. So let me take one more opportunity to urge a switch to Gmail.

I use “folders” and “labels” somewhat interchangeably, because the labels I use on Gmail turn up as folders in Mail.app. If you find this confusing, or want to understand the nerd mojo behind the distinction, read this post/

And let me add two more ingredients to add to my initial list, both of which you add under Google Labs.

  • Nested Labels: This 2010 enhancement to Gmail’s labels gives Gmail the equivalent of nested folders — so that you can have a folder called “ClientsAndProjects” and a whole bunch of subfolders within that folder. However Gmail limits labels to 40 characters, so you’ll need to keep your folder names short if you want to nest multiple levels, because FolderName/SubFolderName/FolderWithinIt counts as one, 39-character name. Enable Nested Folders in Gmail Labs.
  • Import/Export Filters: If you want to import my sample filters into your existing Gmail account, or a dummy account so that you can check out my syntax, you’ll need to enable Import/Export Filters in Google Labs. Then you’ll find the import option under Settings/Filters.

What comes first, the filters or the labels?

Start with a basic set of labels but realize these will change and expand as you create filters. Going through your “filters needed” file will invariably help you identify certain kinds of messages that need special treatment and the creation of a new label.

In addition to my project, archive and reference folders, my Gmail labels includes a label — “Box” — that houses different quasi-inboxes. The list of processing boxes I documented in my first inbox zero message, 18 months ago has grown a bit over time, but the idea is the same: create a set of alternate, quasi-inboxes that can collect the mail you don’t necessarily need to see today.

I say quasi-inboxes because the phrase “inbox” implies some commitment to actually processing what arrives there. My quasi-inboxes are more like refugee camps where incoming e-mails are housed on a supposedly temporary basis, only to discover that they are permanently warehoused and subjected to only occasional, cursory inspections.

Neglecting my quasi-inboxes means that once in a blue moon, I miss an e-mail that I would prefer to have seen. But I figure that for every gosh-I-wish-I’d-seen-that, I save myself skimming the subject lines of more than 1,000 e-mails that need never cross my path. That is a trade-off I’m more than willing to make.

I typically find out about one of these missed e-mails when someone follows up to ask why I haven’t replied. At that point I can say (honestly) that I have a brutal system of Gmail filters that sometimes catch things by accident. And as far as I can tell, that’s an explanation people are prepared to accept, and don’t seem to find insulting or even annoying. It probably helps that when I get a phone call about an unanswered e-mail, I can usually run a quick Gmail search and quickly identify the issue: “Oh, your e-mail included a forwarded newsletter with a “click to unsubscribe” link — that’s why it didn’t get through.”

The bottomless pit

My filtering and filing strategy rests partly on the availability of a bottomless pit of storage via Gmail. I’ve yet to hit Gmail’s cap (7.35 GB if you want a free account), but when I get there it will be well worth spending $5/yr to get 20 GB of storage. Considering that my current 5 GB includes 5 years’ worth of email, I’m pretty confident that 20 GB will last a while. And the next tier up — 80 GB — is still only $20/year. At those prices, it’s a much more efficient use of your time and money to let Gmail file and hold onto a wide range of irrelevant messages — even if you never look at them — than to actually process and delete them. As long as your labels and filters make some rough kind of sense, and as long as Gmail search continues to rock out, you’ll be able to find anything you’re looking for.

I keep all my sent messages forever. Since my replies automatically quote the message they reply to, that gives me a copy of every e-mail I’ve replied to. Gmail search makes it easy to find any message I’m looking for, as long as I can remember who it was from or what it was about (even vaguely. In fact I often send cursory replies to e-mails simply so that I end up with a reference copy of the original e-mail.

Creating filters

Gmail’s filter creation interface prompts you to use fields like “from” and “subject”, but you’ll find that the “has the words” field is by far the most powerful field to use

Boolean logic — what you’ll find in Google’s list of advanced search operators — is your friend. Get to know how Google uses brackets, “AND”s and “OR”s, along with other special syntax. It will not only help you make much more effective use of Gmail’s filters, but will transform your Google searches too. Read this overview of search syntax to get started.

More resources for filter enthusiasts

If you’re still hazy on the basis of Gmail filters, try these excellent posts before you read part 2 of this post: Sample Gmail filters that take you to inbox zero:

Or jump ahead to my sample Gmail filters and find out how filters can help you get your inbox to zero.

My sample filters will help you see the possibilities for creating e-mail filters that do the work of processing messages you don’t need to see on a same-day basis. Once you’ve had a look, go back to the 3 “systems needed” folders you set up, and look through the messages there to identify which kinds of filters you need.

First posted on December 28,2010

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