This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series 7 Days to Inbox Zero

Anyone can empty their inbox in 7 days, if you give them enough coffee and don’t care about preserving their will to live. But if you want that shiny new inbox to stay empty, you need a set of filters (rules) that will help keep unnecessary e-mail from hitting your inbox in the first place.

My last post provided an overview of Gmail’s filters and described how and why I rely on them. This post provides a set of example filters that provide a model of the kind of rules you need to create in your own e-mail system. If you’ve been collecting your less-crucial messages in “systems needed” folder, this is your queue to start going through those folders and creating filters that will get rid of them for the long run. All you have to do is write a rule, see if the message you’re targeting pops up when Gmail conducts a test search, and then apply the rule to make sure it functions as expected. With any luck it will take care of a bunch of other extraneous e-mails at the same time.

Below you’ll find an annotated set of my Gmail filters, created for your enjoyment. I selected about half of my current filters — enough to give you a representative cross-section — and exported them; you can download and import them into Gmail as a starting point for your own filters, but they’ll all need adaptation to work for your purposes. The purpose of sharing these filters is to help you learn how to use filters as a tool for achieving and maintaining an empty inbox.

Here’s how I recommend using them:

  • Take a quick look at this primer on Google’s advanced search operators so that you can interpret the syntax of the filters.
  • Review the annotated list of filters below.
  • If you want to use these filters as a starting point, download the sample filters file (right-click or ctrl-click to save this linked file) and import into your Gmail account. Edit the filters to suit your needs and delete the filters that don’t work for you.
  • If you already have some basic filters set up but want to see these inside Gmail, using the filter editor, so that you can see how they are constructed, try setting up a dummy Gmail account and importing the filters there. That way you can poke around and you don’t have to worry manually deleting my filters (which will get mixed in with yours if you import them into your main account).

In either case, be aware that Gmail won’t let you import the filters that include a forwarding action, because you have to verify that address before the filter will be imported, and you won’t have access to it.

A few notes on how I’ve adapted the filters for demonstration purposes:

  • I have anonymized a number of people and organization names; anything written in ALL CAPS is a substitute for the original.
  • I created a dummy Gmail account, 1Helpful.Person[at]gmail[dot]com; wherever you see a filter that forwards to that address, know that my version of the filter forwards e-mails to my amazing assistant.

