Prefiltering Your Mail to Keep Your Inbox From Filling Up

mail filter

I've long been a fan of the "Getting Things Done" way of life, especially when it comes to my email. I've managed to keep "Inbox Zero" fairly consistently for a few years now, and it's very liberating.

One aspect of email that has long bothered me, however, is how usually my inbox — well, really multiple inboxes; I have several email addresses — are usually filling up with messages that I don't want to read when I'm on the go. If I'm away from my desk, or taking a weekend or vacation away, I really don't need to see GitHub updates, bank updates, company newsletters, and so forth.

I had tried using mail rules in the past to filter some messages into specific email boxes, but then when I am at work, these filters just seem to get in the way.

I'm trying out a new system now that I wanted to share with both of my readers. It's still in progress, but so far it's working out nicely.

Here's how it works. I have a machine running Mail all the time, checking frequently and applying rules, twenty-four hours per day. The goal is to get as many non-essential messages out of the inbox as quickly as possible so that when I do check email, from wherever I am, the inbox contains only messages that I probably do want to see. Usually that means personal communications from people, where I may want to answer them even if I'm not at my desk.

I've created mailboxes for — and filters to fill — these four categories:

  • Work, Daily
  • Work, Weekly
  • Personal, Daily
  • Personal, Weekly

The filters are usually based on either matching a specific subject or sender. If you have a system of signing up for newsletters with special email addresses (e.g. including a "+" in the address) you might be able to match by that criteria. No matter the specifics, the goal of the rules will be to decide how important a message is in the context of work or personal emails.

If a message is something I probably should read soon while I'm working, it goes into "Work, Daily." That becomes, essentially, a secondary inbox while I'm at my desk. I'll check it several times a day when I'm working. But if I'm not at my desk, I won't be seeing these, since there isn't any point in them until I get back to my desk!

Examples of these in my case, as a software developer, include GitHub notifications, build script output, notifications of case assignments from Fogbugz, daily software promotional emails, notifications when somebody posts to a topic I'm subscribed to on our forum, payment notifications, and so forth. Critical notifications, such as server problems, should definitely not be put into this category; I want to hear about such matters even if I'm on the go, so I can do something about it, even if it means delegation.

Work-related emails that aren't time-sensitive at all can go into a "Work, Weekly" mailbox, for checking every few days (or once a week) when the opportunity arises. Newsletters from other companies, technical mailing lists, etc. might go into this category. Anything that I could easily miss for a few days should go here.  (On my mail rules for the "weekly" messages, I also have the messages marked as "read", so that they aren't beckoning me. Otherwise, I might be tempted to "whack-a-mole" and read the weekly messages prematurely, when I should be paying attention to other matters!)

I then have my personal daily/weekly rules that work along the same principles. "Daily" emails include daily news bulletins, bank/stock alerts, Netflix notifications, etc. — where I want to know about it that day, not several days later.  Messages that can wait a few days include bank statements, kickstarter updates, political updates, newsletters, and so forth.

So far, this has worked for me quite well. Since I'm just starting with this program, I'm often finding messages that slip through, so I need to tweak my filters from time to time. But after just a few days with this, I'm finding that my inbox barely has any messages in it, and it's easier to process my "daily" or "weekly" messages efficiently when I'm in the right context.

Want to give this a try?  Any tips or suggestions on improving this?  Please let me know in the comments.

© Dan Wood 2012-2016. My Comments Policy