Tame Your Inbox With Filters

Category: Email

Is your email inbox overflowing? It's likely you're not using filters to direct the flow of incoming emails, and spending more time than you should managing your inbox. Learn how to automatically file messages in folders, forward them to someone else, or dump them straight into the trash. Oh, and if your Spam folder is gobbling up messages that don't belong there, I'll also show you how to solve that problem...

Create Your Own Email Rules and Filters

If your inbox typically has hundreds (or thousands) of unread messages, you may feel anxious just thinking about what you might have missed. And your family or friends may be wondering why you haven't replied to them.

A lot of time is spent sorting, moving, forwarding and deleting email instead of reading and acting upon it. Email filters, also called rules, relieve users of some of this administrative burden. Today I'll explain how they work, and how they can work for you!

Read on for help using filters or rules to automatically direct your incoming email messages in a way that makes sense for you. The goal is to decrease the amount of time you spend managing your inbox, and increase the time you spend actually reading and replying to your emails. Below you'll find instructions for how to do that with several of the most popular email services.

Creating Email Filters

To create a filter in GMail, log in to your account and click the down-arrow inside the search box at the top of the page. (See image below) A window displaying search options appears. Parts of a message that can be searched include the From, To, and Subject fields, and the message body. You can optionally select messages that have attachments, or are part of chat sessions. You can also filter based on the size or date of the message.

To find all mail from a specific contact, start typing his/her name or email address in the “From” field. Select the desired contact from those that appear .

Some actions that can be applied to matching messages are obvious: Skip the Inbox (archive), delete (move to trash), and forward to another address. One action that I find very useful is "Never send to Spam." I subscribe to a few newsletters that would occasionally end up in the Spam bucket, so this ensures they always make it to my inbox. When you've entered all your criteria, click the “create filter with this search” link in the bottom-right corner of the window.

Creating a Gmail Filter

Gmail does not have user-defined folders; instead, “labels” can be created and attached to messages. You can think of them as folders, because they work in much the same way. With a filter, you can funnel all messages that match your criteria into a label. Combining this with "Skip the Inbox" is a useful trick.

IMPORTANT: If you check the box "Also apply filter to matching conversations" your new filter will be applied to existing messages, as well as new messages as they arrive. This lets you apply your filter retroactively, which can help to organize the messages you've already accumulated.

Outlook.com (formerly called Hotmail, and not to be confused with the Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express desktop email programs) calls its filters “rules.” To create a custom rule, start by clicking the gear icon near the top right on Outlook.com’s main menu; then select “Manage Rules” in the dropdown window. Click the "New" button to begin creating a rule.

You can filter messages based on the sender’s name or email address, words in the message’s subject, whether it has attachments or not, and who the message was sent to. It's not obvious, but you can search the body of a message by specifying "Keywords contains." Matched messages can be moved to another folder, marked as jnk mail, labeled with a category name, deleted immediately, flagged for followup later, or forwarded to another email address.

Outlook.com lets you create rules to automatically handle email as it comes in, but doesn't give you the option to apply your new rule to messages that have already arrived.

Yahoo! Mail’s filtering procedure is similar to Outlook.com. Start at the main menu and select the gear icon found at the top right of the window, then Settings. Click the Filters link and then click “Add” to create a new filter.

Areas you can search include From, To/CC, and Subject fields, and the body of messages. Operators that can be applied to the target text (search keywords) include Contains, Does Not Contain, Begins With, and Ends With. You can specify whether the filter should be case-sensitive or not. For example, if you specify "banana" as a word to look for in the Body, and you check the "Match case" box, then messages containing "banana" will match, but those with "Banana" or "BANANA" will not.

Options are somewhat limited here. You can move messages that match filter criteria to other folders (including Trash, Spam, or a filter you create), but you cannot forward a message to another email address, or apply your filter to existing messages.

To create filters in Apple’s iCloud Mail, log in to your iCloud.com account and select the Mail app. Click the gear icon at the bottom-left corner and select “Rules” from the pop-up menu. Select “Add a Rule” to get started.

iCloud Mail’s filtering options are limited compared to those in the OS X desktop Mail client. (So are Outlook.com’s compared to the MS Office Outlook client.) But creating a filter is dead easy. Using drop-down menus, select a condition to be met, i.e., “If a message is from…” Second, complete the condition statement by entering text, i.e., “me@mymail.com.” Third, specify the action to be taken, i.e., “Move it to…” trash, spam, some other folder, etc.

AOL Mail filters can divert incoming messages to specified folders or send an alert to your AIM or mobile phone (not the whole message, just an alert that you have an email from so-and-so waiting).

To create a filter in AOL Mail, start by clicking the down-arrow next to your Username in the upper-right corner of the AOL Mail screen. Click Mail Settings and then select “Filters and Alerts.” Name the new rule, then set up the condition(s) and action to be performed on messages that meet the condition(s) Check the AIM or mobile phone alert box if desired.

Are you still using a desktop email client such as Windows Live Mail, Outlook or Thunderbird? If so, a bit of Googling (or the Help screens in those programs) will point you to the instructions for creating filters there. The concepts should be very similar to what I've discussed above. I've been using Gmail since 2004, and I can't imagine being tied to a single desktop for my email. Webmail services such as Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook.com allow you to manage your email from any computer (or mobile device) with an Internet connection.