The filters

  1. Matches: from:(
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Delete it
    An e-mail list I signed up for and tried to unsubscribe from, but their unsubscription setup was hopelessly broken. Finally gave up and filtered it instead.
  2. Matches: AND cc:alex[at]socialsignal[dot]com
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Box/SoSiCCedToAlex”
    If my colleagues within the company are CCing me on something, it’s not a high priority; but filing it means it will pop up if I search Gmail for correspondence related to that topic or client.
  3. Matches: from:facebook
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Box/Notifications/Facebook”
    If you don’t want to unsubscribe from your Facebook notifications — maybe because you want to check them every few days, maybe because you want them to pop up in Gmail search if you search for someone’s name and they tagged you on Facebook — then this filter is an alternative to turning off your notifications. Plus it keeps any other Facebook junk from slipping through the cracks.
  4. Matches: “your account” -{receipt OR invoice OR “your order”}
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Box/Confirmations”
    Files all those random notifications from various web apps, other than those pertaining to actual financial transactions. A quick scan shows that it’s mostly friend requests on FourSquare (which I’d rather handle once in a long while while using FourSquare), Twitter follow requests for my kids’ accounts (ditto), and the occasional ad or update. A few things land here that I would have liked to see, but nothing mission critical.
  5. Matches: (“your order” OR invoice OR receipt)
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Archived/Finance/Receipts”
    Files my online purchase confirmations and receipts.
  6. Matches: label:sent AND label:read
    Do this: Apply label “Archived/answered”
    I created this filter to help with the clean up of my initial, thousands-of-emails backlog, by filing everything I had already read and responded to.
  7. Matches: has:attachment
    Do this: Apply label “Box/Attachments”
    The one limitation of using Sent mail as my catch-all repository of any e-mail I’ve ever replied to is that I can lose the attachments in the original e-mail (because they’re not included in my replies). So I created this filter to file anything that arrives with an attachment. It’s a crazy big folder, but at least I end up with a reference copy of every file I ever get sent.
  8. Matches: in:inbox AND before:2010/04/01
    Do this: Skip Inbox
    Another filter I created to help with a previous clean-up. I set my inbox to remove from the inbox anything that had been sitting there (by that point) for a long, long time.
  9. Matches: subject:(“out of office” OR “auto-response” OR “away from the office” OR “auto response” OR “on maternity leave” OR autoreply)
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Box/Autoresponder”
    I don’t need to see auto-responder messages. If I wonder why I haven’t heard back from someone, I search Gmail on their name and find their auto-reply.
  10. Matches: to:(mail[at]alexandrasamuel[dot]com)
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “pr”
    A while ago I got added to the Cision database, which is this master database that every publicist on the planet seems to use to pitch stories. I get a lot of pitches, many of them unrelated to anything that I would ever blog about, and none of which I have ever acted upon. So I asked Cision to switch my e-mail address in the database to mail[at]alexandrasamuel[dot]com, which is an alternate account I use, so that I could forward mail[at]alexandrasamuel[dot]com to alex[at]alexandrasamuel[dot]com and stream all those pitches into a folder I can scan from time to time. But Cision doesn’t seem to have made the switch, so I’m trying to remove myself from the database instead.
  11. Matches: from:(Disqus)
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Box/Notifications/Disqus”
    I use Disqus to manage comments on my blog; whenever I get a new comment, it sends me an e-mail. I recently set up this label and filter so that my notifications get filed instead of cluttering up the inbox; I could turn off notifications but there may be occasions when it’s easier for me to manage my comment queue by e-mail.
  12. Matches: from:( OR OR “funny or die” OR slidesix OR virb OR viddler OR tweako OR tipjoy OR soundcloud OR posterous OR multiply OR LiveJournal OR Kirtsy OR I.F.A. OR indianPAd OR iliketotallyloveit OR helloTXT OR Gawkk OR Gather OR OR COLOURlovers OR Bonzo OR OR OR buzzflash OR cafemom OR “blurb community” OR OR backtype)
    Do this: Skip Inbox
    Life as a compulsive early adopter isn’t all sunshine and roses. My beta addiction used to junk up my inbox — until I got in the habit of filtering updates from sites I’m not actually using so that they don’t hit my inbox.
  13. Matches: ((to:follow OR “let me know” OR “ask my assistant” OR “suggest a time”) AND from:alex[at]socialsignal[dot]com)
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Box/FollowUp/Waiting”
    This filter helps address the loss of the inbox as a de facto “bring forward” list. When I send an e-mail that asks the recipient to follow up in some way (“let me know when you’d like to meet…”, “ask my assistant to set up a meeting”), it gets labeled so that it lands in this folder. Reviewing the folder every week or two is a great way for me to catch any dropped threads.
  14. Matches: “I’ve shared a document with you called” AND “Google Docs”
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Box/Notifications/GoogleDocs”, Forward to 1Helpful.Person[at]gmail[dot]com
    I go into Google Docs just about every day, so I don’t need to hear about all the documents that have been shared with me; I typically see them when I get there. But I get invited into Google Docs using a few different accounts, so forwarding these notifications to my assistant ensures that she can alert me to any invitation that requires immediate action.
  15. Matches: (“If you no longer wish to receive communications” OR OR “To be removed from customer announcements” OR “If you do not wish to receive marketing messages from WebEx” OR “If you do not wish to receive these newsletters in the future” OR “If you would no longer like to receive email messages” OR from:noreply OR subject:Digest OR OR subject:[LISTNAME] OR to:reply- OR (from:amazon AND -(subject:shipped OR subject:”your order”)) OR to:list OR from:info OR “manage subscriptions” OR safeunsubscribe OR “please unsubscribe here” OR OR OR “to unsubscribe please click” OR ( AND OR “click here to unsubscribe” OR “if you no longer wish to receive ANY emails” OR “click here to unsubscribe” OR “Please do not reply to this email” OR “To unsubscribe, please go” OR “If you don’t want to receive future” OR “If you do not wish to receive further email” OR “to unsubscribe from this list” OR “If you do not want to receive emails of this kind” OR subject:[media-release] OR “If you’d prefer not to receive these messages” OR “Having trouble viewing or clicking this email?” OR -{label:sent OR label:answered}
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “Box/Lists”
    This is one of several massive filters I created specifically to catch all the bazillion e-newsletters that I only rarely want to scan. If I’m totally uninterested I try to unsubscribe; sometimes unsubscribe links don’t work easily (this used to be a bigger issue, but now I find unsubscribe services are better at figuring out which of my 87 e-mail addresses needs to be unsubscribed). You may want to create one massive filter for e-newsletters you occasionally like to see, or feel awkward about unsubscribing to (say, your client’s updates) and another filter that essentially acts as a garbage can for e-newsletters that have broken unsubscribe links.
  16. Matches: from:(
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “SIM/Basecamp SIM”
    I created this rule during my latest cleanup, when I found my inbox was full of Basecamp notifications and messages (Basecamp is the project management software that is used by many organizations). Instead of cluttering up my inbox, I’m now using BaseCampApp, which puts a handy little dropdown in my menu bar so that I can check my Basecamp notifications that way. Even so, I don’t want to unsubscribe from Basecamp messages altogether, because it’s handy to find those messages when I search my inbox to find the latest update from a colleague.
  17. Matches: .ics
    Do this: Apply label “Scheduling”, Forward to 1Helpful.Person[at]gmail[dot]com
    I never accept a scheduling invitation without consulting with my assistant, so anything with a calendar invitation attached can go directly to her.
    Do this: Star it, Forward to 1Helpful.Person[at]gmail[dot]com, Never send it to Spam
    My aggressive filters sometimes make me worry about missing an e-mail reply from someone I’ve written to and desperately want to hear back from. In this case, I created a new filter with the name of the person I had written to, ensuring that any e-mail with his name in it would get forwarded to my assistant for her to bring to my attention.
  19. Matches: from:(
    Do this: Forward to
    Here’s another trick for handling that waiting-by-the-inbox feeling: set up a filter that will catch any e-mail from the person you’re waiting to hear from, and send that e-mail to your cell phone. I’ve documented this tactic in more detail here.
  20. Matches: from:(
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Delete it
    I went to a conference with a totally over-the-top groupware app that constantly sent me notifications about additional sessions or updates. I filtered it and sent all the groupware messages directly to trash.
  21. Matches:
    Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label “ClientsAndProjects/ORG/GROUP”
    A couple of years ago I was part of a terrific executive education program in which the participants really bonded, and got into a lively backchannel conversation, much of it revolving around how to schedule our between-class get-togethers. I asked if we could move scheduling off the list but the group didn’t bite. So I set up a filter that moved all the group back-and-forth to a folder I could check every week or two (by which point venue and meeting time would be decided, but with a dozen exchanged in the process), and ensured the filter excluded emails from the organization itself (so I didn’t miss class updates).

You can download the file here and then upload it to Gmail by going to /Settings/Filters (remember to enable Import/Export Filters first, under Labs). You’ll need to right-click or ctrl-click (on a Mac) in order to download this file.
As you work through the e-mail messages in your “filters needed” folder, you’ll be able to figure out what kinds of filters will help you get to an empty inbox. These filters will ensure your e-mail attention goes to the messages that matter most. Better yet, they’ll help to create the space for you to pay attention to a whole world beyond your inbox.

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