It's worthwhile learning the capabilities of the filters or rules in your email client. Doing so will keep your inbox tidy and organized, and will save you time and tedium. GMail has the most flexible and powerful filtering options of all the ones I've worked with, which is one of the reasons I use it manage my inbox.

Here's one final tip: If your email doesn't have the type of filtering you want, create a free GMail account and forward all your messages to that address, where they can be filtered according to your needs. You can even configure Gmail to send outgoing messages with your old address in the "From" line, so your friends will never know the difference.

Do you use email filters or rules to tame your inbox? If so, how? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Tame Your Inbox With Filters"

Posted by:

Jim Reicker
07 Jan 2016

First step is to use the 'unsubscribe' button. If you're not reading it, you don't need it.

Posted by:

David Guillaume
07 Jan 2016

Thank Bob for a most interesting, informative and as always in an easily understood written format. Being a die hard I am still running win XP pro and Outlook Express, for which I use a program called Spam Bully, which after being trained filters out unwanted spam into a folder that I can open to check before deleting its contents. The only thing that it does not do is to file incoming emails into their own folders. Apart from that I find it’s a very reliable program
David Guillaume

Posted by:

Frank Cizek
07 Jan 2016

Thanks, Bob!
Jim: I've read that the 'unsubscribe' button just tells spammers that this is a live address leading to more spam in the inbox.
This link shows how to generate additional addresses from your gmail account just by adding a dot or + to my address. I use it for sites that require registering so that I can tell if they've sold my address to spammers & I can direct their email away from my inbox:

Posted by:

Roger M
07 Jan 2016

How do you install filters on Roadrunner email?

Posted by:

07 Jan 2016

Are there any filters that can be applied to weed out emails with non-English characters in the subject line?

Posted by:

07 Jan 2016

You have to be careful with clicking 'Unsubscribe' though. Sometimes it doesn't work or isn't actioned anyway, but only serves to alert the sender that your email address is 'live'.

Posted by:

Sarah L
07 Jan 2016

Very interesting concept. I use myself as the filter with AOL, being sure to check the SPAM folder for the rare mistake made by AOL in putting mail I want there instead of my inbox. AOL can be used as web mail, too, so should be added to your list. I can open my mail on Mozilla Firefox, as web mail, on the AOL software, and now on my new fancy phone using the AOL app, and all are coordinated. The only thing that is device specific is mail I write from any of those three ways, which is tied to the device, if I write it and want to hold it before mailing it. Though I have not experimented much with the Drafts folder used by web mail and the app on my phone. My folders are all in the cloud, and each way of getting my mail reaches that same cloud. I can save e-mail on my lap top or my desk top (a fourth device, I suppose, but it works like the lap top with both the AOL software and web mail available to me). I cannot have the mail open on both the lap top and desk top, but I can open it on my phone while it is open on either of the two computers.

I did not know I could filter the mail coming in, in addition to saving it to my folders once read, or deleting it, as appropriate. I have to think about this, would it help in managing e-mail, especially the many newsletters I get? Good information about gmail; one relative is always pushing me to use that, despite my satisfaction (save for the ads) with aol, and my huge files of important letters saved there.

Posted by:

07 Jan 2016

I'm still using outlook and I have been using
http://www.spamihilator.com/en/ for years. It's free and there are additional filters you can download and use in a learning mode.

Posted by:

Lloyd Collins
07 Jan 2016

I use Web Mail through EarthLink, and they do an excellent job of filtering junk with Spamblocker.

Posted by:

07 Jan 2016

People still use AOL?

Posted by:

08 Jan 2016

You bet.I never stopped using AOL, I have tried using Gmail on my phone but there is no way to select all and just delete a bunch of mail. I like the filter idea and will give it a try but it is had to teach and old dog new tricks.

Posted by:

08 Jan 2016

I use GMail to filter my main Mail.com account per AskLeo's advice: https://askleo.com/how_do_i_route_my_email_through_gmail/

Then I read my email in Thunderbird.
Works fine. I have little or no spam now.

Posted by:

Jay R
08 Jan 2016

Finally, an article on something that I am familiar with. I really like hotmail's rules. It has, with a few nudges from me, really cut down on stuff that I need to even look at. I do take a quick peek before I hit the Death To All Junkmail Button.

Posted by:

08 Jan 2016

I use gmail filters extensivey. A couple things I haven't figured out yet, though... 1) what action does it take when an email matches more than one filter? Just perform the action associated with the first match? Or then pass it along to the next? And 2) If it does just perform the action on the first match, it would be very useful to be able to re-order the filters, to make sure the desired action is the one that occurs. To the best of my knowledge, though, there is no way to do this.

EDITOR'S NOTE: From what I've read, all filters that match will be applied, in the order they appear in your list. I don't know of an easy way to reorder them, except to use the Export/Import option, or delete and re-add.

Posted by:

08 Jan 2016

Have you ever used Unroll.net? It takes all your secondary non priority mail and wraps it up in a webpage (on a daily basis) and you can view your messages in a Facebook type feed. It's much quicker to go through all your mail this way. Ever since I signed up for this service I stopped using email filters.

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